Venezuela is caught up in a very dangerous game today, as President Nicolás Maduro’s regime plays chicken with the country’s political opposition. Especially after the referendum on Sunday, July 16, in which an overwhelming majority of voters rejected Maduro’s attempt to alter the country’s constitution, the two sides are almost certainly moving toward a head-on collision unless someone turns the proverbial steering wheel.
Whoever does is the loser, but will also most likely save the country. The stakes of the game involve nothing less than Maduro’s departure.
On one side of this game — that of Chavismo —are most government institutions, the armed forces and, within them, chavista “collective” thugs controlling violence, both institutional and beyond. But how long and how effectively they’ll maintain this control is up for debate.
On the other side is the opposition. It has the support of 80 percent of the Venezuelan people, but they’re also unarmed. What they lack in weapons they make up for in support from the international community and the fact that they are on the right side of history.
On Monday, July 17, the opposition gave the regime three days to negotiate and ultimately retract their proposed constitutional assembly, which aims to rewrite the constitution and keep Maduro and his regime in power.
That announcement was not totally understood by everyone within the opposition, leading some to claim that it was a weak response to a strong turnout in the referendum. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles called the announcement “insufficient,” though he said that “he will comply.” But what exactly happened on Monday? What’s happening right now, as best as we can tell?
That’s what I will explore in this article, starting with those announcements, Maduro’s response and the international community’s reaction. It should reveal whether Maduro intends to give in to the opposition’s demands or follow through with his own plans.
1) The Democratic Unity Roundtable’s announcement and reactions from the international community
After last Sunday’s referendum, the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) decided that the soonest possible date for their next protest would be this coming Thursday. The plan involves staging a street protest (a “nationwide strike”). There are a whole series of activities planned for the next three days, according to Congresswoman Delsa Solórzano.
Opposition leader Freddy Guevara’s statement about the possibility of a dialogue with Maduro if he pulls back on his plans to rewrite the constitution, as well as an avalachne of public outcry from the international community, make it clear that those opposed to the dictatorship are giving Maduro an ultimatum, and with enough time to reflect and consider his options.
Sun Tzu once wrote that one should never deny an enemy the opportunity to escape. My mother also used to say one should build a silver bridge for an enemy who wants to escape, which is the same thing.
Maduro made a mistake by foregoing any possible chance of a peaceful exit. Now, he finds himself in a position of internal exile, confined within the walls of Miraflores as the country falls apart — a country where the President of the Supreme Court can’t even walk through a cemetery without being chased off:
Does it make sense to wait, and give Maduro enough time to think things over and pull back his plans for the Constituent Assembly? If this strategy helps to accelerate a peaceful transition to democracy, something the Venezuelan people chose this Sunday, then it’s worth doing without any question. I cannot praise the idea enough. It would also be a mistake to rush things next week, and the weeks following that. But if he doesn’t do it, things will only get more complicated.
Ni en el cementerio lo quieren así lo sacaron al Presidente del TSJ Maikel Moreno con insultos gritos y abucheos. pic.twitter.com/xDosusDirC
— Gabriel De Mendonça (@desagabriel1383) July 16, 2017
2) How can Maduro negotiate?
Is Nicolás Maduro in a position to negotiate? That is a serious question, not a rhetorical one. To start with, he has the thing chavismo values most: the presidency. This is a considerably valuable bargaining chip that brings with it control of the armed forces, among other institutions.
However, as the assistant of one of the former presidents who negotiated with Maduro last year was telling me yesterday, “the problem is that in order to negotiate with the government, you have to negotiate with five different governments.”
Which is to say, Maduro responds to pressure from different groups, with the inconvenient additional factor of the opposition constantly attacking him on social media. Can he be relied on to speak? Without question, he cannot. He has shown himself to be rather inarticulate, despite what he claims in his speeches.
Maduro’s government is extremely weak. The president is betting on the fact that in this “game of chicken,” chavismo will be driving the truck, and the opposition will be driving the bicycle.
As it turns out, that isn’t the case. After Sunday’s referendum, Maduro is riding the bike, which is rigged with dynamite.
It’s possible that Maduro, in the public declarations he made after the referendum (more or less cursing the European Union and the United States to hell, and playing the anti-imperialist card, which goes a long way on the left) is being sincere. It’s possible that he doesn’t understand the extent of the danger in which he has put himself and the country.
It’s also possible that he’s bluffing while he negotiates behind closed doors. In any event, when one government “thoroughly reviews” their (practically non-existent) interactions with another, it’s usually nothing more than a symbolic gesture with no real consequence.
Frankly, Maduro has a bad hand, especially after Sunday, and the opposition is holding four aces. He can kick the table over if he wants to, but he’ll have to pay his debt either way. He can try to bluff, but his cards have been revealed; we all know what he’s holding.
Let’s suppose that he makes the rational decision and puts an end to his Constituent Assembly. What is there to negotiate after that? In my opinion, the only thing left to do is step down from power. He can’t run to his other bargaining chips at this point, like acts of violence and the constituency itself.
If he stepped down, he would no longer even be considered legitimate by his own party. He would be, in fact, in physical danger. What would radicals do to him if he stepped down? And, more importantly, can Maduro expect to return to a status quo, with hopes to carry on as President for another year and a half? Not even the most naive of people believe that.
He can look for an intermediate compromise, retracting his constituent assembly in a camouflaged way. He can invent a technical problem, a last minute problem, and “give in” without “giving in.” The most brilliant minds in Venezuela could be at work right now devising a way out of this predicament, trying to find a way to stop this collision from happening.
3) The international factor
It would be much more naive still to think that the international community will act in an uncoordinated or disjointed fashion. There were 18 announcements made on Sunday and Monday, including those from the European Union, the United States, Mexico, Brazil and Colombia. (Especially significant was that of President Juan Manuel Santos, minutes after finishing a meeting with Cuban dictator Raúl Castro). This is the biggest international consensus I can remember since the end of apartheid in South Africa in the early nineties.
Maduro is not very bright. It does not matter that he was chancellor for six years. When a a government as powerful as the United States talks about “swift and strong action,” you have to listen.
He might suppose that the international community is “a paper tiger,” as Mao said, and won’t act. He might even be right, though even within Latin America, the Organization of American States (OAS) is starting to become a nuisance, and larger countries are joining the anti-Maduro block. It is not as if Maduro is leading a booming country full economic activity. He is leading a country that is a couple of steps away from famine.
Venezuela is a country mere months from financial default (analysts predict it will happen in September), and which has no clear solution in sight as long as those currently in power remain in charge. Is it possible for Maduro to remain in power under such conditions? Or will there be a long, unstable period to come? Is it not in the best interests of traditionally Chavista allies like Russia, China and Cuba to negotiate with someone more trustworthy?
This would explain the silence from these countries, who are playing their own game of hide-and-seek.
4) Three conclusions/questions
Is Maduro prepared to throw Venezuela off a cliff?
I don’t think so, though he may be tempted to try it. He likes to compare himself to Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad, but it’s much more plausible that he’ll try to negotiate and then flee.
Is it possible for the international community to stay put while Maduro leads the country into a humanitarian crisis?
It doesn’t seem like it. In fact, an adviser to the former president told me that there is no international coordination. But even so, they are not going to stand by as the carnage worsens in Venezuela, and it could get much worse.
Can the 75 percent or more of Venezuelans opposed to Maduro’s regime stop the frantic dash toward chaos?
On Sunday, they made decisive progress. There are more steps to be taken, every bit as important as the first. They will require, more than anything, cool heads, organization and discipline. Social media helps with that.
These are some of the questions being explored and examined this week, the answers to which we will most likely get next week in dramatic fashion.
The country is untangling itself. Whether it arrives at a soap opera ending or a western ending will depend on those responsible for negotiations.
Now is the time for politics, not for social media.