The current stalemate is between two very unequal sides, with different strengths and weaknesses, but each aiming to force the other to “cry Uncle” and cede ground. Neither side, though, can vanquish the other. The government, even controlling all the levers of power, cannot force a weary and hungry population to support it. The opposition cannot match the government’s firepower. The longer the stalemate goes on, however, the further over the abyss the country as a whole falls.
Breaking the stalemate in a way that leads to a negotiated positive-sum outcome, rather than further violence, chaos, or repression will be more likely if these things happen in the near term (and they are all perfectly feasible, which is not to say they are probable):
- Defection of significant factions from the government and security forces, building on the insider-critique begun by the prosecutor general Luisa Ortega Diaz.
- International pressure and incentives, such as refusal to legitimize a Constituent Assembly as currently proposed; refusal to buy Venezuelan bonds without significant economic policy change; offers of humanitarian aid and distribution; offers of international loans conditioned on economic policy change and institutional restoration; service as guarantors for any future Venezuelan agreements to protect both sides from witch-hunts, future exclusion, or extra-constitutional actions.
- Russia, China and international bond-buyers cease to “bail out” failed government policies.
- Change in the protest strategy to one of strictly non-violent civil disobedience (without Molotov cocktails or guarimbas). Such a change in strategy would erase any government pretense to the legitimate repression of protest or use of force, and might combat “protest fatigue” and encourage massive participation.
- Proposals and guarantees from the opposition to reassure current and former government supporters regarding continuation of social programs, respect for due process, transitional justice mechanisms for conditional amnesties for lower-level corruption or other crimes, and legitimacy of PSUV.
- Immediate unilateral action by the government to allow international humanitarian aid and non-political, need-based distribution.
For a real solution in the medium to longer term, the best scenarios based on past experience will involve several additional, difficult factors.
Eventual emergence of a third side willing to negotiate, compromise, and envision alternative proposals for the country. This third side is likely to be made up of dissident chavistas and independents, but could include opposition supporters willing to consider a future inclusionary of chavista ideals.
Transitional government to provide breathing room to restore the independence of public institutions and jump-start economic recovery before general elections. The rationale for not jumping immediately to presidential or general elections is that relying on elections alone does not solve the underlying problems of the lack of impartial institutions, the dire conditions of the productive sector, and the need to share the political costs of very painful economic measures to begin this recovery.
Election campaigns may actually end up distracting from efforts to resolve these urgent issues if the opposition continues to be riven with rivalries and presidential ambitions and cannot agree on policies, strategies, or candidates, while the government continues to fear and resist an immediate loss and total exclusion. If presidential, or general elections are held, they should be accompanied with clear agreements on how to tackle the institutional and economic/social urgent problems. In most divisive elections I have seen in the past in other countries as well as in Venezuela, however, neither side is willing to engage in negotiations while campaigning.
International contact group from Latin America can be very beneficial to keep international attention and focus, and make the Venezuelans feel less alone. But the most influential players, with real leverage, would include the U.S., Cuba, China and Russia. The U.S. government has just alienated the Cubans, however, while the U.S., China and Russia haven’t been able to agree on any pressing international crises, from North Korea to Syria. Perhaps Venezuela could give them an issue with lower direct stakes to these powers upon which they could come to some agreement.
The constituent assembly must be dropped for now. While such a body could serve as an arena for debate and visioning of a remade Venezuela under the right conditions, the currently proposed body cannot possibly serve this purpose. It was convoked without consulting the opposing parties or the people themselves, and thus cannot serve a conciliatory purpose; its rules for participation are so cynically drawn in favor of the government that it cannot serve an inclusionary purpose; and its proposed power over every other elected or public body precludes it from serving as a mechanism for strengthening institutions in a fragile state.
By Jennifer McCoy, Distinguished University Professor, Georgia State University