The Venezuelan crisis, explained

A Q&A with Tulia Falleti, a political science professor and the director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program, on the past, present, and possible future of Venezuela.

A scholar of comparative and Latin American politics and democratization, Tulia Falleti is the author of “Decentralization and Subnational Politics in Latin America,” which earned the Donna Lee Van Cott Award as the best book on political institutions by the Latin American Studies Association. In 2018, she co-edited “Latin America Since the Left Turn” with Emilio Parrado, the Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology. Falleti is the Class of 1965 Term Associate Professor of Political Science, director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program, and a senior fellow of the Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics.


What is the current political situation in Venezuela?

Right now we are faced with a very exceptional situation in Venezuela, with Venezuela having two presidents: the president who was reelected in May 2018, Nicolás Maduro, as well as interim president Juan Guaidó, who is the president of the national assembly, and proclaimed himself president when he considered that Maduro had not been legitimately elected in May of 2018.

So this is very extraordinary for world events. We are in a situation today where countries around Latin America, the U.S., Canada, as well as European countries, have recognized Juan Guaidó as legitimate interim president of Venezuela, who ought to be calling elections as soon as possible in order to initiate a transition away from the government of Nicolás Maduro.

How did the country get to this point?

In order to understand how Venezuela got here, we really need to think about democracy in Venezuela as started in 1958. At that time, the major political parties came to sign what was called El Pacto Social (Punto Fijo), or the Social Pact, by which they agreed to share power in order to terminate a military dictatorship that was in place at the time. That pact gave Venezuela what many other countries of Latin America did not have during the second part of the 20th century, which was political stability. Saving Venezuela, and to some extent Colombia, which was also ruled in democratic governments throughout this period, also thanks to a political pact. The rest of Latin American countries saw great upheavals of democratic and authoritarian periods.

However, the effect of this pact was also to exclude sectors of society as these two parties became more and more entrenched in power. By the 1990s a colleague, Michael Coppedge, described Venezuelan democracy as a partidocracia, a democracy that represented the interests of the parties and not so much the people. The elites became very dis-attached from what people wanted.

It was in that context that Hugo Chávez comes to power in the late 1990s. He had appeared to the national scene already in 1992 when he tried to stage a coup against the democratic government. That coup failed, but ultimately he was pardoned and he became increasingly popular. By 1999 he was running in elections and he won a large majority.

Since then, the country became exceedingly polarized between the Chavistas on the one hand, who were proposing radical progressive social transformations that were largely favored by the people, and the elites and upper classes, who were staunchly anti-Chavistas. There was an attempted military coup in 2002, Chávez concentrates more power increasingly over time, and the rift between the right and the left, or between Chavistas and anti-Chavistas, becomes more and more pronounced.

Once Chávez dies in 2013, Maduro takes over power. Maduro lacks the charisma that Chávez had. [He] lacks also political maneuverability, political skills, so he becomes increasingly authoritarian in his rule. The interventions that there are in the legal procedures, in the electoral procedures, increase in terms of irregularities. As of 2017, he also represses political demonstrations or street protests against his regime. He slowly has a tighter grip on power, and now the divide is very extensive.

By May of 2018 the opposition decides to boycott the elections. On that presidential election only 46 percent of those who were registered to vote come out to vote. Of that 46 percent, 68 percent vote for Maduro, a smaller percentage vote for an opposition candidate, Henri Falcón, but the large part of the opposition did not show up. That’s what is behind the idea of thinking that these were not legitimate elections.

What context does your book “Latin America Since the Left Turn” give for what is happening?

Venezuela was the first country to turn to the left in the region, but we had leftist presidents in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, [and,] at the time, in Uruguay. Hugo Chávez was certainly the most radical of those presidents. He thought of his Bolivarian Revolution as a revolution that had a regional scope. He sought to create regional institutions, banking institutions, development banks. These regional projects that he equated with the plan that Bolivar had had for the Americas, or for Latin America.

After the commodity crisis of 2014 that has started to affect the redistribution programs that these governments were heavily dependent on, we see a switching of the political pendulum towards the right. The only ones that remain in power are Maduro, as well as Bolivia’s government under Morales, who is likely to be reelected in 2019. [Morales] changed the constitutional rules in order to be able to run for third term. Uruguay also continues to have a leftist party in government. Mexico, that until recently had been led by the PRI, has changed to a center-left or leftist leader and government.

The large context in which Chávez and later Maduro operated, which was this shift towards the left, towards progressive policies, towards a larger role of the state in the economy, away from the recommendations of the Washington Consensus and the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s, has suddenly ended in the region, as has the commodity boom that facilitated those policies. In that regard, one could say that the future of Maduro is even more fragile or in doubt.

By commodities, do you mean oil and gas?

By commodity boom, I’m referring to the increase in the price of commodities that include natural resources such as oil and its derivatives, such as natural gas, but also agricultural products. Soy beans, for example—the price of soy beans went up to the roof and with that an expansion of the production of soy, particularly in the countries of the southern cone. We also see a large extension of beef and cattle ranching, so the commodities were agricultural products as well as natural resources such as oil, gas, and minerals, as well. The prices all of which have gone down since mid-2014.

What is the effect of the crisis in Venezuela on its neighboring nations?

The crisis in Venezuela is a political crisis, an economic crisis, and a humanitarian crisis. The most important effect has been for the bordering countries. Brazil and Colombia have seen large amounts of refugees coming through their borders. These are people who are crossing by foot to move to nearby towns or bordering towns. It is estimated that about three million people, which is approximately 10 percent of the population of Venezuela, have fled the country. We also have a large Venezuelan immigrant community in Argentina, where I’m from. There are also Venezuelans in Mexico, obviously in the U.S., mostly in Miami. One of the effects of this prolonged crisis has been this forced migration.

Another effect that the crisis has had for Latin America was for Latin American countries to try to look for ways to facilitate dialogue between opposition and government. That dialogue was initiated on several occasions and has failed, so the Group of Lima is meeting to see how they are going to act moving forward. Also Mexico and Uruguay have offered to host talks in Uruguay. 

Are most Latin American countries supporting Guaidó?

Yes. The exceptions would be Bolivia, who supports Maduro. Uruguay and Mexico, I don’t think have taken a position as to whether they support Maduro or Guaidó. Interestingly, the pope declared that he couldn’t side with Guaidó, or he couldn’t recognize Guaidó as a legitimate president, because that would be interfering with Venezuela’s domestic politics, and that he couldn't do that. This, in my view, makes him perhaps a possible figure for negotiating talks for getting to a settlement. We knew that he intervened, or that he was a negotiator, a facilitator in the talks between Colombian guerrillas and the government, so it’s not unthinkable that he could take that position.

What is the impact of the political and economic actions by the U.S. and others?

I think the fact that the U.S. is not agreeing to pay the Venezuelan government for the exports of oil is very significant for the Venezuelan economy, obviously. Oil is still the main export of Venezuela, so the largest part of the state revenues come from the income that the export of oil represents. When I first heard of this, it reminded me of 1973, right before the Chilean coup d’etat, when Kissinger said ‘We’ll make the Chilean economy scream,’ and through sanctions, through freezing money going to Chile, made it almost virtually impossible for the economy to stay alive or to progress.

I think these economic sanctions are very significant. However I think also the international community is very cognizant of the humanitarian consequences that these economic sanctions can have. This is why I think they’re talking about sending humanitarian aid. If they find a way of bypassing the Maduro administration, who has rejected humanitarian aid coming from the U.S., then perhaps they could counteract the negative effects that the economic sanctions could have on the Venezuelan people. 

What is public opinion in Venezuela, as far as we can tell?

At the moment it is calculated that the approval rate for Maduro is about 20 to 21 percent. If we think back to the percentage of the electorate who voted for him in May of 2018, which was about 30 percent, that rings about true. There are possibly 10 percent of those who supported him in 2018 who are now perhaps in the streets protesting.

Something that was said in the reports coming out after the demonstrations of Jan. 23 was that in the streets there were former supporters of Maduro, and that in the demonstrations there were people from all social classes. Not only upper classes or middle classes, but also lower classes. If this is so, and these were reports coming from different parts of the political spectrum, then it’s likely that there is part of the former support of Maduro who are now in the street asking for him to resign.

At the University of Tulane, David A. Smilde asked 1,000 Venezuelans in a national representative sample what they thought of three separate possible options: a foreign intervention, dialogue with the government of Maduro, and a negotiated settlement for the end of the Maduro government. Fifty-four percent of Venezuelans are against a military intervention. Sixty-three percent were in favor of a negotiated agreement to remove Maduro from government. About 37 percent supported dialogue with Maduro.

What Venezuelans want: Most Venezuelans blame their authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro, for the country's humanitarian crisis and would like to see him removed from office. But a clear majority would reject a foreign military operation to oust him. The most popular way to restore democracy in Venezuela would be a negotiated settlement to depose Maduro.
(Image courtesy: Omnia Magazine)


How is Guaidó perceived in Venezuela?

I think he’s a figure that is supported by the Chavista opposition on the left, as well as the opposition on the right. What I’ve seen, in reports, is that he’s a figure that can bring the opposition together. The question is, will he be able to run in the elections that he would help to prepare, or to call for as interim president? It’s not 100 percent clear what the constitution says on this. Supposedly the interim president, the head of the national assembly had to prepare the transition. This is new waters, I think, so perhaps he’ll be able to run. I'm not sure.

What are the risks of U.S. intervention in Venezuela?

There is a very negative view towards U.S. interventions in Latin America, which is based largely on our history of U.S. interventions during the Cold War. The U.S. intervened for the first time in Guatemala in 1954 and since then intervened in many countries throughout region to topple governments that had been democratically elected for a host of reasons. Latin Americans think of the U.S. as this imperial power in the region. For the U.S. to intervene militarily it would send the same message to the people of Venezuela and everyone in the region.

I do not think military intervention is a strategy that the U.S. should pursue. It should be off the table, and all the other options explored.

What about the role of other foreign nations like Russia and China?

Russia was obviously very important in supporting the Cuban Revolution. One could argue why; part of the historians’ account is that the U.S., after the invasion of 1961, pushed the Cuban Revolution to become more communist than it could otherwise have been. That it started as a socialist revolution, but the point is that by 1961 the alliance of Cuba with the former Soviet Union was very important to keep the stability of the Cuban regime. The USSR has intervened directly in Cuba. It may have also helped some revolutionary movements in cases such as El Salvador, Nicaragua which may have had direct or indirect support from the communist bloc as well. There is not the history of direct intervention, since this is not the USSR’s backyard the way we are the backyard of the U.S.

With China, this is really new politics. China entered Latin America as a global power only very recently. It’s during the 2000s and the commodity boom that China becomes one of the main markets for Latin American exports. China also now has bought a large part of Venezuelan oil, as well as Ecuadorian oil. China is a very important economic power in the region, but politically, we don’t have a track record of political support for any particular regimes. As China is becoming, it appears, more communist in its government, it could be that it’s also moving towards more of a Cold War way of thinking about intervention. We really don’t know what to expect with regards to China or Russia.

Which way do you think the Venezuelan military will go?

That is the one million-dollar question, and the answer is no one knows. I’ve been asking a former student of mine who is back in Venezuela in the state of Zulia working hard to bring awareness to what is happening. He’s very involved, and he says there is no way of knowing what the military will do, and this is also the sense I have from all the coverage. The kidnapping of Guaidó earlier in January made it seem as if there are sectors in the military that would be willing to support him, because they supposedly took off their face coverings and said ‘Remember us.’ But we really don’t know what their positions are, we really don't know what type of amnesty or warranties will those in higher levels within the military, who are supporting the Maduro regime will want in order to step aside.

I hope the military will not stage a coup by which it will rule Venezuela. I think that will be a mistake, because we have a long tradition of military governments in Latin America, and none of those have ended with politics that are beneficial to the large public.

How do you think this current crisis might be resolved? What is the best possible outcome in your opinion?

What I hope will happen out of this crisis is a negotiated settlement. I think that Maduro should step down. Presidents such as Fernando de la Rúa in Argentina or Eduardo Mahuad in Ecuador left their posts with far less opposition, with crises that were very grave but not as grave as this one. My desire is that Maduro will take the amnesty that is on the table, that he will get the safeties and warranties that he needs in order to go into exile and that a peaceful transition towards a democratically elected government will happen.

It is also my hope that the opposition will be able to come together and not persecute former Chavistas. There is a risk that the big hate that is still in Venezuelan society will lead to persecution and perhaps atrocities against those who are Chavistas. I think it’s important for Venezuelan society to do this transition in a way that will lead to dialogue and healing and not more hate and crime.

This story, by Susan Ahlborn, originally appeared in Omnia Magazine. (Video: Alex Schein and Alex Derrick)