Can the World Help Venezuela Save Itself?

Protesters amid tear-gas during a demonstration against the government in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday. Credit Cristian Hernandez / European Pressphoto Agency
Protesters amid tear-gas during a demonstration against the government in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday. Credit Cristian Hernandez / European Pressphoto Agency

With the decision last week by Venezuela’s Supreme Court to usurp the functions of the democratically elected National Assembly, the country took yet another turn for the worse, even though the decision was partly rescinded a few days later.

This move was just the latest example of the Venezuelan government cracking down on opposition and dissent. It has imprisoned some opposition political leaders and intimidated others; prevented a constitutional recall process; indefinitely postponed municipal and gubernatorial elections; and systematically overridden the separation of powers — all while the country’s economic and social deterioration worsens. The government’s assault on the National Assembly may help the opposition remobilize popular protest, but it is hard to know how long that will last and what it alone can produce.

At this juncture, it is urgent for Venezuelans to consider whether and how external influence could help reverse the country’s free fall. International involvement can sometimes facilitate peaceful resolution of seemingly intractable national conflicts, but this requires a clear strategy and sustained effort.

Democracy must be locally grown. But legitimate and trusted domestic leaders can import international support and experience to help achieve democratization. This was true of the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa and of international support for democracy in Chile, Poland, Spain, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Some of those in Venezuela who are seeking help from outside have tended to expect too much too soon from abroad, however. Some have been pushing the United States to impose punitive sanctions to force Caracas to heel, but experienced United States officials have emphasized the risks and the likelihood that heavy-handed interventionism will be counterproductive.

Others have backed the efforts by the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, to suspend Venezuela from the group for flouting democratic norms. The latest events have greatly increased concern about Venezuela throughout the Americas, but may not produce the two-thirds vote necessary for suspension. Even if Venezuela were ousted, that would not have much concrete impact beyond increasing the suffering of Venezuela’s population, and it might make matters worse by squelching dissent within the regime and further isolating Venezuela from international influence.

Unrealistic opposition expectations about the role of a group of presidents designated by the Union of South American Nations and by the Vatican, contributed to the decision to call off the internationally encouraged Venezuela “dialogue,” late in 2016. A coalition of Venezuela’s opposition parties, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, tried to use the dialogue to gain concessions from the government that it could not achieve alone, lost confidence in the international facilitators when they could not produce quick results, and failed to sustain significant popular protests.

The government, for its part, used the dialogue mainly to stall the momentum of the opposition’s electoral gains. Neither side seemed ready to explore shared interests, identify which conflicts could be resolved, or consider the compromises that might open the way to eventual solutions. Transition accords in other countries have involved concessions and compromises on constitutional provisions, interim governing arrangements, the role of the armed forces, amnesties, transitional justice and sometimes even power-sharing.

The United States, Colombia, Cuba and other Caribbean countries want to stabilize Venezuela’s oil exports and to prevent an escalation of violence, a breakdown of order and further floods of refugees. China also wants stability to be sure that its extensive loans to Venezuela are repaid. Many in the Americas and elsewhere seek to avoid violence and mass deprivation. Some care deeply about the protection of basic human rights, including those of democratic governance, but they try to avoid forceful interventionism that could lead to deeper problems and lasting resentments.

The indispensable step to secure constructive international involvement is for domestic opposition leaders to strengthen their cause. This requires developing an attractive vision of Venezuela’s future, as was done compellingly by the opposition to Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and by Nelson Mandela and the African Nation Congress in South Africa. Opposition forces need to do much more than denounce the incumbent government. They must overcome personal rivalries and fashion a unified coalition, not only to gain power but to govern. They also must maintain popular backing and keep a sharp focus on preserving the constitution.

At the same time, they must devise approaches that can help induce elements within the regime to seek ways out of their situation. This may require pledges that wholesale revenge will be avoided even as the victims of human rights violations are recognized and protected. They must prepare plans for restoring public order, while assuring democratic civilian control of the security forces. And they must present credible proposals for restoring economic growth by engaging national and foreign investors while also responding to the needs of the poor.

In all these realms, the international community can be helpful: by opening space for mutual reconnaissance and discussion; facilitating expertise on key issues; applying pressures and offering incentives to participants; providing training and technical assistance to political groups, civil society organizations and security forces; and helping to respond materially to the humanitarian crisis.

An end to Venezuela’s authoritarianism will not occur until at least one important sector within the government perceives that change is required. The attorney general’s rebuke of the Supreme Court’s action, leading to the court’s partial retreat, indicates that there are already divisions within the regime. Those who are open to change need to be reassured that this will not involve grave risks for the nation or for those who have acted within the law.

A transition from Venezuela’s current crisis to a brighter future may be closer now than in recent months, although it may not yet be very near. Meanwhile, greater attention to developing and coordinating strategies for a nonviolent transition could well be helpful.

Abraham F. Lowenthal, an emeritus professor at the University of Southern California, was the founding director of the organization Inter-American Dialogue and the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, and is a co-editor, with Sergio Bitar, of Democratic Transitions: Conversations With World Leaders.

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