CARACAS – Under the cover of COVID-19 and with little public backlash, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has taken a series of steps to further weaken his opposition ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year.
On June 12, the administration-controlled Supreme Court appointed five members to the board of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, the public organization tasked with administering, organizing and carrying out elections. Among the group were not only longtime Maduro loyalists, but also dissident members of the opposition.
The move to shore up control of the country’s election body will dampen spirits – and limit voter turnout – among the majority of Venezuelans who would like to see a change in government.
Maduro’s next move was to suspend the leadership boards of three of the four so-called G4 opposition parties (Acción Democrática, Primero Justicia and Un Nuevo Tiempo), and hand the parties over to more malleable former members. The fourth G4 party, Leopoldo López’s Voluntad Popular, was simply prohibited by Maduro’s National Constituent Assembly from participating in elections at all.
Such a brazen violation of democratic rights might once have drawn thousands of Venezuelans into the streets. That is not the case today, for two main reasons.
First, COVID-19 has given the regime the perfect excuse to exert even more control over public movement and keep any pressure contained. Indeed, despite National Assembly President Juan Guadió and his supporters’ claim to power, the coronavirus has made it crystal clear that Maduro is the one in control of the machinery of state.
The second reason Maduro’s election manipulation has failed to cause public outcry has to do with the opposition’s strategy over the last 18 months.
Guaidó’s coalition has centered its hopes on support and action from external actors, primarily the U.S., to tip the unequal balance of power in Venezuela away from Maduro, with the hope of an eventual rupture within the armed forces. That approach initially sent signals to the population that a short-term resolution to the struggle was possible. When a leadership change didn’t come to fruition, frustration began to spread.
What’s more, the suggestion implicit in Guaidó’s strategy – that a powerful external ally would be needed to confront the Maduro regime – cemented in the collective opposition imagination the idea that it’s own internal efforts would be insufficient to lead to change. The result has been to weaken the opposition’s ability to mobilize supporters and severely strain the leadership’s connection with the general public.
As a result, Maduro’s government has been made to look far more stable than it actually is.
By rights, given the severity of existing crisis and the further harm caused by COVID-19, Maduro’s regime should be on the brink. The destruction of Venezuela’s production capacity has meant an overwhelming dependence on imported goods and food. This is a problem of the first order for the regime, given cash-flow pressures as a result of the deterioration of the oil industry, its primary source of income.
Meanwhile, Maduro’s lack of legitimacy has closed the door to international financing sources, and led to sanctions that further limit his capacity to maneuver. Public services have collapsed: Power outages are a daily occurrence and weeks can go by without water service. Venezuela’s public health system was at a breaking point even before the outbreak began.
Despite it all, Maduro has been able to navigate his way through the storm, with help from allies such as Cuba (in domestic intelligence activities), and Russia, China and Iran, whose minimal financial support has been enough to keep afloat a government that has conditioned its population to get by on very little.
Maduro can thus act without any real threat of losing control. On the international stage, the possibility of a foreign intervention was never credible enough for the regime to change its behavior. Given Donald Trump’s apparent willingness (later retracted) to meet with Maduro – and revelations contained in John Bolton’s memoir regarding the U.S. president’s support for Guaidó – intervention can now be discarded entirely.
Without an assertive and consistent internal actor on which to base international action, pressure from the global community has become diluted. The result could ultimately favor some type of transition within chavismo that prioritizes economic stability, especially as countries deal with lingering effects of the coronavirus. For Maduro, experience and the potential costs of losing power have meant that any steps foreign actors may take in response to stifling the opposition are worth the risk.
In that context, Maduro went ahead with moves to ensure – without a shadow of a doubt – that parliamentary elections will end up in his favor. This despite the fact that the opposition may not have participated in the elections in any case.
Maduro knows that a national vote offers one of precious few paths forward for the opposition to regroup and calibrate its strategy. Delphos’ opinion surveys show that, even under current conditions, a third of voters would be willing to come out and vote against Maduro if Guaidó’s coalition asked them to. About a third would vote for chavismo as well, but the opposition would have a far better chance of rallying additional supporters to its cause than would the government.
What comes next? The U.S., EU and the Lima Group denounced Maduro’s election manipulation efforts and said they will not recognize the results of a parliamentary vote under current circumstances. But that doesn’t represent a significant change, from the regime’s perspective, compared to what it faced before. Meanwhile, the quiet on the street shows just how far the opposition leadership has drifted from the pulse of the public.
If the current dynamic persists, the opposition may find itself disjointed to a point where rebuilding could take years. Its leadership has to immediately rally around a coherent plan of action that holds as its primary goal the renewal of its connection to the masses. Only a unified, coherent plan will move public sentiment in a way that could present a meaningful challenge to Maduro and his government.
Time is of the essence. If the opposition doesn’t act quickly, there is a strong possibility that Maduro will have found the opportune moment to set chavismo on the road to becoming a truly hegemonic force.
Seijas Rodríguez is a Venezuelan political analyst and statistician, Ph.D. He is the director of the Delphos poll.