Venezuela’s Opposition at a Crossroads (disponible en español)

The Venezuelan opposition’s greatest obstacle to gaining political ground is its own internal fractures. Will factions manage to unify or remain divided during this year’s legislative elections?

February 22, 2020

Plaza Altamira, Caracas, Venezuela (Photo by Cristóbal Alvarado Minic/Flickr)

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The Venezuelan opposition has long been living in a labyrinth. What’s new is that it is no longer only the opposition that faces a seemingly definitive crossroads, but the whole country. The opposition leaders must make a decision of historic proportions: whether to participate in the 2020 legislative elections to preserve the only power they have snatched from the governing party, or whether to abstain and effectively hand over all institutional power on a silver platter, which would take years to recover.

The legislative elections are constitutionally mandated to take place this year. The government could call them at any time and exploit divisions within the opposition, which has been unable to establish a unified strategy.

If the opposition chooses to boycott the elections, it would be the first time a country would lock in single-party rule not through resorting to political violence, but through the opposition’s self-imposed withdrawal.

Just as President Nicolás Maduro stands on weak electoral ground, the factions of the opposition are clashing, pointing to a trend toward political dissolution.

The Fractured Opposition

The opposition against Maduro is not limited to antichavismo, or the groups that reject Hugo Chávez’s ideology. Rather, it is made up of diverse currents, from radical antichavismo to dissident or discontented chavismo. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the opposition managed to overwhelmingly reverse the balance of power for the first time, seizing control of the legislative assembly with 56 percent, or 7,728,025 votes. Chavismo, meanwhile, obtained 40 percent, or 5,625,248 votes—a considerable drop from the 8,191,132 votes obtained in Chávez’s last presidential run in 2012. Of the 167 seats in the National Assembly, in 2015 the opposition secured 112 while chavista representatives obtained 55, marking the first great opposition sweep after a 15-years struggle since Chávez’s rise to power.

This win was possible even while the opposition faced the very “government advantage” it continues decry today. But it was only consolidated by three opposition factions—which are currently openly and radically antagonistic—managing to join forces. 

The first faction, which is the most powerful even though it has not received the most votes, is a radical group tied to the country’s historical elites. Its figureheads Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado Zuloaga, like the leaders of their parties, are the children of the so-called amos del valle, or the masters of the valley, a popular term for the handful of rich families descended from Europeans who landed in Venezuela during colonial times. These elite sectors did not actively participate in politics until Chavez landed on the political stage, when they created numerous political parties. These include Voluntad Popular under Leopoldo López, which obtained 14 out of 167 assembly seats in the 2015 election, and María Corina Machado’s Vente Venezuela, which only secured one.

This political current has never been electorally successful—not even during internal elections among the opposition parties. However, it wields significant economic and media power. Many of its leaders, as well as a large portion of its base, live outside Venezuela, particularly in the United States. Among their supporters are managers of media outlets, such as Miami-based EVTV and PanAm Post—owned by María Corina Machado’s cousin—and hundreds of social media accounts and influencers. Their impact is not so much focused on chavismo, but rather on all of the other opposition movements, especially when those differing factions engage in political or electoral negotiation. In such cases, these figures often accuse diverging groups of appeasing and collaborating with the regime. These actors also have direct and historical connections with the Cuban lobby in Miami and the U.S. Republican Party, and they’ve been the primary movers and shakers of Juan Guaidó’s revolt since he proclaimed himself president over a year ago.

This sector is openly conservative, neoliberal, and pro-intervention. It doesn’t only support the prospect of a direct invasion of Venezuela by the United States and its allies, it also tends to deny the possibility of an electoral or political solution to the current situation. They see chavismo as a pathological problem that must be stamped out at the root, and they see abstention as the only acceptable political option. They believe the electoral balance is tilted, in many ways, toward the government. In a slow political struggle, they almost exclusively favor the international stage as a space to force rapid, violent action against Maduro’s government.

The traditional social democratic parties—in particular Acción Democrática, which has 25 representatives in the National Assembly, and Un Nuevo Tiempo, which has 18—represent the second faction of the opposition. Both hold electoral power in the rural and popular areas where they originated. These groups are much more open to dialogue, but political pressure from the United States and radical media outlets has curtailed their decision-making power and impeded them from decisively participating in the upcoming legislative elections. They’ve picked up four out of the 20 governorships in Venezuela and hold electoral power in the popular areas where chavismo reigned until 2015.

Primero Justicia, the party of opposition leaders Julio Borges and Henrique Capriles, obtained 33 seats in 2015 while positioning itself between the two other opposition factions. Recently, Capriles, who narrowly lost the 2013 presidential race to Maduro by less than two percentage points, has demanded the opposition’s participation in the upcoming elections. That decision could produce an internal split with Borges, the party’s president. Borges, currently exiled between the United States and Colombia and serving as Guaidó’s chief of foreign affairs, has maintained the radical position of abstaining from elections.

The third camp clashed with the two preceding ones when it participated in the 2018 presidential election. The majority of the opposition chose to abstain, and the country elected Maduro for a second mandate. Some leaders in this camp—and a large part of its voters—formerly supported chavismo. Henri Falcón, a former Chavista who split from the government to form his own party in 2012, ran for president in 2018. He positioned himself as the opposition candidate and won 20.9 percent, or a total of 1,927,387 votes. Falcón and this sector support dialogue with the government. In fact, they’ve already sat at the negotiating table with Maduro and they condemn foreign intervention plans and military coups, including Guaidó’s failed attempt to grab power on April 30, 2019. We can also include the evangelical party Nuvipa in this opposition faction.

Finally, near the end of 2019, a group of about 18 opposition members of parliament split from their parties in an action dubbed the “rebellion of the regions,” demanding greater internal democracy within their parties. At the same time, the parties accused the defectors of receiving bribes from pro-government forces and expelled them.

This dissident group, together with the pro-government vote, took control of the National Assembly on January 5 when lawmakers chose the new congressional leadership, as happens at the beginning of every year. In 2019, lawmakers elected Juan Guaidó president of the National Assembly. He attempted to seek reelection this year but lost to a legislator from the Primero Justicia party, Luis Parra—both accused and accuser in several pending corruption cases.

The vote marked a sudden change in the assembly’s leadership. Surprisingly, the Assembly named a new leadership made up of dissident legislators previously aligned with the opposition. The opposition slammed it as a parliamentary coup, alleging that the process had not met the basic requirements laid out in the rulebook for Assembly debate. It was also not clear whether the session reached quorum or the minimum number of votes required to swear in new assembly members as the new governing group.

Earlier in the day, the National Guard had flanked the entrances to the Legislative Palace, blocking the entrance of opposition members who authorities have disqualified from holding public office. While Guaidó tussled with soldiers to try to have the doors opened to those legislators, the lawmakers inside the chamber hastily elected the new leadership. In a video, pro-government forces criticized Guaidó’s choice to stage an international show at the entrance of the Palace, stating that he chose not to enter because he knew he lacked the votes necessary for reelection. That same video shows a soldier opening a passage for Guaidó, but he refused to enter unless another assembly member would be allowed to follow him. A few minutes later, Guaidó attempted—unsuccessfully—to jump the fence surrounding the palace in an image widely circulated in international media.

In the afternoon, Guaidó called a parliamentary session at the headquarters of El Nacional, a historical news outlet, where he announced his reelection. Critics, including members of the opposition, questioned the move, pointing to uncertainty around quorum and vote counts.

In a meticulous article, Venezuelan researcher and economist Francisco Rodríguez offers a detailed description and analysis of the balance of power in the legislature on the day of the election. Among other observations, he notes: “In order to explain the large drop in support for the opposition among legislators, it isn’t enough to simply look at Maduro’s actions…Keeping a coalition united is complex work, and there is evidence suggesting that some of the Guaidó administration’s strategic decisions may have contributed to accelerating the attrition rate among legislators.”

These dissident sectors are now asking that the Supreme Court to intervene in parties, such as Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular, to call internal elections, likely under pro-government supervision. 

The opposition’s inaction due to its preference for abstention, the formation of this new dissident group, and pro-government forces’ self-interested maneuvering could all contribute to sweeping antichavismo out of the institutional game as they deprive themselves, by their own initiative, of the only power they currently hold: the National Assembly. And without said power, they could lose the very political parties currently in dispute by dissident sectors who draw support from pro-government institutions, including the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council.

Meanwhile, Guaidó

In order to understand the opposition’s final decision, it is key to evaluate Guaidó’s latest attempt at rallying international support and placing Venezuela on the geopolitical agenda. After meeting Trump at the White House and receiving a standing ovation during the State of the Union Address in early February, Guaidó’s game plan remains unclear.

Guaidó's central problem is that, beyond diplomatic backing, he needs to deliver quick and credible actions to prevent the definitive decay of his profile. Trump, on the other hand, was not sufficiently explicit in his desire to use military force; he did not repeat the phrases often employed near the end of 2019 indicating that “all options are on the table.”

BBC correspondent Guillermo Olmo argued that Guaidó’s photograph with Trump was a necessary move, but he questioned whether it will be sufficient to “twist Maduro’s arm,” quickly concluding: “It hasn’t been the case up to this moment.”

For his part, Maduro is preparing to defeat Guaidó in the legislative elections.

Beginning with the failed coup of April 30, 2019—in which White House representative for Venezuelan affairs Elliott Abrams publicly participated—and later with the resignation of U.S. national security advisor John Bolton in September, the topic of Venezuela had begun to disappear from the Trump administration’s sights. Until this meeting in February 2020.

The opposition groups that support Guaidó—which had appeared to be suffocating between their political powerlessness and their own followers’ critiques—have begun to breathe again following Guaidó’s international tour. But it remains unclear how they can use this breath to submerge themselves once again in the Venezuelan political reality.

Back to Venezuela

To remove Maduro in a political or electoral manner, or at least prevent him from securing total hegemony, the opposition must once again forge connections between its various factions. Today, that appears to be a very difficult task. Unless the more radical sectors, Guaidó included, take an abrupt turn and participate in the legislative elections as a way to serve another electoral blow to Maduro as happened in 2015, there is no way to bring the conflict back into the political and electoral lane.

This turn would imply forging an alliance between antichavista sectors and those discontented people on the fringes of chavismo. That possibility seems especially complex following Guaidó’s call for U.S. military action, as well as Colombian intervention and the application of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance—all framed by his elitist antichavista discourse. That discourse raises concerns over the intentions of Guaidó’s circle, especially insofar as it signals their intent to pursue and condemn chavista sectors, or even those who cooperated with chavista politics, such as social democrats. There are certain groups with Chavista roots that, despite opposing Maduro, would not participate in a process entailing Venezuelan subordination to U.S. interests. It is logical that, facing both North American and Colombian threats of invasion and sanctions, chavismo might consolidate itself again and return Maduro’s detractors to its ranks. That kind of reunification has taken place once before: during Guaidó’s rebellion in 2019.

Whatever the opposition chooses within the next few weeks will create longstanding repercussions in national politics. The U.S. pressure on the opposition’s various factions will play a key role in the decision-making process. If the radical position of abstention becomes the only discourse, it is probable that Maduro would lose legitimacy, but it is also certain that he would consolidate his power in good time. If, on the contrary, the entire opposition comes together and signals its electoral power, then a space for possible negotiation will open up, perhaps even giving way presidential elections run by a trustworthy National Electoral Council. Opposition and Chavista lawmakers recently began working together in a preliminary committee in the National Assembly to choose commissioners for the electoral body.

That said, the standing ovation Guaidó received from both Democrats and Republicans during the February 4 State of the Union address suggests that the same pressure model applied to Cuba could be imposed on Venezuela to win support among Miami voters, but it would ultimately solidify besieged presidents’ power. Could Maduro become a new Castro in U.S. eyes? That scenario defers to U.S. politics more than the intentions of the Venezuelan government.

As far as we know, the Venezuelan government’s only request during the Norwegian-mediated negotiations last year was the elimination of the U.S. government’s sanctions—or, at the very least, that opposition leaders condemn the sanctions, a move that would produce an avalanche of insults and demands from the radical current and its media structures, not to mention financial isolation. Such a move would imply both breaking with international allies, especially U.S. Republicans and the government, who have most consistently attacked Venezuela. The opposition’s current situation reminds us of the Venezuelan Left’s position in the 1960s and 1970s, after its defeat in armed conflict. At that moment, anyone who decided to turn to electoral tools would have been labeled a traitor and a defeatist. It took Venezuela 30 years to recompose itself politically.

The opposition’s main obstacle, for now, is the opposition itself. We will soon see if it can overcome this situation, or if it will condemn itself to failure in the years to come.

Ociel Alí López is a political analyst, professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, and contributor to various Venezuelan, Latin American, and European outlets. His book Dale más Gasolina won the municipal literature award in social research.

Translated from Spanish by Chloé Mauvais.

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