One key stumbling block, which no one explicitly addresses, is the fear on the part of Chavista leaders and activists, and even those in the rank and file, that if the opposition returns to power it will unleash a “witch hunt” against those associated with the former government. There is good reason not to dismiss this fear as irrational or an expression of paranoia. In the first place, the opposition’s slogan of “no to impunity” is often used to refer to all Chavista leaders. Henry Ramos, for instance, as president of the National Assembly, declared that President Maduro would have to go to jail for many years. The prominent opposition journalist Patricia Poleo stated that all government functionaries, including secretaries, have to answer for their responsibility in the misgovernment of the Chavistas. In the second place, the experience of the April 2002 coup may indicate what will be in store for the Chavistas if they lose power. The day after the coup, Antonio Ledezma, a leading opposition leader and former mayor of Caracas, revealed the existence of a list of some 150 Chavistas who were being looked for as a result of their allegedly unethical activity. The apparent complicity of some opposition leaders (and the dubious neutrality of the communications media) in the mob-like detention of Chavista heads Tarek William Saab and Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, and the attempted detention of José Vicente Rangel, who was thought to be in hiding in the Cuban embassy, would appear to be a forewarning of what to expect from the opposition in power.
Certainly, impunity cannot be the corrective. Corruption is a serious problem in Venezuela and those who aspire to rule the country cannot renounce their commitment to an all-out campaign to eradicate it. But they also need to provide assurances that an atmosphere of rage and vengeance does not usher in a travesty of justice whereby numerous innocent Chavistas in and out of the government would be condemned, and a purge of the armed forces, police force, and state oil company would be forthcoming. Furthermore, although the current government bears the brunt of the responsibility for corruption, not all of those who engage in corrupt dealings – particularly in the private sector – are tied in any way to the Chavista movement or government.
The fear of a scenario of persecution and repression plays into the hands of the hard-line wing of the Chavista leadership, which opposes compromise strategies that enhance the possibility of the opposition’s attainment of power. Nevertheless, such a scenario is not a foregone conclusion should the opposition come to power. The example of Nicaragua with the election of Violeta Chamorro in 1990, following a decade of internecine conflict much more intense than that of Venezuela, demonstrates the possibility of a more democratic aftermath.
Along similar lines, opposition moderates who favor a peaceful resolution of the Venezuelan crisis need to distinguish between two types of so-called “political prisoners”: those who engaged in peaceful actions, such as the blocking of traffic or participation in marches to the center of Caracas that were prohibited by municipal authorities; and those engaged in violent activities including the use of weapons and destruction of public property. In calling for the release of all political prisoners, the opposition fails to make such a distinction. The failure puts the lie to their argument that the violence is being perpetrated by infiltrators (“infiltrados”). In addition, the frequent attacks on an air force installation in Caracas’ La Carlota airport and on a garrison in the state of Táchira are obviously not the actions of infiltrados, and clearly demonstrate what the radical sectors of the opposition are capable of doing and their organizational capacity. If opposition moderates were to make such a distinction, they would encourage Chavista moderates to accept and propose concessions such as the release of those whom I refer to here as peaceful protesters.
The two above-mentioned proposals designed to facilitate negotiations between government and opposition – assurances that political persecution will be avoided, and the differentiation between “peaceful” and violent protesters – would encourage and strengthen the moderates both in the opposition and in the Chavista movement. International actors such as the Carter Center, the Vatican, and would-be mediators such as José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Martín Torrijos, and Leonel Fernández would do well to consider these recommendations, along with others, in order to contribute to a peaceful outcome in Venezuela. In doing so, they would be distancing themselves from the openly partisan positions assumed by the OAS and the Trump administration, which ignore the complexity of the current political crisis and the excesses committed by leading members of both sides.
By Steve Ellner, Latin American Perspectives