The Politics of Brinksmanship does little to resolve the crisis in Venezuela

For close to eighty days, the opposition has challenged the government of Nicolas Maduro and sought his ouster through direct street actions. Dramatic images of masked protestors violently clashing with the Venezuelan National Guard or the Bolivarian Police dominate western media reporting on the country. The mainstream US media creates the impression that the entire country is in open revolt and Maduro only holds on to power through the use of sheer repression. The reality, however, is more complex and both sides appear headed towards an agonizing stalemate.

We have seen this approach taken before. In February 2014, a group of opposition leaders called for La Salida (the exit), and also sought to topple the government through unconstitutional means. I lived through this experience (and wrote about it), being in Venezuela to conduct research. In 2014, as in the current crisis, opposition forces set up barricades that prevented the free flow of traffic and people; impeded commerce; blocked freeways; and burned buses and public buildings, including schools and government ministry offices, hoping to create conditions of un-governability. In any other country these actions would have received international condemnation. Supposedly peaceful protest became a pretext to confront security forces and engage in dramatic street battles. Opposition forces and many civic leaders, then and now, engage in dog whistle politics claiming to promote peaceful protest but refuse to condemn the violence.

In my neighborhood, masked youth, a mixture of opposition forces and what appeared to be gang members, openly carried handguns, shields, gas masks, Molotov cocktails, huge sling shots, and improvised mortars and regularly clashed with the National Guard. On more than one occasion some protestors tried to charge residents a toll to enter or leave our neighborhood. As the protest continued we ran out of natural gas and water, food became scarce, and we faced trying conditions.

Though the current crisis bears some resemblance to the events of 2014, there are also important differences.  Oil revenues are the lifeblood of the Venezuelan economy, no matter who is in power. The downward spiral in the price of crude, evident in 2014, has continued. Facing a drop in oil revenue, the government has cut spending drastically as a percentage of the shrinking economy. Even more drastic has been the fall in imports, over 70 percent in the last five years.  For an country that imports a significant portion of what it consumes, (a phenomenon evident since the 1930s) this decline in imports has dramatically exacerbated the shortages of basic food products, as well as critically needed medicines. Scarcities fuel a parallel market where goods can be obtained, but at exorbitant prices. Since the economy is dependent on imports for much of its production (including services), the steep decline in imports has contributed to a prolonged recession. And the scarcity of foreign exchange has fueled inflation of more than 500 percent annually.

Shortages have generated discontent across the political spectrum. Efforts to provide food through a new program, CLAP are reaching millions of families, but they have also been inadequate and haphazard, and many areas never received allocations.  The government has also refused to decisively tackle an irrational exchange rate, allowing currency speculators to create havoc in the economy and profit handsomely from the plight of those seeking dollars. They have not addressed corruption, the stifling price controls, or subsidies that they can ill afford to maintain. The tragedy, however, is that to date, neither the government nor the opposition has offered a concrete plan to address Venezuela’s serious economic issues. The government suggests staying the course, hoping the price of oil will increase, and the opposition argues that by simply replacing Maduro conditions will improve.

On the political front, both sides are engaged in the politics of brinksmanship. Fully cognizant that it would have no standing, in January 2017 the opposition-controlled national assembly declared the president to have “abandoned” his office.  When confronted with a presidential recall, which the electoral institute (CNE) initially approved, pro-government supporters waited until late in the process to file complaints about signature gathering in five states. Though the complaint may have had merit, waiting to the last minute fueled opposition charges that the government manipulated the procedure. Subsequently, there was foot dragging in setting the date for local and regional elections (they have now been set). The most egregious act, (since rescinded) involved the decision of the Supreme Court that the National Assembly was in desacato, (swearing in assemblymen that had previously been ruled invalid) and therefore the Supreme Court could assume their duties (also since rescinded).  Adding fuel to the fire, the government declared that opposition leader Henrique Capriles could not run for office since he had accepted funds from a foreign government for a project in his state.

In this tense climate, on May 1st, President Maduro proposed activating a provision of the Venezuelan constitution that allows him to convene a Constituent Assembly. The 1999 constitution allows different political entities to call for a Constituent Assembly, including the president, so Maduro has the authority to initiate the process. The real issue, however, is that his action represents a continuing top down effort to alter the balance of power in the country. Critics on the left see it as an abusive bureaucratic maneuver that subverts popular participation and breaks from the practice adopted in 1999.  Those on the right see as it as a ploy by Maduro, who faces a potential electoral defeat and now proposes to utilize the supra powers granted to a constituent assembly to subvert the existing institutions. What is clear is that the Constituyente under its present formulation exacerbates contradictions and lessens the likelihood of dialogue between the government, the opposition and a growing sector of Venezuelan society that increasingly does not identify with either side. As importantly, the Constituyente offers no practical solution to the serious economic crisis facing the country.

Venezuela faces a complex reality; there are no simple solutions, and there is no going back to 1998 when Chávez was elected.  The current politics of brinkmanship will not resolve the crisis in Venezuela.  Viewing the nation as the exclusive domain of one group or another increases the social and political divide. Foreign meddling, or worse saber rattling, only exacerbates matters. Appealing to the military to overthrow the government undermines democracy. Going forward, however, there must be guarantees for all sides; the electoral process and the popular will must be respected. Violence, threats and recrimination must stop, and there must be recognition that only through concerted dialogue will Venezuelans deescalate the current political crisis, address the serious issues the country faces and avoid a crippling stalemate.

By Miguel Tinker Salas, Pomona College


  1. Professor,
    I had high hopes of a more balanced, i.e. unbiased approach to the topic. You ignore or fail to mention so many elements and make several surprisingly inaccurate statements, thus failing to describe the real causes to the crisis in Venezuela, and make it appear as something explained by happenstance instead of a very well planned destruction of the institutional core of the Republic.
    Very disappointing.

  2. Many thanks to Carlos Diaz. I am not sure, that Carlos have the same analytic results like i have it. But we see, that in this group “Venezuela Dialogue” the illusionary thinking is doimant. I call it: “Observers observe Observers”.
    We have to bring in in this discussion space a clear substantial thinking. The war in Venezuela, like everywhere in Latin America, and also everywhere on our planet, ist the war between the slaves and the elites. And in Venezuela, the most political groups and parties are part of the elite groups. Their interest is to have a luxurious life without to work for her life conditions. They act in the money space and never in the economical space.
    Hugo Chavez understood this. Based on his teacher Kleber Ramirez from Merida. But he was not able to support the people for his independence in the economy. He act with the most criminal construction, the state. We should clear, that all state institutions on our planet are parasitic instances. And never we can create a future with this parasitic environment.
    The central element ist the self organising of our local economy. And for that we need our local technical infrastructures. And the most important part in the beginning is the free telecommunication system for a free access to free knowledge and free communication.
    Every society is based on the local communities. We can define the society as a network of independent communities. But it is clear, the independence in the social and political space is depend on our independence in the economical space. Only then we can act autonomous.
    The term “Souvereignity” comes from the french absolutism. Souvereignity is not independence. But based on independence, we can act souvereign.
    I hope, that the ComunerAs in Venezuela understand it more and more. Comunas are the combination of local community with her independent local economy. In “Golpe de Timon” Hugo Chavez spoke about. But this we don’t find in the movement of the ComunerAs in Venezuela. Mostly, they act for Dollar flows and not for the local technical infrastructures.
    The campaign with the cooperatives in Venezuela from 2005 had this lack. The cooperatives acted only in the money space and where unable to organise the local economy.
    But this we and you have to do.

    many greetings, willi
    Asuncion, Paraguay

  3. Hi Miguel,

    Regarding the Constituent Assembly, you say “The 1999 constitution allows different political entities to call for a Constituent Assembly, including the president, so Maduro has the authority to initiate the process.” But Art. 347 of the CRBV mentions only the people as having that power (see articles below). Art. 348 says the president among other political entities can take the *initiative to call* a Constituent Assembly. In other words President Madura can initiate a call, but it is the people that have the power to actually convoke it, presumably through a referendum. Do you disagree with this interpretation of Art.s 347 and 348? If so, how?

    Artículo 347. El pueblo de Venezuela es el depositario del poder constituyente originario. En ejercicio de dicho poder, puede convocar una Asamblea Nacional Constituyente con el objeto de transformar el Estado, crear un nuevo ordenamiento jurídico y redactar una nueva Constitución.

    Artículo 348. La iniciativa de convocatoria a la Asamblea Nacional Constituyente podrán tomarla el Presidente o Presidenta de la República en Consejo de Ministros; la Asamblea Nacional, mediante acuerdo de las dos terceras partes de sus integrantes; los Concejos Municipales en cabildo, mediante el voto de las dos terceras partes de los mismos; o el quince por ciento de los electores inscritos y electoras inscritas en el Registro Civil y Electoral.

  4. I am going to write this in a separate comments since it is a distinct point. The comparison to 2014 works at the superficial level of tactics, but not a deeper level of popular sovereignty. The most disturbing thing about the 2014 protests demanding Maduro’s resignation is that they came less than a year after he was elected, and 2 months after his coalition won the December 2013 regional elections by 10 points. These protests were the expression of political actors who were not willing to accept the will of the people as expressed in the electoral booth. Now the tables are turned. It is the Maduro government that is unwilling to recognize the will of the people as expressed by the people in the elections booth in December 2015 when Maduro’s coalition lost by 14 points. Since then they have also suspended 2 elections on the most specious of reasoning and now want to rewrite the rules of the game precisely so that the people cannot express there will, which is to throw them out. Isn’t Madurismo engaging in the same anti-democratic attempt to disempower the people that the Salidistas were engaging in in 2014?

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