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Venezuela: 'No end to chaos without a negotiated solution'

Juan Barreto, AFP | Anti-government activists attack and set on fire a National Traffic Police station during a protest against the election of a Constituent Assembly proposed by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on July 30, 2017.

After a vote marred by violence and rejected by the opposition, Venezuela’s future looks as grim as ever in the absence of dialogue between the government and the opposition.


Rosmit Mantilla represents Venezuela’s southern state of Thatchilla, on the Colombian border, in the National Assembly for Leopoldo Lopez’s social democratic Voluntad Popular, or “Popular Will”, party – but who knows if he will be able to leave Paris and go home, or if in a week’s time, his job will even exist. If Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, goes through with the vow he made before hundreds of supporters Sunday evening, the National Assembly will be disbanded, and Mantilla would be thrown in jail again.

“The whole population of Thatchilla took part in protests yesterday,” he says, from a café a block away from the French National Assembly. For four months, he has been switching countries, meeting with diplomats, and trying to stir international support for negotiations between the Venezuelans government and the opposition.

“By the end of the day, they were hungry, because there is no food, and they burned voting centres,” he says, before adding: “But with no victims.”

That wasn’t the case nationwide, though. The broadly boycotted vote that Maduro hailed as “the biggest the revolution has ever scored in its 18-year history” took place amid one of the deadliest days in the months of protests and clashes that preceded it.

At least 10 people were killed in clashes around the country, as masked anti-Maduro activists attacked polling stations and barricaded streets to protest the ‘Constituent Assembly’, a legislative ‘superbody' that Maduro plans to use to bypass the opposition-controlled legislature in order to shift power to the executive branch.

The electoral commission announced a voter turnout of 41.5 percent, or slightly over 8 million people, a number that has been rejected by the opposition.

The election was also condemned by the European Union, Canada and Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.

An exit poll conducted by Venezuelan public opinion firm Innovarium put participation closer to 3.6 million people, or 18.5 percent of eligible voters. In recent polling, 85 percent of Venezuelans opposed changing the constitution by creating the Constituent Assembly, and nearly 70 percent thought that Maduro should step down from power by the end of the year.

“This process of voting for a Constituent Assembly has been totally unconstitutional and illegal,” said Leonardo Vivas, a lecturer on Latin America at Northeastern University in Boston, and the former director of the Latin America Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights.

By removing “all the controls used in elections over the past 15 years”, the government effectively eliminated a paper trail and a way to verify votes, Vivas told FRANCE 24.

David Smilde, a former professor at the Central Universtiy of Venezuela and current professor at Tulane University listed some of those measures on his blog, writing that the “National Electoral Council dispensed with14 of its normal audits and protocols. In addition, it allowed voters to vote in alternative centres, did not use indelible ink, had no independent electoral observation,” among other irregularities.

Possible Sanctions

The Trump Administration, which slapped sanctions on 13 individual Venezuelan officials last week, decided on Monday to impose sanctions to Maduro personally. The US Treasury Department order freezes any assets that the Venezuelan president possesses that are subject to US jurisdiction and prohibits American corporations as well as individuals from engaging in business with him.

But sanctions would carry implications that touch both countries, and could also risk increasing the misery that has come to hang widespread and heavy over Venezuelan society and its thrashed and gasping economy.

Delphine Patetif, a Franco-Venezuelan human rights lawyer who successfully obtained Mantilla’s release from prison last year after two and a half years of trying, supports sanctions against individuals connected to the regime, but thinks that broad sanctions would cause even more chaos and misery for Venezuela’s poorest. Officially barred from entering the country, she last observed the situation on the ground first-hand in February, when she snuck across the Colombian border.

“We saw what happened with Cuba, where sanctions plunged millions of people into poverty, but had little effect on the elites,” she said. “We can’t advocate for that, it’s unthinkable.”

Once the wealthiest country in Latin America and with the world’s largest oil reserves – ahead of even Saudi Arabia – Venezuela is now racked by shortages. Years of mismanagement, corruption, and declining oil production punctuated by a global fall in the price of oil have left the country with skyrocketing inflation and an economy that has shrunk by 30 percent, little domestic production of goods, and few foreign currency reserves with which to import everything from food to antibiotics.

If the US were to extend its actions on a broader level, analysts think it would most likely involve restricting US sales of light crude to Venezuela (which is mixed with Venezuela’s heavier crude oil and then exported), rather than stopping American purchases of Venezuelan petrol outright. Venezuela, which produces roughly 2 million barrels of oil per day, exports some 700,000 barrels a day to the United States. While analysts think that the country could eventually sell more to India and China, its other main customers, it might have to offer discounts in order to do so.

Sanctions like these would be particularly impactful, because American oil sales are one of the government’s only sources of hard currency. And the Venezuelan government has to make $5 billion worth of debt payments by the end of this year – including $3.5 billion in PDVSA (Venezuela's state-owned oil and natural gas company) payments due in October and November. Even with rampant shortages of goods, so far the government has privileged making debt payments, for fear of losing all access to international markets.

According to Patetif, an ad-hoc tribunal to be established in the United States, because of its proximity and large, well-established Venezuelan population, would be more suitable.

Competing authorities

Maduro’s government has not said how, or even if, the National Assembly and the new 545-seat body would work together, but in his speech to hundreds of supporters on Sunday night, he made it clear that he sees the Constituent Assembly as “a power that’s above and beyond every other”. He vowed that among its first moves would be a “total transformation” of the office of Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, who recently split with the government over its attempt to strip the legislature of its power.

Furthermore, declaring that the opposition “already has its prison cell waiting”, Maduro said that he wants the Constituent Assembly to remove the immunity from prosecution currently granted to legislators and governors.

Javier Corrales, political science professor at Amherst College, and co-author with Michael Penfold of "Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chavez", traces a straight line between the “illiberalism” of Chavez and Maduro. In 1999, “Chavez changed the constitution by ignoring, and in fact hoping to bury, the newly elected legislature, which he did not control,” he told FRANCE 24, adding that the 1999 constitution expanded executive powers more than any other new constitution in a Latin American democracy since the 1980s.

“Maduro is copying this model – ignoring congress and inventing extra-constitutional rules along the way,” said Corrales.

The Venezuelan president plans for the Constituent Assembly to meet within a week’s time.

Corrales sees two options for the government, to negotiate trading the existence of the Constituent Assembly in exchange for concessions by the opposition, like ending protests, or to go forward with the Constituent Assembly as planned. “If they – the government – choose the latter option,” he said, “the Constituent Assembly will abolish the existing congress and probably change the electoral system to disfavour the opposition.”

If that happens, he thinks the opposition will become far more united, and potentially more violent.

Divided government, united opposition?

On Sunday night, both main opposition leaders, Henrique Capriles, of the Justice First party, and Leopoldo Lopez, of Popular Will, called for more protests against a vote they consider to be a “fraud”. They also urged the continuation of mass protests, using similar language.

For Leonardo Vivas, this convergence inside the opposition is important. “A solid alliance of both parties is bad news for the government,” he said, pointing to how the social and economic crisis is leading to a breakdown in the government’s coalition. The working poor who were once receptive to Chavism’s populist message, are losing patience with empty bakeries and functionally useless hospitals.

“The only hope the opposition has to see regime change any time soon is if millions of poor Venezuelans decide to rebel and protest in massive numbers in poor barrios (neighbourhoods), or for the military to turn on Maduro,” said Raul Gallegos, a Caracas-based Senior Analyst with the British consultancy Control Risks, though he remained skeptical of either outcome.

Venezuela is a country with a history of military coups, and the military remains one of the strongest actors in the picture. But according to Javier Corrales, the military has thus far shown loyalty towards the government, in part because they have been given free rein to run profitable black markets and other “illicit activities”.

The opposition says it is committed to peaceful protest, though there have been almost daily clashes since mass demonstrations began in April. Its leaders have laid down clear criteria upon which they says they are willing to negotiate.

“As someone who believes in democracy, I think dialogue is the basis for any negotiation, but the opposition has demands as well,” Mantilla says, demands that include the liberation of political prisoners, the acceptance by the government of international offers for humanitarian aid that it continues to refuse, a guarantee of separation of powers and immediate new elections.

In the absence of a negotiated solution, Patetif doesn’t see a way to avoid chaos and conflict.

“The majority of the opposition thinks they have nothing left to lose, Venezuelans have nothing left to eat, and they have lost hope. People who have no hope will do anything, and today the opposition is ready to die.”

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