And what should Biden do about it?
Just over a month after the U.S. held its elections in 2020 and elected Joe Biden, Venezuela also had an election. Elections are the hallmark of democracy—people freely choosing their government. In America, the people chose. In Venezuela, not so much.
On December 6, Venezuelans went to the polls to vote for their representatives in the National Assembly—the country’s constituent assembly vested with supraconstitutional power and tasked with “transform[ing] the state.” The elections were fraught with controversy; the country’s opposition boycotted the vote all together, holding their own referendum on the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
5.2 million Venezuelans showed up to vote in the parliamentary elections, or about 31 percent of eligible voters, handing Maduro’s allies a majority with 69 percent of the vote. With that victory, Maduro’s camp unseated opposition control of the National Assembly, cementing Maduro’s rule over all branches of government. Still, over 6.4 million Venezuelans took part in the symbolic referendum rejecting Maduro’s rule. Organizing the referendum was Juan Guaidó who is the former head of the Assembly until the most recent elections, and interim President of Venezuela depending on who you ask.
The dueling elections come amidst a burgeoning crisis: millions fleeing economic ruin as the country devolves into further authoritarianism at the hands of Maduro. What’s going on in Venezuela? And with President Biden now in office, what can be done?
The Long Fall to Chávismo
With a long history of military rule, Venezuela’s democratic hope began in 1945, as a popular uprising deposed the military. But that hope was fleeting. The military returned only three years later. For the next decade, the military presided over an aggressive, and equally repressive, modernization campaign. But as in 1945, popular discontent brought democracy back to the fore.
With democracy back, the political elites that represented the most popular parties—the Democratic Action Party (AD), COPEI (the Christian-democratic Party), and the URD (the Democratic-Republic Union—sought to ensure its staying power. To do so, the elites created the Punto Fijo pact, which in turn created a duopoly of the AD and COPEI. That duoply systematically excluded revolutionary parties and political outsiders from power.
But by the 1970s, cracks began to form in the Punto Fijo system. The next decade, the system collapsed after the ill effects of crashing oil prices were compounded by economic mismanagement. As the economy decayed, more people demanded access to the exclusive political arrangement.
So by 1992, most Venezuelans were dissatisfied with their government. A group of junior officers from the military, including Hugo Chávez, attempted to overthrow the government. They called themselves the ‘Bolivarians” (after the continent’s liberator Simón Bolívar). They failed spectacularly. Still, they became heroes in the eyes of many ordinary people. In a vain attempt to co-opt the ascending ‘Bolivarian’ constituency, soon-to-be President Caldera left his party—the COPEI—and began to court Chávez’s movement.
Caldera won the 1993 Presidential election and immediately pardoned Chávez. This undoubtedly made Caldera popular, but it was incredibly short-sighted. Four years later, the ‘Bolivarians’ formed the ‘Fifth Republic Movement’ (MVR), led by Chávez. The political elites had failed to co-opt Chávez’s movement. Instead Chávez won the Venezuelan presidency the next year—starting the Chávista era that persists to this day.
Venezuela’s Hybrid Regime
The boom in oil prices in the early 2000s gave Chávez the opportunity to radically change Venezuela’s government. He quickly seized control of the state oil company, PDVSA, and used the oil revenue to massively expand public services to ‘buy’ popular support.
Despite his popular support and championing of inclusive political system, Chávez quickly moved to form an ‘electoral autocracy’. While the opposition was permitted to compete in elections, all avenues to power were blocked off by Chávez’s party (now the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV, in 2007). Loyalists held all the highest echelons of power, including the courts, and so the system of checks and balances fell apart. While the PSUV commanded an electoral majority, the PSUV’s domination of the system was hardly fair.
Venezuela’s domestic and foreign affairs suddenly became overtly militaristic. The military, led by loyalists, began to play a greater role in state industries. Anti-imperialism, serving an anti-American narrative, became the defining aspect of foreign policy. So Venezuela aligned with Iran, Cuba, and Russia. Paramilitaries soon became commonplace in the political life of the country. Their purpose: to further the Chávista agenda and threaten its opponents.
When Hugo Chávez died in 2013, his handpicked successor, Maduro, took charge. By then oil prices were not booming, and the economy relying on them plummeted.
The economic situation deteriorated, and popular dissatisfaction mounting. So Maduro reacted and took the country in a decidedly more authoritarian direction—with a deadly cost for the people. Since 2016, security forces have killed at least 18,000 people for resisting the government—most extrajudicially. Torture and disappearance have become some of the main weapons of the regime against the democratic opposition.
Leading the opposition has been Juan Guaidó, formerly head of the National Assembly until the recent elections. Up until recently, the National Assembly was the last bastion of opposition against the government. In 2018, Maduro was “re-elected” as president, in an incredibly irregular and largely fraudulent election. But Maduro’s re-election did not meet the specifications of the constitution. Maduro usurped the electoral authority of the National Assembly, creating a parallel legislature to nominate members of the Electoral commission that were loyal to him. This parallel system oversaw the election in 2018—but it was the opposition-controlled National Assembly’s constitutional prerogative.
The election was thus null, and the head of the National Assembly would serve as interim president—Juan Guaidó.
What Should Biden Do?
Given this instability, what should Biden do about Venezuela?
Consider the stakeholders: the U.S., Russia, the EU, and neighboring states like Colombia and Brazil. The most pressing issue is the humanitarian crisis that especially affects Venezuela’s neighbors in the form of a refugee crisis. With millions of Venezuelans fleeing the instability to Colombia and Brazil, Venezuela’s instability issue threatens regional stability. Because of its economic interests (selling arms, and sanctioned Venezuelan oil), Moscow has opposed the multilateral efforts to stabilize Venezuela.
The U.S. has been a key player in the Venezuelan crisis, especially under the Trump administration. Multilaterally, the U.S. and the EU have aggressively sought to influence Venezuelan domestic affairs, including offering support for the opposition and recognizing Guaidó. But with the EU walking back that recognition, and new policy imperatives for the Biden administration—chiefly Mexico— Biden will undoubtedly put the Venezuela issue on the international back burner.
Maduro’s regime is systematically denying the rights of the Venezuelan people. But these denials do not meet the international community’s standard for intervention. The UN General Assembly unanimously created the standard for intervention—the“Responsibility to Protect”—at the 2005 World Summit. UN member states affirmed the responsibility to refrain from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”, work ‘decisively’ to mitigate them, and take collective action against those crimes, through peaceful and non-peaceful means if necessary. While the international community has the responsibility to ensure the worst crimes against humanity never happen again, the abuses of Maduro’s regime don’t meet those standards—they are common authoritarian abuses.
The Biden administration should pursue a concerted multilateral effort by the U.S., the EU, and Venezuela’s neighbors. This effort should encourage dialogue for a negotiated settlement. It is clear that Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaigns didn’t work. The U.S., especially, has to be clear that its punitive effort against Maduro has failed. Recognizing Guaidó has not delivered a transition—but has further hardened the regime. Acting out a fantasy of a parallel government in Venezuela, run by the opposition—is not good policy, and never has been.
Ultimately, it is important to remember that Venezuela has a democratic system hidden behind the wanton abuses of Maduro’s regime. Those systems and institutions should largely be preserved, and reformed. With multilateral economic sanctions coming down hard on the perpetrators of these abuses, perhaps negotiation with the opposition can begin in earnest. A negotiated settlement, made and controlled by Venezuelans, is the only way out of this crisis.
Photo: Anti-Maduro (Venezuela) protest @ Statue of Simon Bolivar |
Guilhem Vellut | Anti-Maduro (Venezuela) protest @ Statue of Simon Bolivar | CC BY 2.0
I am a recent graduate of Rowan University, who studied International Studies, concentrating on the Middle East and North Africa, and Latin America. I tweet at @SirMichaelCian1