Knives Out: Venezuelan Opposition Edition

Months of unease within the opposition produced a new, big crevasse in the weak alliance with the defenestration of Guaidó’s caretakership, in a way that shattered what remained of the opposition’s chances and image among voters

“Democratic Unity Platform” is the name of the present-day alliance of mainstream opposition parties in Venezuela. Those first two words serve as a sort of cruel joke. Ironic reminders of that which we don’t have, democracy, and that which the opposition lacks: unity.

The latter is clearly central to the whole project’s identity. A united front against the Maduro regime. Unfortunately for the platform’s members, reality tends to stubbornly impose itself over whatever fantasies we concoct. 

On December 21st, Primero Justicia’s General Coordinator Alfonso Marquina (a deputy elected to the National Assembly in 2015) announced that his party, alongside Un Nuevo Tiempo, Acción Democrática and Movimiento por Venezuela, had decided to put an end to Juan Guaidó’s Interim Presidency. Not the interim government, mind you, just the presidency itself. Marquina also announced that a few of the ad-hoc commissions created during Guaidó’s tenure in order to manage the Republic’s assets abroad would be maintained for practical reasons. The legality of this decision has been questioned heavily by national academia, as well as by respected legal voices like José Ignacio Hernández (himself a former national prosecutor appointed by the interim government) who called it unconstitutional

That said, the 2015 National Assembly and the Interim Presidency of Juan Guaidó were always political strategies first and foremost, and therefore they meant opportunities for the opposition to build leverage against Nicolas Maduro in order to achieve concrete results. The decision to end the Interim Presidency, precisely in the midst of the Mexico talks with Maduro’s government and the runup to the 2024 presidential elections, causes serious damage to an already fragmented opposition at a critical time. This is bound to make things simpler for Chavismo, and unnecessarily harder for its rivals.

How does this affect the talks in Mexico?

Nicolas Maduro agreed to return to the negotiating table in Mexico because he saw an opportunity there: a chance to get the United States to lift the financial sanctions that limit his money-making potential. Maduro knew he would have to give something up to the opposition to make demands like the easing of sanctions, and the United States made clear that what they wanted was a free and fair presidential election. Chavismo has already accepted these terms and made their demands, with PSUV’s Vice president, Diosdado Cabello, hinting (on national TV) that if the United States wanted free and fair elections they would have to lift the sanctions. 

On the other side of the table, Maduro finds himself dealing with the Unity Platform’s delegation, fully backed by the United States (for now). Guaidó became Interim President because he was the Speaker of the 2015 National Assembly (AN)when the parliament declared the presidency vacant in January 2019, once Maduro started a term that was considered illegitimate by such body and many other countries that didn’t recognize the 2018 presidential elections. This decision, based on articles 233 and 333 of the Constitution, was the legal justification for the United States to freeze Venezuela’s assets abroad and put them under the control of the Interim Presidency.

Certainly, the Interim Presidency was supposed to be temporary, until new elections were celebrated in the lapse prescribed by the Constitution, but Maduro remained in power and that lapse, as well as the term of Guaidós speakership, ended. Now, if the National Assembly decides to eliminate the Interim Presidency, perhaps it would harder for the United States to protect Venezuela’s assets from Maduro. Publicly, the United States says they will respect any decision taken by the National Assembly regarding Guaido’s caretakership, although its elimination could complicate things for them (again, this eas what the Biden administration is saying publicly). Even when the U.S. has lazily invested years in supporting the Interim Presidency and the 2015 National Assembly as the only political strategy out of this mess, it’s still a bipartisan issue which recently resulted in the passing of the BOLIVAR Act in the Senate, another clear indicator of how the U.S. feels about Maduro’s government.

This leaves the opposition delegation in Mexico in a very delicate position. In the eyes of the world, Guaidó is being singled out as illegitimate by Nicolas Maduro and by the 2015 National Assembly, leaving him in a sort of political limbo that can only strengthen Maduro’s standing worldwide. The death of the Interim Presidency isn’t the strict result of legal reasoning though, but a product of the moment, in an almost mirror image of how the Interim Presidency came to be in the first place after shaky and contentious interpretations of the Constitution.

A fractured side that has lost the support of its own allied parties is in no position to secure any worthwhile concessions from Maduro’s regime at the negotiating table. 

How does this affect the Unity Platform’s primary?

Primero Justicia, Un Nuevo Tiempo, Movimiento por Venezuela, and Acción Democrática have surely chosen a special time to strike a blow against Juan Guaidó and Voluntad Popular. Presidential elections are coming up in 2024 and the Unity Platform are set to hold a primary to select a single candidate in 2023. The whole point of that primary was to ensure that the Platform would face Maduro as a united front, and not a bunch of squabbling parties that each launch their own separate candidates. 

The Interim Presidency is plagued with issues and Voluntad Popular has surely benefitted over the rest due to Guaidó’s holding of the office, but one must wonder if this really was the time to break up the alliance in such spectacular fashion.

In the eyes of those who support VP, the dissident parties will be seen as disloyal opportunists. In the eyes of those who support the dissidents, VP will be seen as a corrupt parasite. In any case, it’s going to be difficult to ask the electorate to support the candidate who wins the primary if they’re from the other side. It’ll be even harder to ensure the parties themselves back the candidate, instead of continuing their bickering and supporting their own individual runs. 

At this point, can we even be sure the Unity Platform will hold a primary?

Divide and Conquer 2024

In early December, we wrote that, after Maduro, the greatest threat for the opposition was the opposition itself. Maduro wants the sanctions to be lifted, he knows he needs to win a clean and credible presidential election to stand a good chance of getting (and keeping) what he wants, therefore his strategy has been to divide opposition votes among many different factions. Now, the dissident groups of the Democratic Unity Platform have just played directly into his hands by showing the world how much of a mess the movement is and making a mockery of the “unity” that takes up a third of their title.

Needless to say, this will drive voters away from them. These voters don’t need to vote for Maduro to ensure his victory, they just need to stay at home, feeling disappointed and betrayed by the politicians who claim to represent them.

What’s next for the political landscape?

Interestingly, the dissident parties may be the ones to walk away the worst from all this. Firstly, the rebellion they’ve launched may end up helping Voluntad Popular in the long run, handing them a victimhood narrative on a plate that they can use to stir up support. It leaves PJ, AD and UNT in a very bad light, busy fighting to position their brands instead of removing a dictatorship from power. Secondly, the dissident parties have provided Maduro another golden opportunity: he may not even have to work that hard to win the 2024 elections, instead just sitting back and watching his rivals fall apart around him. 

There are other factions that have been lurking in the background, looking for an opportunity to replace the Unity Platform as the new mainstream opposition force. Fuerza Vecinal is an early candidate for this role since they’ve been supporting the Platform publicly while also making clear that they answer only to themselves. Maria Corina Machado may find herself riding a new wave of popularity, as she uses this to show everyone that the Platform is the very thing she always warned they were. Finally, someone like comedian and businessman Benjamín Rausseo could use the moment to position himself as a serious contender, as the true outsider free of the baggage that comes with being associated to the mainstream parties. 

It’s not even 2023 but all the knives are out going into the primary year. For now, another crucial opportunity appears to be fatefully wasted, but the reshuffling of the pack that this will bring may lead to unpredictable places.