Venezuela’s Opposition Is Running on Empty

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When a Venezuelan patrol boat intercepted a Guyanese fishing trawler late last month, the third such blue-water confrontation in a matter of weeks, investors, diplomats and the government in Georgetown were understandably alarmed. Was Venezuela poised to invade its neighbor and seize a stake in the world’s newest major oil find?

Not a chance.

Yes, Venezuela has long chafed at its eastern border on the conceit that the line drawn by big power arbitration 121 years ago was theft; recovering the purportedly purloined territory has been part of Venezuelan national lore, gospel for its school kids and a perennial pretext for harassing the Guyanese. Yet President Nicolas Maduro is nothing if not a master of the political head fake, eager to goose nationalist brio, flog empty partisan talking points and deploy cheap theatrics to deflect attention from his cratering economy.

Tellingly, Venezuela has repeatedly declined to press its territorial claim before the International Court of Justice which is hearing the case at Guyana’s request. “Note that Venezuela isn’t harassing Exxon drill ships or international carriers,” Christian Wagner, of the political risk consultancy Maplecroft, told me. “Venezuela has neither the resources nor the will to fight this battle.”

That may be because bullying an undersized neighbor and bemoaning a historical injury make for better optics than going to court in a case that analysts say could easily go against the Bolivarian supremo.

Welcome to the Maduro method, where a loss is a win, posturing beats diplomacy and the disaster that is turning Venezuela into a failed state is also keeping its accidental autocrat firmly in the palace. Countering it will call for the fractious political opposition to stop caviling, shrug off months of inertia and reclaim its role in shaping the public conversation.The opposition needs to realize it doesn’t have the same hand it had two years ago, when National Assembly leader Juan Guaido became interim president,” said Geoff Ramsey of the Washington Office on Latin Ameica. “They’re not going to get anywhere if they sit back and insist on being treated as the legitimate government. The opposition need to remobilize.”

This top-down script isn’t new. Former strongman Hugo Chavez centralized power, captured institutions, gamed elections and smothered dissent when it suited him. Yet he was blessed by the commodities boom, which sent oil rents soaring and bought indulgence from heat-seeking international investors for his lavish ways and the spendthrift Latin American pink tide he inspired.

The difference is that Maduro has managed to maneuver even as Venezuela declines, as Bloomberg News reported, by swapping out legacy Chavistas for consiglieri, evading U.S. oil sanctions with ghost ships and keeping military brass close through the sharing of handsome public contracts. Lately he has added a touch of heresy to the mix, letting once-taboo dollars flow for those lucky enough to have them, sending fast-lane Venezuelans on shopping sprees. And for those who demur? Let them have sham elections, spies and thugs. Seizing boats and harassing border communities are just the latest additions to the oeuvre.

Gone are the encomiums to the Bolivarian revolution and 21st century socialism, never mind the visions of redemption and plenty that Maduro used to juice a generation of Chavistas and devotees. Ideals, you may argue, were never central to Chavismo’s toolbox. Yet Maduro’s pivot to venal survivalism is a pragmatic, if cynical, gambit in an existential power struggle with the flummoxed national opposition, which has squandered its popular mojo.

If Maduro boasts a mere 15% public approval rating, his headline opponent Guaido has just 26%. Those dismal numbers speak to a nation disenchanted with its political class and their partisan shouting matches.

Can the new day in Washington make a difference? Just the departure of Donald Trump from the White House and no more talk of “maximum pressure” —which only emboldened Maduro while providing cover for an overeager opposition — is welcome. So are the early signals from Joe Biden’s seasoned Latin American hands, led by the incoming National Security Council Senior Director Juan Gonzalez, who have kept the heat on Maduro while waiving ill-considered restrictions on diesel fuel — a measure that punished ordinary Venezuelans.  

“We’re at the point where policy is going to matter much more than bluster,” said New York University historian Alejandro Velasco. “The greatest thing would be to see increased support for free and fair elections instead of pressure for regime change or Maduro’s head on a platter.”

The message should not be lost on Guaido, who after December’s rigged election no longer heads the captured National Assembly. “From abroad, Juan Guaido is considered to be the face of the Venezuelan opposition. At home, he hasn’t even been able to hold together the central opposition coalition,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University. “It’s hard to find opposition graffiti or bumper stickers in Caracas these days. More than 80% of Venezuelans oppose the government but there’s no political space for them.”

The lacuna suggests an opportunity, but only if Venezuela’s democratic champions galvanize. First, however, Guaido faces an unenviable choice. By retaining the title of interim president, he continues to enjoy diplomatic cachet and control of international assets, including considerable gold reserves and CITGO, the U.S. subsidiary of the national oil company.  However, he forfeits the support of a united opposition. Tellingly, he is barely on speaking terms with Venezuela’s other signature dissident Henrique Capriles, head of the Primera Justicia party. What’s more, Guaido’s international support as the nation’s legitimate leader is waning, as the European Union recently made clear after December’s tainted election turned his honorific into fool’s gold.

Don’t expect Guaido to relinquish his claim to head the legitimate Venezuelan government. Yet that mandate will mean little unless the opposition can regroup and rebrand itself as an ecumenical front with a pragmatic agenda. One move Guaido could make is to step out of the shadow of his mentor, charismatic but divisive firebrand Leopoldo Lopez, who is still seen as the opposition’s man behind the curtain. “The name of the game now is finding small victories, and defending whatever small democratic spaces are left in the country and occupying them,” Ramsey said. That strategy includes fighting for humanitarian aid, even if Maduro cops the credit, and participating in elections, even when the rules are rigged. “Without social mobility and an agenda, the opposition cannot rebuild,” said Ramsey.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Last year, the Maduro government and the opposition inked a rare agreement to use offshore funds frozen by the U.S. Treasury Dept. to secure Covid-19 vaccines. The deal fell apart after Maduro unilaterally seized virus tests and last month, citing U.S. sanctions, stiffed the Pan American Health Organization on his vaccine bill. Guaido has since agreed to tap offshore assets to secure up to 2.4 million doses of the AstraZeneca shot, but only on condition that Maduro honor the nation’s debt to PAHO, which looks unlikely. “It’s like two drunks fighting over an empty bottle,” one Venezuelan pathologist told me.

Meantime, the pandemic that has officially taken around 2,000 lives, but which independent physicians report may have killed six to seven times that many, rages on. Maduro’s headline measure to fight the pandemic to now? “Miracle drops,” a treatment he flogged on social media, until Facebook removed his posts.

There is no shot for Maduro’s bad-faith rule, but Venezuela’s opposition would do well to drop its fists and slug down its own dose of realpolitik.

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.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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