[MY COMMENTS ON] O’Neil: Venezuela’s Collapse Has Further to Go

Today, Dr. Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow at the  Council on Foreign Relations, spoke on Bloomberg Surveillance about the situation in Venezuela. Below, I elaborate on my initial reactions to this interview.

Fearing defeat, the National Electoral Council (under President Maduro’s control) did not activate the gubernatorial elections and the recall referendum.

The opposition engaged in such “dialogue” with two publicly declared goals: 1) make the recall against president Maduro happen and 2) achieve the release of 71 political prisoners, including Mr. Leopoldo Lopez.

Unless any of those goals are accomplished, it looks like these talks will not result in a political solution (For more information, see my report Venezuela This Week).

Why the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) gave up the recall referendum and wants to wait until 2018? Venezuela’s opposition is divided into two main positions: The MUD prefers a pacific and electoral long-transition whereas another group, represented by Leopoldo Lopez, Maria Corina Machado and Diego Arria, insists on a constitutional referendum that could become a non-violent and electoral short-transition.

Who is right? Could a deeper humanitarian crisis and gross violation of human rights be prevented now? Is it permissible to tolerate famine and deaths -due to current economic crisis-, arguing this could save thousands of Venezuelans from a potential violent conflict?

Those who believe this dire situation must be stopped before it gets worse, would support Mr. Lopez’s approach. People who think that it will actually get worse if the opposition attempts to protest now on the streets instead of talking,  would bet on the MUD.

Since politicians behind the MUD want to be the main leaders of the opposition, it is understandable why they are willing to agree upon the government’s breaches of basic democratic rules as long as president Maduro orders the National Electoral Council to celebrate gubernatorial elections in 2017 and the presidential election in 2018.

However, would president Maduro agree to carry out any of said elections? The electoral calendar does not give him too much choice.

On the other hand, what if Chavismo accepts defeat in both, the gubernatorial elections and the presidential election? Apparently, the problem would be solved.

Nevertheless, facts show it will not be that easy. By avoiding the celebration of the gubernatorial elections and the recall referendum, this year, the government demonstrated it is not giving any advantage, no matter if it has to break constitutional rules to stay in power.

In the event Chavismo undertakes the elections, would them be free, fair and transparent? Would the attempt by the government to steal the elections end up in the bloodshed the Obama administration and the Vatican wanted to prevent?

As of today, the MUD is wining -and, of course, the government too. If initiatives like #SiHaySalida do not take off, president Maduro may be still ruling the country by 2018 -I give more details in my post When will Venezuela’s Maduro exit the presidency?

Mr. Trump might decide to have a dog in this fight. It is very tricky because his good intentions may end up helping Mr. Maduro, in case the Trump administration intervenes to help the wrong people oust president Maduro.

There is always a possibility that a popular uprising and/or Venezuela’s army intervention backfire, victimizing president Maduro.

The bottom line: At this stage, certain measures outside diplomatic boundaries could be more damaging than helpful.

When will Venezuela’s Maduro exit the presidency?

Venezuela's acting President and presidential candidate Maduro wears a hat with a bird on it as he speaks during a campaign rally in Vargas
Reuters

In this analysis I comment about four scenarios that could answer the million dollar question. But, first we have to warm up with some context.

In 2015 Chavismo’s unpopularity reached its peak, after years of political and economic mismanagement. The Legislative elections came as a self-inflicted knockout for President Maduro. It seemed that he would not get up and survive the 2016 round.

Then, the moderate opposition -gathered at the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD)- started campaigning for the recall referendum that would get President Maduro out of power no later than this year. Predictably enough, Chavismo pulled out his bag of tricks and did not let the challenger throw the final punch.

About 73 per cent of Venezuelans would have voted against Maduro in the recall referendum – a political right under Article 72 of the Venezuelan constitution. In other words, most citizens believe that Maduro’s exit is the best solution to Venezuela’s political and economic crisis.

While the logical way out was spoiled by undemocratic means and the main problem is still there, what else could be done to get rid of President Maduro?  Would a dialog be the alternative to achieve this goal? Is it smarter to avoid the dialog and keep a defiant stand? How about a military intervention? What if Maduro sticks around past 2018?

Scenario 1: The dialog. This is an ineffective option for one basic reason: Which dictator negotiates his own political execution, when he actually controls other branches of power?

Scenario 2: Nonviolent resistance. Unleashing some kind of civil disobedience could lead to a popular uprising. Nevertheless, this would be a lost cause if the recall of Maduro is the flag. Since the soonest elections could be held in 2017, if Mr. Maduro is fired, the Vice-president will assume his position until December 2018, based on article 233 of the constitution.

Scenario 3: Violence. While a Military coup may kick Chavismo out, is it convenient? Would a Junta be the solution?

Scenario 4. Perpetuation. President Maduro could last many more years in office. Venezuela would end up being Cuba or Zinbabwe, societies that became extremely tolerant to their rulers.

At this moment, the first scenario is happening. As far as the story goes, President Maduro was against the ropes in the 2016 round, with some 80 per cent of popular discontent. Apparently, the MUD made a big strategic mistake by allowing the government to breathe with a dialog that buried the recall referendum –the fastest electoral mechanism to leave Maduro out of combat once and for all.

Yet, why did the MUD accept the dialog? It looks like their main priority is the presidential election. Naturally, the MUD would like to be the undisputed political platform of the opposition’s candidate. So, the initial plan of agitating the people by pushing for a recall vote on the streets sounded like the agenda of the so-called radical opposition and the MUD stepped back.

The risk of a major upheaval neither helps President Maduro buy more time nor increases the MUD’s chances to accomplish its electoral goal, as a sudden regime change could boost another leadership.

Although the peaceful and electoral transition is slow but steady, will the MUD manage to lead the opposition to the presidential election? Current internal divisions, between supporters of the dialog and promoters of nonviolent resistance, makes the MUD’s future uncertain.

The year 2016 is almost gone, and President Maduro is rather dancing Salsa enthusiastically -to symbolize not only a political recovery but also that he won this round.

If current situation continues, it is likely that Nicolas Maduro will finish his presidential period. Under this perspective, I believe that the year 2018 might become the turning point for Venezuela.

Based on Article 230 of the Venezuelan constitution, the nation MUST celebrate its presidential election in December 2018. The attempt to suspend this electoral process could be too risky, no matter what circumstances are created to justify it. Even authoritarian regimes like Cuba and Zimbabwe carry out (unfair?) presidential elections.

Whether the regime decides to undertake, suspend or steal the election, it may be the clearest opportunity for the people to oust Chavismo. If Venezuelan democrats are not brave enough to reconquer their liberties this time, it will be very difficult to take back their country afterward.

I like to think that whenever the moment comes, Venezuelans will do the right thing and regain their democracy.