The other January 23rd

Venezuelan crisis has reached a new high as tensions escalate with the international community and the opposition joining efforts furthering in the isolation of Nicolas Maduro and his regime. On January 10th, the day set by the constitution, Maduro took the oath of office before the Supreme Court, instead of the National Assembly. This triggered an immediate response from the international community considering the fraudulent circumstances of his May 20th of 2018 electoral victory, when 47 countries acknowledged the dubious results and warned they would not recognize another term. As it was promised, one after another, in America and Europe, 50 governments formally communicated their decision to disavow the new presidential term. In the meantime, there was the expectation on the decisions and actions the board of the National Assembly, installed on January 5th with its president Juan Guaidó, would carry on after January 10th. The shortcomings in the opposition contributed to a realistic/pessimistic perspective, along with a humanitarian crisis consuming the country.

Once Maduro assumed his new term, the opposition vowed to give a fight against what it considered an illegitimate presidency. The arguments were legal and political, there was complete ignorance of the constitution, and that made any political decision illegitimate. The conflict seemed inevitable, but the opposition was trapped by the inner-fighting, as well as lack of organization, making it rather difficult for them to represent a threat to the Maduro regime. The designation of Juan Guaidó was the result of an agreement among opposition forces in Congress to take turns in the presidency: Acción Democrática (2016), Primero Justicia (2017), and Un Nuevo Tiempo  (2018) held the seat, and in 2019 it was the turn for Voluntad Popular (Leopoldo Lopez’s party) to have a member as head of the National Assembly.

Venezuela’s democracy was born on January 23rd of 1958, after ten years of a brutal military dictatorship, the armed forces decided to withdraw its support to Marcos Pérez Jiménez, starting a transition that would allow democracy to consolidate in the following 40 years. This day has been since then an occasion for Venezuelans to celebrate freedom and democracy, remembering the sacrifices made to reach stability in the country. This year was even more special given the circumstances, making it an opportunity to mobilize and get a new impulse to confront the Maduro regime. The calls for a national mobilization were set to start on the 10th, once Maduro entered the usurpation phase. The response from the regime has been the usual military deployment and repression, along with a decision from the Supreme Court declaring unconstitutional Guaido’s designation as National Assembly president. The opposition was determined to act, testing the waters for a challenge that nobody knew how long it would take. On January 23rd, the response was tremendous, all across the country, including in traditional Chavista strongholds, people took to the streets to show their disapproval of Maduro, calling for him to leave office.

In a swift sequence of events, what many had expected and fiercely demanded on January 5th as Guaidó was invested President of the National Assembly, finally materialized when surprisingly he swore by the Constitution, following its article 233[1]. The reactions were the immediate recognition of the interim presidency, from a group of countries led by the United States and the Lima Group, formed by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru, except Uruguay and Mexico whose governments decided not to adhere to the decision, supporting instead a negotiation. The European Union made a preliminary declaration without explicit recognition of Guaidó, reiterating Nicolas Maduro didn’t have their support, followed by an ultimatum a few days later, where the union called on Maduro to allow for new elections in 8 days or otherwise Juan Guaidó would be recognized by the EU. As expected, Maduro rejected the EU’s ultimatum, complaining about the ‘arrogance of European elites’, and once again dismissing as unconstitutional Guaidó’s proclamation.

However, as these steps gained praise in Venezuela, the perception abroad is showing strong criticism among progressives. Media’s continued labeling of Guaido’s move as a self-proclamation, the assumption by progressive lawmakers, in America and Europe, of a coup (surprisingly without military support), and the practice of good old interventionism, are a few of the reactions across the globe against the latest events in Venezuela. Perhaps, a little context is needed, and that could better serve those worried about political intervention and sovereignty.

In December 2015, Venezuelan opposition reached a 2/3 qualified majority in parliamentary elections with 112 elected lawmakers, giving opposition -for the first time in 17 years- the control of a branch of government. The expectation of an opportunity for checks and balance was immediately confronted by the nature of the authoritarian regime, as the lame duck Congress moved swiftly to appoint 13 Supreme Court justices and 21 substitutes, packing the highest court with acolytes of the regime in a preemptive strike facing a 2016 new Congress with an opposition majority. The problem was not only the last-resort maneuver but the violation of constitutional requirements for justices that were overlooked in their designation. Before the new parliament was installed, the Supreme Court proceeded to suspend four lawmakers (three from the opposition and one from the regime) representing indigenous communities, alleging electoral fraud, in a move read as a swipe of the 112 seat majority. The opposition defied the court’s ruling as the three opposition lawmakers took the oath of office, prompting a Supreme Court ruling on January 11th making all acts by the National Assembly void pending the removal from office of the suspended lawmakers.

The tug-of-war between the National Assembly and the Maduro regime continued, with an escalation on April 2016, when the conflicted Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), the multi-party coalition representing Venezuelan opposition, started the process for a recall of president Nicolás Maduro, with people taking to the streets to demand a referendum on the administration. The continued cycle of mobilization-repression persisted as the opposition demanded the electoral council to verify the signatures to trigger the recall. In an initial announcement, electoral authorities citing conditions regarding timing and logistics decided it was improbable to proceed with the referendum recall on 2016, being most probably 2017 when it could take place. This was obviously an attempt to lower expectations with the recall, given that if it were to take place in 2016, new elections should be called, but if executed in 2017, the vice president should complete the term. It was in October of the same year when electoral authorities ruled that the recall procedure could not continue due to fraud detected in the signature recollection process. This was a blow to the opposition efforts to find an electoral, constitutional, and peaceful resolution to the crisis.

The disagreements continued, with periods of the blaming-game the opposition is frequently given to, highlighting the incompatibilities along member parties of the coalition.  On March of 2017, the Supreme Court proceeded to strip the National Assembly from its constitutional powers (decisions #155 and #156, issued on the 28th and 29th), reserving them for the court or a designated body. The immediate domestic and global backlash follows months of caveats from politicians, members of parliament and NGO’s over the increasing blockage of the legislative branch through the judicialization of politics, with the Supreme Court as the Executive’s instrument in the assurance of power. Since the opposition won the majority of seats in the unicameral parliament the landslide 2015 election, the government has not been shy in their intention to make it difficult for them to exercise the majority. The first and pivotal argument for the government’s obstruction to the opposition’s majority was the accusation of electoral fraud made against three indigenous members of parliament from the state of Amazonas.

The Supreme Court revised its ruling, after public criticism by Chávez loyalist, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz,  who declared the decision as a constitutional rupture undermining the opposition in its capacity to legislate. The conflict was deeply rooted in the faculty the National Assembly has to authorize or deny decisions made by the Executive, involving its competence to compromise oil business assets. Maduro was reminded that without their authorization, any deal would be deemed as void, making it necessary, through the Supreme Court, as the ruling body of the regime, to make it safe for him to assume attributions concerning economic and financial decisions. Therefore, the setback did not change the fact that close to 50 rulings disavowing the parliament’s authority were still in place –and were not even mentioned- as well as the decision regarding the Executive’s power to negotiate without the National Assembly’s intervention.

The following months the country entered a new cycle of bloodshed, as people took to the streets to protest the authoritarian turn of the regime, starting April 6th with the first victim of repression by government forces for a total of 157 unconfirmed fatalities during the protests. In the middle of a widespread mobilization, on May 1st, Maduro declared his intention to call for a National Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution, based on article 348 of the current constitution. This was the final straw for those who still labeled Maduro’s presidency as a democratic regime, his clear intentions were to cut short any aspiration from the opposition to reach the public office, given that a new constitution would press the reset button at all levels of government, including the presidency. The repercussions in the international community were severe, with warnings that the new body would lack legitimacy. The voting took place on July 30th, after a massive show of force by the opposition with a non-binding popular referendum on July 16th organized by the opposition, with a turnout of 6.492.381 in Venezuela and 693.789 at polling stations around the world. In an unusual statement, Smartmatic, the software provider for voting machines, denounced the government for vote-tampering alleging the July 30th numbers officially issued by electoral authorities were not consistent with the result, that was inflated by a million votes according to the software company. This only proved the opposition’s claim that the government ran a rigged election.

In parallel, on September 12th, Maduro announced a new round of talks between government and opposition in a search for an agreement to resolve the political crisis. The efforts made by the Organization of American States, the European Union, along with the United States in the form of sanctions have put enough pressure on the Maduro government for negotiations that include transparency in the 2018 presidential elections, freedom for political prisoners, changes in the electoral council, and the opening of a humanitarian channel to distribute food and medicines. By November 2017, the new round of talks coincided with the announcement that the country was technically in default of its debt obligation. The initiative lead by UNASUR, with Spain’s former executive head, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero as main broker, and Dominican Republic president Danilo Medina as a host, contributed to the increasing skepticism on the motives Maduro had to move forward with the talks, fearing the likes of a previous attempt in 2016 brokered by the Vatican, being labeled as a stunt to gain time without having to make any compromise.

Ignoring criticism by the opposition and international community, with more than 40 countries pledging not to recognize the new body, the country was set for a new round of conflict. On October 15th gubernatorial elections took place, with the regime winning 17 out of 23 governor’s seats in a landslide victory that opposition forces considered fraudulent, denouncing government manipulation, topped by the regime’s decision that elected governors should declare allegiance to the National Constituent Assembly. Protests continued as opposition vowed to boycott local government elections due in December based on the fraudulent results, demanding changes in the Electoral Council and Supreme Court. The decision only added to internal frictions over whether to pursue a more radical route or persist in the electoral path, feeding into the narrative that there was no electoral way out of the crisis.

While conversations continued, on January 23rd the National Constituent Assembly announced a call for early elections that should take place on April 22nd instead of December, as established by the constitution.  The hopes of any advance in the talks faded, when on February 8th the opposition, led by former National Assembly president Julio Borges, rejected an agreement proposed by the regime, with the backing of Rodriguez Zapatero. The proposal fell short of the minimum conditions demanded by the opposition. On another battlefield, the April election was moved to May, as an agreement between government and opposition candidate Henri Falcón was reached, after breaking ranks with the MUD strategy of boycotting what they considered to be a sham election. This turned into a bitter inner-fight in the opposition field, deepening divisions, handing Maduro another uncertain victory on May 20th. This was the outcome a significant part of the international community was waiting for sanctions to be reinforced.

While the political turmoil continued its course, an even more critical tragedy was taking place in and out of the country with the Venezuelan exodus across Latin America. The number of people fleeing the country has passed the three million mark in 2018, with the United Nations urging for increased support to deal with the crisis in the host countries of the region. It was precisely the migrant wave what prompted a more active role by the Latin American community, with the Lima Group, formed in 2017 by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, México, Panamá, Paraguay and Perú, leading the push to put pressure on Maduro and his government. Following the election, not recognized by the United States, the Lima Group and the European Union, sanctions were heightened as a rejection to the move made by Maduro. This is also a break from a traditional non-interventionist position that has characterized Latin American countries, that would only be explained by the turmoil the Venezuelan exodus is causing, as well as the national security concerns voiced by the United States and Colombia, the latter with a concrete threat represented by the protection Maduro is providing guerrilla groups, according to President Duque, who has linked them to the Venezuelan regime.

Back to the current state of affairs, what the outcry denouncing a coup in Venezuela is missing is that Nicolás Maduro has been in contempt with the Constitution since 2013, when he assumed the presidency instead of Diosdado Cabello, then president of the National Assembly, given that Chavez could not swear office, and according to article 233, in the absence of the elected president as a new term is set to start, the president of the assembly is in charge for the following 30 days when a new election must be called. Since then, Maduro has used the Supreme Court to bend the constitution to his favor, base for the illegitimacy argument the opposition has made. Therefore, the notion of a coup against an illegitimate exercise of power is nothing less than a contradiction.

On the other side, the fallout among progressive lines is understandable, but it is no less a rendition of principles for the sake of ideology. There is no question that Hugo Chávez set the foundations of a regime that Nicolás Maduro has consolidated: destruction of private and state-owned economy; damage of social capital and social fabric; shattering of the institutional framework, and wrecking of primary sources, there is very little to defend from a political project that has ruined the country’s future for the next generations. Instead, a more plausible explanation is the rejection towards the Trump administration and his policies, which might be fair enough, and yet, it fails to address deeper reasons. This is a well-staged operation that doesn’t seem to be a response to a gut feeling. The current sequence of events points to a meticulously elaborated strategy that does not align with what we have seen in the administration’s foreign policy. Since President Trump took office, Venezuela has been on his radar, he has furthered in Obama’s sanctions and has vowed to deepen its reach if there are no changes in the course of Maduro’s rule. It seems more likely that President Trump recognizes the importance Cuban, and (in less measure) Venezuelan-American votes have in getting those 29 electoral votes in Florida. For the past two years, now Sen. Rick Scott, then governor, has been a fierce advocate for Venezuelans in Florida, fighting Maduro with measures directed to limit commercial transactions in Florida (although we know it has not quite been successful), along with Sen. Marco Rubio, have lobbied for more measures against the regime. The key idea here is that the administration has identified the Venezuelan regime as a critical actor, but in the words of Vice President Pence: It’s a humanitarian and economic crisis, but also a matter of regional security. The problem has been reduced to a migrant crisis and a regional security threat. Ironically, if calls to stop supporting Chávez, and later on Maduro, would have been followed, probably we wouldn’t be bothering our neighbors.

[1] Art. 233: When an elected President* becomes permanently unavailable to serve prior to his inauguration, a new election by universal suffrage and direct ballot shall be held within 30 consecutive days. Pending election and inauguration of the new President*, the President* of the National Assembly shall take charge of the Presidency of the Republic.

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