The recent stand-off in Venezuela between the authoritarian Maduro regime and the opposition movement has sparked discussion about whether or not the opposition will manage to restore democracy since it was dismantled in the early 2000s. The strategies taken by the opposition, and the support offered on an international scale, have created immense potential for the growing movement, and a tangible hope that democracy could be restored and the competitive authoritarian regime of the past two decades would be forced to surrender the executive office to a more liberal leader, allow competition within the legislative branch and end court-packing in the judiciary.
The Venezuelan democracy of the second half of the 20th century was stable, with competitive political parties and peaceful power transfers. Between 1999 and 2008, democratically elected president Hugo Chàvez defied odds, side-stepping democratic processes and packing the government with Chavistas to disguise Venezuela as a democracy that functioned under a single party (Chavismo). While Chàvez worked hard to make Venezuela a more sovereign state and sympathized with those who struggled to find work and provide housing and food for their families, he manipulated the office of the executive, using a combination of economic manipulation, military support, political coercion and populist strategies (including media control) to maintain authority. Democracy in Venezuela has been compromised in the past two decades due to what Nancy Bermeo calls “executive aggrandizement”, or the increased status of the executive and its control over government processes.
Chàvez’ successor, Nicolas Maduro, was recently sworn in by loyalists for a second six-year term as president following the fraudulent elections of May 2018, which were largely dismissed by the international community as illegitimate. Sorely lacking Chàvez’ charisma and political sleight-of-hand, Maduro has failed to build significant popular support and appeal to citizen discontent as plummeting oil prices and rampant inflation continue to batter the economy. More than 3 million Venezuelans have been forced to flee the country in search of stability; over 1000 members of the Venezuelan security force have reportedly fled to Colombia since February.
The economic crisis and Maduro’s tactics to suppress the voice of the collective reached a climax as Maduro took office in January 2019, and anti-government protests exploded into a frenzy across the country, centered around the furor of those marching and chanting in Caracas, its capital. The president of the Venezuelan legislature, Juan Guaidó, made a bold, yet constitutionally sound move by declaring himself the ‘interim’ president in opposition to Maduro. Weary of the economic slump and the hostile dictatorship of Chàvez and Maduro, Venezuelans are demanding change, with many supporting Guaidó as he attempts restore Venezuelan political power to the people.
The implications of this action bode well for Venezuelan democracy, because while the country remains in chaos and Maduro has refused to step down, there has been widespread support shown globally for the opposition movement, with Canada, the United States, a majority of South American countries including Panama and Colombia, the UN, and others backing Guaido and the opposition and condemning Maduro and his regime. The result of these events is difficult to discern at this juncture, with the government locked in a power struggle, but international support is a game-changer for Venezuela opposition.
International support could positively sway Venezuela’s democratic fate, and has a great deal of influence on whether or not the opposition succeeds. In the multiple failed attempts to dethrone Chàvez between 2002 and 2005, international actors did not lend oppositional support. Opposition strategies were extremely reckless, with little tangibility to their expected result. In 2002, opposition leaders launched a coup against Chàvez. Their failure to negotiate with moderate Chavistas created a huge backlash, and the coup backfired. A strike in late 2002 into early 2003 and an electoral boycott in 2005 only resulted in the absence of an oppositional presence in the legislature, which gave Chàvez the ability to accuse the opposition of failing to participate in political processes, and more stretching room to enact his own policies. Without an international backing or internal strategies, the opposition’s efforts had little effect on Chàvez and his party, and carried little weight.
The efforts of the opposition in 2019 look much different, becoming more moderate in intention and execution. This, along with international support, has rendered a more successful opposition and the increasing legitimacy of Guaido as a democratic leader. The United States has offered military support in the wake of Venezuelan forces fleeing the country, and has also instigated oil sanctions focused on breaking down the Maduro regime’s economic hold on the country. The outward declarations of many countries formally recognizing Guaido as the country’s president places greater pressure on Maduro, who now must come to terms with the fact that his unwillingness to bend to the will of the opposition, and further refusal to follow democratic processes, will result in hefty international backlash.
Venezuelan democracy has been slowly compromised by authoritarian rule over the past two decades, but recovery is possible due to the involvement of international actors in opposition efforts. Past efforts failed due to weak strategy and lack of international support, which provides a tangible hope that Venezuela will recover and democracy will be restored to allow the Venezuelan people to live safely and confidently within their home country.
*Photo by VOA News. Wikimedia Commons.