A Venezuelan Spring: Undermined by Fragmentation and Geopolitical Stakes?
By José-Manuel Heinze
Power cuts, shortages of goods, staggering inflation, corruption and crime rates ranking among the highest on the continent, have become common features in the record of Venezuela. As of recently, domestic turmoil that has been the largest in a decade and have thrown the country into a serious domestic crisis, can be added to this record. The protesters demand among others the release of all detainees of previous protests, economic changes to curb high inflation, alleviate shortages of staples, and the resignation of President Nicolás Maduro. The success of the movement is dependent on its cohesiveness and the benevolence of geopolitical players.
The anti-government protests began in early February following the attempted rape of a women in the western states of Tachira and Merida when predominantly students and the middle class took to the streets to vent their anger about the high crime rate, food shortages and the miserable economic situation. Since then 42 people have been killed in clashes with security forces and pro-government armed civilians.
President Maduro, who has ordered to prolong the carnival and increased the minimum wage by 30%, seems to have used most of his repertoire to bring the protests under control. He is by now mostly relying on physical force. The actions of the security forces are endorsed and legitimised by the government, which calls the protesters “fascists” that seek to stage a coup d’etat. According to Human Rights Watch, security forces have made excessive use of unlawful force and detained over 3000 people, of whom most have been, while in detention, subjected to physical and psychological abuse. Another instrument of the government in order to force down the protests has been paramilitary groups, commonly referred to as colectivos. These are motorized gangs that were created under Hugo Chávez’s presidency, and in these days represent one of the most active organized forces of the government in crushing the protests.
According to Human Rights Watch, security forces have made excessive use of unlawful force and detained over 3000 people, of whom most have been, while in detention, subjected to physical and psychological abuse.
In contrast to the well-organized and combat-tested colectivos, the political opposition lacks cohesiveness in order to mobilize support among the whole population, and more importantly to reach its goal: la salida, the resignation of Maduro’s government.
This becomes evident, when considering the political agendas of the two men that are regarded as Maduro’s strongest opponents. Leopoldo López, on the one hand, a right wing politician and former mayor of the Chacao municipality, has been the leading figure of the protests up to now. In early February Lopéz mobilized the protests by calling for marches and the resignation of the Maduro government. For his alleged role in prompting the violence he was detained, which gave him martyr status and solely spurred the protests. On the other hand, Henrique Capriles, the head of the opposition coalition, the so-called Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD), lost by a narrow margin of 1.5 % the presidential elections against Maduro in 2013. Capriles unlike Maduro insists that “the only road is the electoral road”, thereby acknowledging the legitimacy of Maduro’s presidency. The dissent between Lopéz and Capriles in the means to establish a change in government reflects the rift of the political opposition. However, the greatest challenge for both in changing the government represents the difficulty to mobilize all segments of the society. So far, the movement has primarily been backed by the middle class lacking the support of the working class, which still under the spell of Chavismo forms the large electoral base of the government.
Another considerable blow to the oppositions’ prospects of success in achieving their goals constitutes the nearly uniform regional backing of the Venezuelan government.
For instance, Mercosur and UNASUR, South-Americas most influential regional intergovernmental organisations, condemned the protests as violent upheavals that should seek to channel their demands through democratic means. This expression of solidarity reflects the across South-American organisations common principle of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs. The declaration of the OAS Permanent Council on 7 March demonstrates the nearly uniform backing of the Venezuelan government even better. The Council expressed its “solidarity and support for democratic institutions” and backed the Venezuelan government’s supports “to advance in the process of national dialogue.” Only the US, Panama and Canada out of 35 member states rejected to support this declaration. Recently Foreign Ministers of UNASUR have brought the government and MUD, the opposition umbrella group, to the negotiation table. However, MUD left the talks with the government stating that the government was continuing to repress student demonstrations.
In the past months the US had generally confined itself to verbal support for the opposition, and the condemnation of the violent suppression of the protests by the Venezuelan government. This restrained attitude towards the Venezuelan crisis may arise from the practical reason that the US Foreign Ministry has been predominantly occupied with settling the Ukrainian conflict. However, the latest developments – Kerry, US Foreign Minister, stated the US was “losing patience” with Venezuela – demonstrate that the US assumes a more active role in the Venezuelan crisis, and – as in the Ukrainian conflict – continues to rely on smart sanctions now aimed at members of the Venezuelan government. The sanctions include travel bans, as well as freezing of assets in US banks. Whether these sanctions will bring the desired effects, remains, considering the recent failure of US/EU sanctions imposed on members of Putin’s administration, rather doubtful.
A further reason for the widespread backing of the Venezuelan government lies in the close political and economic ties that the country maintains to other South-American states. Particularly, the soft power Venezuela has assumed through its inexhaustible supply of oil for preferential prices to most countries of South America and the Caribbean, is now of special value for the government and secures its regional support, as one main demand of the opposition is to stop the cheap export of oil. Countries like Cuba that have largely benefited from the cheap oil belong to the most vehement supporters of the Venezuelan government in times of domestic threat. Since the stakes for the Castro brothers in Venezuela are considerably high, meaning that if Maduro falls Cuba would not only lose its closest ally, but also its access to affordable oil, thus being pushed to the brink of its economic existence.
The country with the world’s largest oil-reserves is experiencing an unprecedented legitimacy crisis that poses an immediate threat to its political system. However, latest efforts of UNASUR to mediate in the conflict, reflect the willingness of South-American actors to resolve the crisis, and give cause for hope that the conflict is now carried out at the negotiation table instead of in the streets of Caracas.