Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Is Venezuela’s Government Irreparably Broken?

Violent protests, like the one pictured a week ago, have become a regular occurrence this month in Venezuela.

Venezuela has been roiled by multiple protests this month, with tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators marching in Caracas. The unrest was sparked after the country’s Supreme Court effectively dissolved the country’s legislature but then reversed the move following widespread condemnation over fears that the country was lurching toward a dictatorship. Meanwhile, the legislature has begun the process of removing pro-government Supreme Court justices. Is the relationship among Venezuela’s branches of government irreparably damaged? How can the country resolve this constitutional deadlock? Is violence in Venezuela likely to spin out of control and lead to regime change before next year’s scheduled elections?

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue: “Not surprisingly, the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s decision to dissolve the National Assembly, albeit partially rescinded, provoked an international outcry as well as the most significant street protests in Venezuela since 2014. The government’s arbitrary and unjustified decision to bar opposition leader Henrique Capriles from running for office further aggravated the tension and rancor and fueled the constitutional crisis between the executive and legislative powers. So far, attempts at dialogue between fractured opposition forces and a largely intransigent government—with factions that seem prepared to close ranks—have failed to yield positive results. In light of the extreme gravity of the country’s conditions, there is always the chance that violence could spread and even get out of control. More likely, however, is that violence will be largely contained, the government will hold on, and the country will hold presidential elections late next year. At that time, Chavismo will face its most severe test in two decades, and will probably be voted out of office, given the widespread misery and discontent. In the meantime, the opposition needs to focus on developing effective leadership and a broadly appealing alternative vision and set of policies for Venezuela. To be sure, such a scenario will confront enormous obstacles, as many government officials will resist giving up power. There are many interests, and a lot of money, at stake. In this context, the international community should play a constructive role and apply pressure to ensure that at least minimally acceptable conditions for electoral competition are met.”

Julia Buxton, professor of comparative politics at the School of Public Policy of Central European University in Budapest: “The Supreme Court did not seek to dissolve the legislature; it undertook a catastrophically clumsy intervention that specifically focused on the issue of authority to negotiate joint ventures in the oil sector—and it was forced to quickly reign back. Inter-governmental relations cannot be repaired; the country is in a state of constitutional impasse and institutional paralysis. Seemingly, both sides in this intractable conflict prefer the situation this way, as it plays well to their narrow base of loyalists. Neither the government nor the opposition want to be seen conceding ground, both lack a broad popular mandate for the directions they have taken, and they have locked the country into a destructive zero-sum game. Violence and protests will undoubtedly continue, largely intended as a means of demonstrating strength of numbers. The recent, and equally clumsy, interventions by OAS head Luis Almagro and the chief of the U.S. Southern Command, Admiral Kurt Tidd, will further incentivize ‘resistance’ from both sides. The only way this vicious cycle can be stopped is through meaningful dialogue, not half-hearted, attention-seeking engagement, but effective and internationally supported negotiation with the plurality of government and opposition factions and also with civil society and the multiple interests ignored by the ruling PSUV and the opposition MUD coalition. Forcing regime change outside of a negotiated schedule of elections will deepen rather than alleviate Venezuela’s deep structural crisis and will foist onto Venezuelans yet another government of dubious legitimacy and negligible authority.”

Francisco Márquez Lara, nonresident fellow at The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government: “The Venezuelan Supreme Court has issued more than 50 rulings that have effectively gutted the National Assembly. What made this last decision ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ was how unabashed it was in its language. The decision states: ‘this Constitutional Chamber of the Court guarantees that the parliamentary powers will be exercised directly by this body or any other body designated by this court.’ This language was so obscenely outside of any democratic norm that it persuaded many countries that have otherwise been silent on Venezuela to finally speak out. Furthermore, the Supreme Court suppressed only a small segment out of the entire ruling, while leaving the rest of its more than 50 rulings intact and the rest of the ruling N.156. That ruling allows for contracts of national interest to be approved by the Constitutional Chamber, a power that the Venezuelan Constitution explicitly delegates to the National Assembly. Saying that in Venezuela there is a ‘conflict of branches’ misses the real issue. What has happened over the last 10 years has been a systematic dismantling of democratic institutions. The innovative aspect of the Chávez and Maduro regime has been killing democracy by a thousand cuts. The final cut heard around the world was done with an axe, so it was a lot harder to hide. Under these circumstances, we have seen more than a week of nationwide protests, where the main petition has been asking for an electoral calendar to be announced. The response has been brutal repression with hundreds of arrests and an ever-increasing list of political prisoners. The challenge of the Venezuelan people has always been to use non-violent tactics and democratic tools to change a dictatorship.”

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