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Why has Venezuela's opposition struggled to spark change?

At the beginning of 2016, there seemed such promise for opposition politicians in Venezuela, but little was achieved. Can 2017 be different?

National Guard officers stand outside the Comptroller General building as lawyers of opposition leader Henrique Capriles meet with government officials, in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 12, 2017.
Ariana Cubillos/AP
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A version of this post ran on LatinAmericaGoesGlobal. The views expressed are the author's own.

It has been a year since the new members of the Venezuelan National Assembly took office. It was the first time, after almost two decades under chavismo, that the Venezuelan opposition coalition, the Democracy Unity Roundtable (known by its acronym in Spanish, MUD) won a qualified majority of 112 lawmakers, marking a radical political shift in the country.

One year later, the lack of legislative action to address the country’s spiraling economic and political crises is showing in Venezuelans’ declining support for the opposition. While President Nicolás Maduro has been discredited by his inability to address the country’s multiple ills, Venezuelans are also disappointed by the role played by the opposition coalition, especially during the last quarter of 2016.

Mr. Maduro’s administration refuses to take any action that will alleviate the economic crisis; the regime has blocked any possibility of elections or referendums, having indefinitely postponed local elections and refused to accept petitions for a constitutionally protected recall referendum on the president; and it remains unclear who can channel popular discontent and translate it into real change. 

The opposition coalition’s qualified majority in the National Assembly in 2016 was unable to make a difference. The day opposition leader Henry Ramos Allup took office as leader of the National Assembly, Jan. 5, 2016, he presented two proposals: a package of social reforms and a review on how to constitutionally shorten Maduro’s term. The reforms floundered.

The second proposal was not voted on until 10 months later, after all hopes for the recall referendum had been crushed, when lawmakers debated Maduro’s political responsibility for what was called “a breakdown of the constitutional order.” Before this, however, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, controlled by chavistas, disqualified three representatives from Amazonas state, costing the coalition its qualified majority; since then, the Court has continued to systematically issue decisions, requested by the executive branch, that override laws approved by the National Assembly.

If there was ever any doubt, in 2016 chavismo showed its authoritarian side when it effectively closed off the path to elections. Datanálisis, a Venezuelan polling firm, confirmed that less than 20 percent of Venezuelans continue to support Hugo Chávez’s political movement. That low level of popular approval was likely what prompted the chavistas to avoid elections altogether in 2016. A report published by Venezuelan Jesuits in October 2016 argued that, without the escape valve of elections, Venezuela has become a pressure cooker.

The elections for regional governors, due to be held in December 2016, were suspended by the National Electoral Council (CNE) without clear explanation. More well known internationally was the CNE’s decision to delay and then to shut down the process for a constitutionally allowed recall referendum against the president. Maduro himself has said that the new regional elections are scheduled to take place in 2018, sometime – with the argument that it’s not worthwhile to waste money on something that isn’t a national priority in the midst of an economic crisis.

So now chavismo is in the minority in the National Assembly and in public opinion, but it has still been able to leverage its power in other public institutions: the Supreme Court of Justice, the CNE, the State Prosecutor’s office, and the army. These are the four pillars that continue to support Maduro’s administration, in spite of the fact that more than 80 percent of Venezuelans think shortening the mandate of Chávez’s handpicked successor is the best solution for the country.

What happened to the opposition? Today, at the beginning of 2017, the outlook isn’t good. The turning point was Sept. 2, 2016: the previous day a massive demonstration paralyzed Venezuela and made international news. Instead of encouraging the protests and coordinating a strategy to capitalize on the outpouring, the demonstrations overwhelmed the opposition, showing to the public its lack of a coherent roadmap as well as the internal chaos and divisions within the coalition.

Several weeks later, the coalition sat down to a Vatican-led dialogue with Maduro’s administration. A lot of people questioned their decision, but the mistake was not in sitting down to the dialogue itself, but the lack of a clear strategy, while, at the same time, pausing or deactivating their other political tools: the demonstrations, legislative pressure, and international lobbying.

In spite of the Vatican mediation, the dialogue failed. The regime predictably broke the agreements. This predictable paralysis of the talks hurt the opposition, causing the MUD to sink to a new low in public opinion. There is a proposal to re-launch the Democratic Unity Roundtable in 2017, but it remains unknown whether this will happen, or what the new coalition’s policy proposals to deal with the economic and political crises will be.

The forthcoming year will be a complicated one in Venezuela.  Many believe that the recent selection of opposition politician Julio Borges as the new leader of the National Assembly will do little to change anything.  And at the same time, the other branches of government, all still controlled by chavistas, will continue to do everything in their powers to limit the only toehold the opposition has in the national government.

Andrés Cañizález is a senior researcher at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Venezuela. His weekly analysis articles are published in five Venezuelan newspapers and a news portal. He cooperates with projects of the People in Need NGO in Venezuela.

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