How the Venezuelan Opposition Lost a Golden Opportunity and the International Community Let it Do So
Last Sunday, the world watched silently as the Venezuelan governing party (PSUV) won back control of the National Assembly. The outcome was predictable. These elections were neither free nor fair. People were coerced to vote for the government in exchange for food, opposition candidates were unable to compete unless they were pliable to the incumbent, and there is no certainty that the figures disclosed by the electoral council reflect the true outcome of the contest.
The fact that the government cheated to stay in power surprised nobody. What was shocking—and disheartening—was the ease with which it did so. Despite an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, domestic discontent with the government, and broad international support, the opposition that defeated Chavismo in 2015 and launched a bold plan to unhinge Maduro from power in 2019 was unable to build a coalition or a strategy that leveraged the parliamentary elections in order to advance their cause. What happened?
Repression made things more difficult, but not impossible
To answer that question, we have to look first at the government. In the past five years, Maduro has deepened authoritarianism. Between 2015 and 2020, his administration hijacked the major opposition parties, pushed to exile their leaders, and escalated violence against protesters.
Repression, however, is not by itself sufficient to explain the government’s ability to cheat their way to the congressional elections without meaningful obstacles. Plenty of evidence suggest that, even when facing strong dictators, electoral events provide windows of opportunity that allow democratic actors to focus their energies, mobilize citizens, and weaken—if not outright defeat—authoritarian leaders. Despite its inability to defeat the government, the opposition could have mounted a campaign to obstruct or minimize its victory, make fraud visible and enhance its costs, or mobilize in opposition to the results.
It did not. Without a mid- or long-term strategy, the opposition reached the elections divided between those that wanted to participate, those that didn’t but supported a popular consultation, and those that wanted neither to participate nor to do the consultation. Fractionalized and full of infighting, the Venezuelan opposition was no match for the governing PSUV party.
Opposition coalitions are hard, but not impossible
To be clear, it is hard for any opposition to fight authoritarian regimes. Dictators have a “menu of manipulation” that makes collective action against them (electoral or not) next to impossible. Regimes like Venezuela use a combination of repression, cooptation, disadvantage and intimidation to hinder opposition coordination and mobilization. This does not mean, however, that it is impossible to build anti-incumbent alliances. Oppositions across the world have been able to unite in order to oust authoritarian leaders and push for democracy.
The Venezuelan opposition has, in fact, important advantages in this regard. Similar policy goals, resources, and underperforming authoritarian incumbents increase the likelihood of opposition coordination. Maduro’s opponents have overlapping policy preferences, resource-rich members willing to bankroll their efforts, and are facing a president who has overseen the country’s collapse into an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
Opposition coalitions require sacrifice
However, and despite these advantages, the opposition was unable to build a sustainable prodemocratic coalition in 2019. Two years after launching an ambitious campaign to oust Maduro that garnered international support and mobilized millions of Venezuelans to the streets, the anti-Chavista coalition is back to square one. Infighting and broken promises have decreased its support inside the country. Failed coups and invasions have dwindled their support outside of it.
Not unlike other oppositions, one of the biggest obstacles the anti-Maduro coalition faced over the past two years were its leaders’ incentives. Those heading the opposition have, for the most part, post-transition electoral ambitions. They want to win office once Chavismo is out of power. These ambitions, unfortunately, are hard to reconcile with the kind of concessions required for peaceful regime change. Barring a very unlikely international invasion or a military coup, the authoritarian coalition will not step down—or even engage in a meaningful conversation— without anything in return. Democratization in Venezuela will likely require, for instance, transitional justice arrangements similar to the ones negotiated with the FARC in Colombia. Such negotiations, however, are unpopular and will undermine the election of anybody who leads them. Consequently, most opposition leaders avoid endorsing them or outright oppose them.
Opposition coalitions need outside help
These incentives fortunately are not immutable. Oppositions in many other countries have faced similar dilemmas. To overcome them, these coalitions have often relied on—among other things—pro-democratic international actors. Multilateral organizations, neighbors and foreign powers can act as “midwives,” using their influence to favor or disfavor certain strategies/opposition actors over others to foster the moderation and coordination that can bring about regime change.
In a world of democratic backsliding, however, the Venezuelan opposition has had few good neighbors to rely on. Throughout 2019 and 2020, most countries in the region were either unwilling to criticize Maduro (e.g. Mexico and Nicaragua), busy with domestic unrest and a pandemic (e.g. Perú, Ecuador, Chile and Colombia), or interested in Venezuela merely as a domestic political “punching ball” (e.g. the United States and Colombia).
The most significant example of this is the US. President Donald Trump has a very low normative preference for democracy. Throughout his government, his interest in Venezuela rested solely on this issue’s ability to demonize socialism and mobilize key constituencies in states like Florida.
Driven by domestic audiences, the US therefore designed a very clumsy foreign policy towards the South American dictatorship. It refused to use its influence to reduce the weight of radical opposition factions, did nothing to neutralize international Maduro allies like Russia and China, and lent credence to unrealistic plans for foreign invasions that undermined calls for moderation and a good chance to seat both parties at a negotiation table. They wasted a golden opportunity to help transform Juan Guaidó’s interim presidency enter a long-term process that could have advanced democracy in Venezuela.
By the time the parliamentary elections came around in 2020, it was too late. It is very unlikely Maduro will step down empty-handed. Any plan to transition to democracy must include a path towards negotiation. In 2019, the opposition was in a very good position to design one. Without a long-term strategy, participating in the elections (or not) became a moot point. The fact that only 30% (or less) of the voters participated in the contest suggests the vast majority of Venezuelans do not support or trust the government. The homework for 2021 is to figure out a sustainable mechanism to transform that discontent into a pathway to regime change.
Laura Gamboa is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah. Her research focuses on institutions, regime and regime change in Latin America.