Venezuela’s Opposition Finds an Air Pocket

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For months now, Venezuelan politics has been trapped in toxic stalemate. Two men claim the same job — congressionally appointed interim president Juan Guaido, with all the street cred, and de facto head of state Nicolas Maduro, with all the guns.

Anti-government forces ostensibly control the legislature, but thanks to palace maneuvers their decisions don’t count. Each side is backed by rival global superpowers who play diplomatic chicken instead of encouraging conciliation.

What else could possibly go wrong? Silly question. On January 5, Maduro’s loyalists, with help from the National Guard, thwarted Guaido’s re-election as head of congress by blocking opposition lawmakers from the legislative assembly. As Guaido tried to scale the National Assembly fence, the governistas seized the day to name an opposition turncoat to preside over the legislature.

Opposition stalwarts held their own assembly at a local newspaper office and voted to extend Guaido’s mandate. On Tuesday, Guaido forced his way back into the National Assembly to open a new legislative session. Now Venezuela has two presidents, three legislatures (two congresses, one overarching constituent assembly) and no clue as to how to proceed.

The government’s strong-arm tactics are hardly surprising. In mid-2017, Maduro ginned up a constitutional assembly to override the parliament, which in late 2015 had fallen to opposition parties in a historic midterm vote. In 2018, Maduro claimed to have won re-election after banning the main competition in a contest that fooled no one. The opposition boycotted the race.

Last year was also mostly a year to forget for Maduro’s foes, a time of Washington-fueled hype over imminent regime change, inconclusive Norwegian-sponsored political negotiations and brutal repression of street demonstrations.

So why did Maduro bother with heavies at the congressional gates? From his perspective, the brazenness of last Sunday’s lockout would seem both unnecessary and out of sync.

Perhaps therein lies an air pocket for Venezuela’s gasping democratic challengers. Maduro and his Bolivarian loyalists were “actually doing pretty well nibbling away at the opposition and letting it burn out,” David Smilde, a Venezuela expert and professor of politics at Tulane University, told me. “Now they have drawn attention to just how undemocratic they are and just how far away Venezuela is from anything that could be recognized as the rule of law.”

The show of muscle has drawn renewed backlash from the U.S. and Europe, where Guaido enjoys solid support. Latin American countries in the Lima Group monitoring the Venezuela crisis piled on. Even the government’s fastest regional friends — officials in Argentina, Mexico and Uruguay — were apparently taken aback and scolded Maduro. (Argentina later hedged its anti-Maduro bets by withdrawing credentials from Guaido’s appointed ambassador.)

What this outpouring will amount to is unclear. Indignation plays well in headlines and on the street, but doesn’t augur well for a cornered opposition. “This just about closes the last door to negotiate any agreement with government,” said Georgia State University political scientist Jennifer McCoy, a former director of The Carter Center’s Americas Program.

As the rogue legislature spars with the real one, what’s to become of the National Electoral Council, with a mandate to set the ground rules and a date for this year’s parliamentary election? Until recently, even Maduro had a stake in holding a seemingly credible race — if only to veil official shenanigans and keep international monitors quiet.

Indications now are that Maduro is beyond caring. “The government showed its true colors by physically stopping lawmakers from entering parliament. That’s costly for Maduro, but apparently he felt it was important for him to go for it all while the opposition was weak and the U.S. distracted with the Iran crisis,” said Francisco Rodriguez, a Venezuelan economist and visiting scholar at Tulane.

Has Maduro gone too far? “It might have been overconfidence, but I can’t see there’s much appetite in the international community for increased sanctions against Venezuela, given how much they’re already hurting the people,” said McCoy. “It’s a calculated risk.”

Moving forward, the political onus will be heaviest on Maduro’s foes, who after a year of false starts and hype are facing internal dissent and losing traction among voters. Rodriguez reckons that while Guaido outpolls other Venezuelan leaders, his approval ratings have slipped to an underwhelming 39%. More problematically, several wavering lawmakers, who like all the opposition serve the coalition unpaid, have been warming to dialogue with the government, which returned the favor by backing former Guaido ally-turned-apostate Luis Parra as head of the new bastard assembly.

Maduro’s grip on the levers of power makes any effective challenge that much harder. “Remember that a very large number of Venezuelans still get information only through official channels. So they might well think that it was the opposition who decided to get rid of Guaido,” said Rodriguez. Another obstacle: the disenfranchisement of nearly five million Venezuelan refugees who have fled misery at home and presumably share the opposition’s revolt.

Facing such a tilted playing field, what can democratically-minded Venezuelan politicians do? Rodriguez believes that Maduro’s power grab may be a bid to push Guaido into boycotting this year’s parliamentary elections. The opposition did just that in the 2018 presidential race, scoring a moral victory but little more.

The best hope of peeling away support for a toxic authoritarian regime still lies in returning to the internationally stewarded negotiating table. “I don’t think Maduro’s resilience has anything to do with ideological commitment or personal loyalties. It’s all about individual security and fear of what would come next,” McCoy said. Hence the imperative of assuring loyalists that the official political party will survive the regime, that today’s collaborators are offered alternative sentences, even that corrupt officials might get to keep some of their ill-gotten gains.

That means the opposition will have to hold its nose, as will ordinary Venezuelans. Their neighbors know what that’s like. Many Colombians revile their 2016 peace pact with former guerrilla insurgents for giving a pass to criminals and thugs. But reaching a deal is less futile than hoping the guys with the guns let you inside.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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