A Change in Strategy Has Helped Venezuela’s Opposition Gain Traction

Certain aspects of the Maduro regime, or possible missteps by the US, could thwart a positive outcome, says regional expert Javier Corrales.

Volunteers of the movement 'Aid and Freedom Venezuela Coalition' attend a rally led by Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared acting president Juan Guaido in Caracas, on February 16, 2019. (Credit: YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images).

Certain aspects of the Maduro regime, or possible missteps by the US, could thwart a positive outcome, says regional expert Javier Corrales.

Responding to the economic, humanitarian, and constitutional crisis in Venezuela, the United States and dozens of other democracies are pressing authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro to yield power to Juan Guaidó, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

In the exchange below, Freedom House asked political scientist Javier Corrales (pictured left) of Amherst College to weigh in on the problems facing Guaidó and the opposition, the appropriate role of international and regional actors, and the lessons to be gleaned from Venezuela’s devastating experience. Corrales is an adviser for Freedom in the World and the coauthor with Michael Penfold of  Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chávez.



Q: What makes current conditions in Venezuela more conducive to a change in government than the various other crises the regime has faced over the past two decades?

I’d like to discuss both an obvious and a less obvious factor.

The obvious factor making the case different this time around is the harrowing economic and political conditions on the ground. These conditions are widely discussed in the press, so I won’t say much except to reiterate that, economically, Venezuela is experiencing one of the worst catastrophes in the history of the modern world, comparable to what one expects in a war environment. It’s hard to find humans causing this much damage to an economy. Under these circumstances, the regime finds itself experiencing a dramatic decline in electoral competitiveness at home and a severe reduction in its ability to garner support abroad.

But there is another factor making this round different that is less obvious: what I call Venezuela’s “institutional spring” or even “constitutional spring.” This current push by the opposition is happening by way of institutions. The opposition’s political leadership made an important change in its strategy sometime after 2017. Rather than relying exclusively on street mobilizations, which were waning and easily repressed, the opposition opted to shift the center of gravity of opposition activity back to the parliament. The return of parliamentary politics is the reason I call this a sort of institutional spring.

This institutional spring has entailed several steps.

First, adherence to the pact among the political parties in the National Assembly, as the parliament is called in Venezuela, to rotate the presidency of the institution among parties. This was ratified in December.

Second, reliance on leaders who are from a new generation but are not iconoclastic outsiders. Juan Guaidó is a young new face, but he rejects neither institutions nor the established leadership. Guaidó has been involved in party politics for several years and has been negotiating with, and mentored by, existing leaders and existing parties.

Third, reliance on identifying the government’s gross violations of the constitution, the most prominent of which are perhaps Maduro’s electoral moves between 2015 and 2018: dismissing calls for a recall referendum, ignoring the results of the National Assembly elections, conducting a highly irregular election for the presidency and an unconstitutional election for a new Constituent Assembly.

Fourth and finally, using institutions to take a bold step—declaring that the solution for Venezuela is to transfer power to the only democratically elected body in the country, the National Assembly.

This institutional spring galvanized the opposition. Venezuela changed from being a country where ordinary dissidents were in retreat, staying at home or migrating abroad in droves, to one where they are retaking the streets. This change in the last two months was prompted and organized by a parliament, parties, and legislators—very old-fashioned politics in some ways, but also very refreshing in an era where there has been so much rejection of career politicians.

We could call these events the “three Ls plus P”: Legalism, Legislature, and Legitimacy plus Party-organized protests. I believe that this institutional spring is what is new this time around.


Q: What are the obstacles the opposition is facing?

The transition won’t be easy. First, economic crises alone do not topple authoritarian regimes.

Second, the National Assembly is not facing a traditional military regime. Yes, the Maduro administration is a military regime, but it is also a military-narco state and a military-criminal state. There are those within and outside the military who support Maduro for the illicit economic benefits he provides. Furthermore, the regime uses paramilitary actors, not just the military, to suppress dissent.

While all military dictatorships are involved in some form of criminality, kleptocracy, and paramilitarism, my sense is that the Maduro regime has an especially high dose of each of these extra elements.

Because the Maduro regime is much more than a traditional military regime, it is perhaps harder to dislodge. This is a problem when thinking about a transition to democracy in Venezuela. We have lessons on how to organize transitions from traditional military dictatorships, but it’s not clear to me that we have enough cases, and thus lessons, of transitions from military regimes with these additional characteristics.

Finally, there is the problem that timing works differently for the groups involved. The longer Maduro can remain standing, the higher his chances of political survival. But the longer that Guaidó and the opposition take to truly bring about regime transition, the weaker they risk becoming.


Q: Much of Latin America today is experiencing considerable instability and turmoil. What makes the Venezuela case unique?

Latin America has had many economic and political crises since the 1980s, even leading to premature presidential departures from office. Yet rarely has a country witnessed the type of economic devastation together with a shift toward authoritarianism that Venezuela has experienced simultaneously. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the region experienced transitions to, or endurance of, autocracy, few of the region’s authoritarian regimes produced the type of economic crisis that we are seeing in Venezuela for as long as we have seen it. In the 1980s, when the region did experience economic devastation and hyperinflation, countries for the most became democratic (Argentina, Brazil); that is, the authoritarians soon quit, and politics became more open.

Venezuela has run counter to that pattern. As the economy deteriorated starting in 2010, the authoritarians became more entrenched, and politics more closed, as happened in Cuba in the early 1990s and Nicaragua today. Aside from those two examples, no other state in Latin America has gone through this simultaneous collapse of the economy and democracy and nevertheless had its incumbents retain power.


Q: Some argue that to advance the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the crisis, military leaders and even high officials in the Maduro government should be given an amnesty. Thoughts on this?

I don’t think anyone doubts that any form of transition to democracy requires some form of transitional justice, meaning that some actors associated with the previous regime need to be offered some amnesty. The debate is about the parameters rather than the need for transitional justice, and about two contentious points in particular.

First, where do you draw the line in terms of unpunishable crimes and nonresponsible individuals? Second, does transitional justice help in convincing all actors supporting Maduro to switch sides? One could argue that those actors who support Maduro for ideological or criminal reasons, those engaged in illegal trades or paramilitarism, will not respond too positively to calls for transitional justice.


Q: How does the change of government in Brazil affect the situation in Venezuela?

It was important, but probably not essential. It was important because Brazil during most of the Workers’ Party rule (2002–16) was a strong ally of the Venezuelan regime (as was Argentina under the Kirchners), so the change in ruling parties in Brazil (and Argentina) was no doubt a major reason Latin America’s diplomacy toward Venezuela changed.

However, the Brazil change was not that essential because by the time Brazil changed its foreign policy toward Venezuela—from friendliness to unfriendliness—many other important Latin American governments also changed their policy in the same direction or intensified their opposition to Maduro.

Some people argue that Brazil joining team Guaidó has been offset by Mexico’s decision to turn neutral under the new administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In many ways, this is true. But in another respect, Brazil has greater weight in Venezuela than Mexico does, simply because the historical ties between Brazil and chavismo [the political movement founded by Hugo Chávez and now led by Maduro]—and Venezuela more broadly—were much stronger than Mexico’s ties with chavismo and Venezuela.

It is important to emphasize, however, that Jair Bolsonaro is a wild card. His domestic agenda is so controversial within Brazil that he may not be able to muster the necessary domestic political capital to sustain a firm foreign policy toward Venezuela.

Having said that, it is worth emphasizing that the degree to which the Maduro administration has been rejected by the majority of Latin American governments has very few precedents in the region. The tradition of inter-American diplomacy is to avoid criticizing incumbent presidents, and when Latin American governments do criticize incumbent presidents, the tradition is to call for dialogue or perhaps some rectification, but almost never to withdraw support for an incumbent president, as they have vis-à-vis Maduro.

This change in foreign policy toward Venezuela on the part of Latin America is historic. It is one more reason that this time the opposition has a better chance to effect a transition than in the past.


Q: How would you rate the performance thus far of the United States? Europe? Latin American democracies?

The United States from about 2006 until December 2018 did something right: hold back a bit. Conditions were not right for bold actions in Venezuela. So three very different presidents, Bush, Obama, and Trump, took an equally restrained approach, focusing mostly on sanctioning individuals, not the country. If anything, the United States at least until 2016 held back a bit too much, by not sanctioning more individuals or producing more information about the degree of corruption the Venezuelan regime was promoting both at home and abroad. And until January 2019, the United States continued to hold back by remaining one of the most important trading partners of the Venezuelan state.

In late 2018, the United States began to take much bolder steps, but still, in my opinion, in the right direction. As the crisis reached high proportions in Venezuela, the US, instead of imposing a plan of action on Venezuela or Latin America, waited until local and regional actors presented a plan of action that was viable enough. The United States then negotiated modifications to the plan with these actors. In other words, there was negotiation rather than imposition. That was positive. And once a plan of action was finalized and agreed upon by all actors within and outside Venezuela, the United States decided to support it fully. So far so good. At least this is what I have gathered from press reports covering these events.

Now that the foreign policy of the United States has changed, from holding back to more active involvement against the regime, there are of course new risks on the horizon. Every time the US thinks about regime change, bad old habits can resurface. These include a proclivity toward taking the driver’s seat, thinking exclusively in terms of rapid actions, downplaying the importance of coalition building and institution building, and subordinating the goal of democracy promotion to geopolitical or domestic considerations.

Latin American and EU diplomats opposing Maduro must do all they can to keep these bad old habits from resurfacing in Washington. It’s a matter of not only helping Venezuelan opposition leaders get stronger, but also helping the White House stay smart.

But let’s be clear, without the support of the United States—along with Canada, many countries in the European Union, the Lima Group [14 states in the Americas focused on the crisis in Venezuela], and the secretary general of the Organization of American States—it would have been much harder for Juan Guaidó to take the bold step of transferring power to the National Assembly.

Q: How far do you think Russia, currently Maduro’s principal international supporter, would go to shore up the regime?

It’s hard to tell. On the one hand, Russia has shown a real geopolitical interest in causing trouble for the United States, just for the sake of it and perhaps as retaliation for Syria and Ukraine. This interest suggests that Putin will remain unyielding in his support for Maduro.

On the other hand, Venezuela has proven to be a very unreliable economic partner for Russia, as for everyone else. Moreover, Russia might realize that the continuation of the Maduro regime actually strengthens, rather than weakens, the US position in the Americas because of the sentiment in the Americas against Maduro, which is aligning nations with the United States. It is not that easy for Russia to cause that much more political trouble for the United States by continuing to bet on Maduro. These two latter points suggest that Putin would not miss Maduro that much if he were to truly exit Venezuelan politics.


Q: What is your reaction to those US and international commentators and officials who condemn the Trump administration’s course as a violation of sovereignty and argue that Venezuelans should solve Venezuela’s problems?

The argument is a bit out of date because it defines sovereignty in absolute terms: Foreign actors need to leave domestic actors to fend for themselves. I don’t think anyone who thinks about the importance of human security and human rights—both of which are utterly violated in Venezuela—can take this extreme definition of sovereignty to heart.

Besides, the absolutist definition of sovereignty is not the only definition of sovereignty one could consider. A more up-to-date definition of sovereignty is that foreign actors should operate domestically without violating domestic and international law.

Under this definition, there is ample evidence that it has been the Cubans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the narco-traffickers, and plenty of non-US corporations that have been violating Venezuela’s sovereignty. Although they been operating in Venezuela under the auspices of the executive branch, which according to the traditional definition does not count as a violation of sovereignty, they have mostly operated at the margins of fundamental domestic and international law. Under the new definition of sovereignty, those are violations of Venezuela’s sovereignty.

To be tolerant of this type of law-based violation of sovereignty and at the same time demand that prodemocracy external actors adhere to the absolute definition of sovereignty seems contradictory to me.


Q: You are among a small group of experts who were concerned about Chávez’s commitment to democracy from the outset. Many political leaders and academics from Latin America were resistant to criticisms of Chávez’s legitimacy. Has the collapse of Venezuela’s economy and the ruin of its democracy led to a change in attitude? If so, what lessons can be learned from this experience?

For the most part, I would say yes. I have witnessed a turnaround in public opinion in the Western Hemisphere and in my field of political science since the time I published my first essay on Chávez back in 2000, which was highly critical. Back then, my viewpoint was in the minority among my peers. To be clear, my view was that the regime was expanding the powers of the executive branch at a faster rate than the powers of nonstate actors, yielding more democratic backsliding than democratic revival. For most of the 2000s, I held on to my view, and it remained in the minority, or at least not dominant. I remember attending many conferences where I felt outnumbered, though never alone. And during most of the 2000s, I understood why my viewpoint was not more widely shared: In Venezuela, as in many other cases of democratic backsliding, the process was ambiguous and accompanied by other democratic features. In its early stages, democratic backsliding is not always self-evident.

Today, in contrast, I feel that my position is more widely shared. While there is still a robust debate about the Chávez years, with respect to Maduro there is a realization among political scientists that we are dealing with the near extinction of democracy in Venezuela.

Looking forward, my best hope is that Latin Americans draw the lesson that all forms of power concentration in the executive branch, together with outright condemnations of the opposition and the press, regardless of the ideology of the president, lead to less democracy for all.