Venezuela is at a crossroads. President Nicolás Maduro is pushing ahead with a vote Sunday to elect a 545-member National Constituent Assembly (ANC) with powers to rewrite the constitution and cement his hold on power. Events over the next few days will determine the survival of Venezuelan democracy, the welfare of its population, and the country’s future. The principal parties in this conflict – Maduro’s government, the opposition, the military, the international community, and Venezuelans themselves – are making key moves in a game in which the only thing that’s clear is that there will be no outright winner. What are the variables at play? What scenario is each stakeholder trying to articulate? Let’s consider each group’s position.
The Maduro administration
The ruling bloc, and its capacity to remain united, is the keystone holding the country in stasis – at tremendous cost in lives. Its unity is fundamental to resisting the pressure that Venezuelan society and the international community are exerting for change. Without it, collapse is inevitable. While it is true that the image of the governing party is that of a cohesive bloc, in which any dissidence is isolated and annihilated before it becomes a risk to stability, there are storms brewing behind closed doors. Infighting within the ruling party is constant. The fresh sanctions imposed on 13 high ranking current and former Venezuelan officials by the United States, which aim to weaken allegiances within the ruling bloc by increasing the cost to some key individuals in order to worry others, adds fuel to the fire.
Balance within the power bloc depends on economic interests. Whoever presides over the ANC will stand to gain and dispense significant advantage. How will these opportunities be doled out? Maintaining balance will depend to a large extent on that dynamic. Party members are now busy jockeying for position to best take advantage of the new power configuration that will emerge from Sunday’s vote.
The opposition coalition must work to maintain its legitimacy with Venezuelans who are against Maduro’s regime. The MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, or Democratic Unity Roundtable) has positioned itself as the political alternative to the regime in power. Its strength stems from the trust of the Venezuelan people. On the other hand, without recognized leaders playing this role, the protest movement would lose its ability to impact politics.
The MUD survived critical moments in which its prestige suffered. It kept its position – but with each day, the magnifying glass with which its followers are inspecting it grows in size. The government’s successful establishment of the ANC could, once again, test the legitimacy of the MUD if Venezuelans interpret it as a failure of leadership on their part. The coalition’s challenge is to prevent this. To that end, it must reinforce the idea that it shares the population’s motives and goals. If the MUD loses legitimacy, the game would tilt in the direction of those currently in power.
The position of the military establishment – the National Armed Force, or FAN, in its Spanish acronym – is a decisive factor for the course of the conflict in Venezuela. It is directly involved in the fighting, and its official position is that it will defend the regime. Currently, 38 percent of Maduro’s cabinet ministers are retired or active military officers. They also distribute – and are accused of profiting from – food, and control the significant and questionable exploration and certification of gold, copper, and other minerals. While the pressure of people in the streets can make FAN’s position uncomfortable, the large interests they have at stake have made them guardians of the status quo – so far. While there is speculation about discontent within middle-ranking officers of FAN, this is an institution whose command chain was transformed by the late former President Hugo Chávez into a labyrinth intended to hinder joint action. The FAN’s course in the next few days will weigh heavily on Venezuela’s future. No one wants a military government, but their support, if they keep to their institutional role, could be the determining factor in Venezuela’s turn toward democracy.
The people of Venezuela have been powerful actors on the national stage. Moved by hunger and precarious health conditions, unable to imagine a future under current circumstances but without democratic paths to determine their destiny, they have manifested their revolt over more than three months of public protests. The government has violently repressed this movement but it remains active and fueled by more conviction each day. They are the main source of pressure on the government. Due to their unrelenting opposition, the international community is paying attention and the executive branch has been forced to make a series of uncomfortable decisions, like the unpopular ANC. In the event the ANC is established and a feeling of defeat, impotence, and unrest sets over the people, pressure in the streets could diminish. This would ease the government’s situation. If, on the other hand, the people’s anger reaches a boiling point, we will without a doubt witness the escalation of the conflict, which could become decisive under solid MUD leadership, or could turn violent and ineffective if they fail to maintain the legitimacy needed to channel it. That is why the coalition’s ability to communicate actions and objectives coherently and efficiently is so important.
The National Constituent Assembly
The ANC, if established, will also be a group to watch. President Maduro’s call for the election of an ANC to write a new Carta Magna has set off alarms within and outside the country. This Assembly could reform the state, eliminating the obstacles the government currently faces in maintaining power. To combat this situation, the opposition coalition set forth two main goals: stopping that process and, in case that it happens anyway, depriving it of legitimacy among the people and before the international community.
With these guidelines in mind, several actions have taken place. Stopping the ANC would be an important victory that the MUD could exploit to shift of the country toward a democratic system. If, on the other hand, the ANC is inaugurated, it is vital that it is seen within Venezuela and beyond as an illegitimate body that, instead of helping the governing bloc, becomes a disruptive element in the administration. Toward this end, the MUD’s the next steps are fundamental. This includes their strategy on the day of the ANC elections (to take or to empty the streets), their message the next day, their handling of the eviction of the current representatives from the National Assembly, and their reaction to the repressive wave that will burst forth during that new phase of the conflict, with the likely increase in persecution of political and civil society leaders and other measures.
The international community
Venezuela’s crisis has also attracted the attention of the international community. The country plays an important role in the world’s geopolitics. It might sound crude, but what really interests many of these external actors is stability. That is why the conflict created by street protests is fundamental – it increases this worrisome instability, fueling the international community’s willingness to push for a way out of the crisis, which must be achieved by restoring the democratic order. This is why the foreign reaction to the new phase of conflict that will begin in the country in the next few days must be monitored closely.
The interaction of the variables in the complex equation that is the Venezuelan crisis can lead to scenarios that range from a turn towards a democratic system, to the consolidation of the authoritarian system that rules the country today – within a volatile environment of unprecedented violence, or with controlled calm. The next few days are critical.
Séijas Rodríguez, Ph.D., is a Venezuelan political analyst and statistician. He is the director of the Delphos poll.