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A Bolivarian Black Hole: Venezuela’s Extinguished Cry for Change

Hannah Hodges

2018 has witnessed the establishment of a new political order in Mexico and Brazil. Mexico elected its first leftist leader in 30 years, and after a turbulent election campaign far-right Jair Bolsonaro ended left-wing Worker’s Party dominance in Brazil. In 2017 Chilean elections revealed a significant shift to the right, and in the same year Paraguay insisted on a new order by preventing the re-election of President Cartes through protests and Vatican-backed talks. Despite the success of new political orders in the region, one country seems stuck–Venezuela.

In 2016 the prospect of a new order in politics in Venezuela seemed to be on the table as the country saw some of the largest protests in its history. On October 26, 2016, an estimated 1.2 million Venezuelans took to the streets to protest. People were fed up of worsening economic hardships, failed government strategies and the increasing humanitarian crisis in the country–but most of all, they were fed up of their president Nicolas Maduro.

Two years on: Maduro has been elected for his second six-year term, 87 percent of the population are living in poverty and yet there are no protesters on the street. There is no sign of political reform and it appears that most of the Venezuelan people have given up campaigning for it. Why did the 2016 demonstrations fail to ignite change in the country’s political order? What has happened to Venezuelan insurgence and what options are left for a country seemingly unable to break free from the grip of Chavismo?

To understand this stagnation of political opposition in Venezuela we need to re-evaluate the 2016 protests. Although it is easy to present the events as a failed coup d’état (and Maduro supporters like to see it as such), they may be more accurate in viewing it as evidence of Maduro’s alarming attempt to limit opposition influence within the government. In 2015 the opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (or MUN) won a majority in the National Assembly. With this majority, the Assembly could pass a constitutional amendment to shorten Maduro’s presidential term. Threatened, Maduro allowed the pro-government Supreme Court to assume the legislative powers normally assigned to the National Assembly, rendering the democratically elected Congress powerless.

The opposition responded with protests. Maduro’s over-ruling of the National Assembly was a worrying step towards authoritarianism, effectively removing the MUN from Venezuelan government. The next six months would be defined by protests which escalated in October as Maduro’s newly established National Electoral Council decided to suspend the referendum on the president’s removal. It looked like protests were set to continue, but in a surprise turn of events both sides agreed to go into dialogues backed by Pope Francis. These talks broke down, and after two months the Vatican pulled out. In April 2017 there was a brief but powerful revival of opposition protest after the arrest of opposition officials and attempts by Maduro to rewrite the constitution. However, the failure of the government to recognise the results of a referendum on the constituent assembly significantly took the wind out of the protests. Some feared repression from an increasingly militarised governmental response. Others lost hope in the absence of any democracy, and, following regional elections in which the few opposition candidates who did win governorships “jumped ship” and agreed to recognise the undemocratic Constituent Assembly, others gave up hope in the opposition itself. In 2018, whilst the protests which seemed to define the previous two years have died out, Maduro’s efforts to minimalise political opposition certainly haven’t.

Although Maduro did follow through on his promise for elections and has released 39 political prisoners, his efforts have convinced few people. He continues down the path towards authoritarianism: altering the number of delegates allowed for each municipality and state capital in his favour; bringing forward the election date from December to May (seen by MUN as an attempt to stunt their chances); refusing to free opposition leader Leopoldo López, among others; and crucially, failing to recognise the democratically elected National Assembly. The opposition boycotted the election, turnout was only 46 percent, the one opposition member who broke ranks and did stand for election claimed the results were rigged. The international community (with the notable exceptions of Russia, China and Cuba) refused to accept the result. If Maduro continues to secure his hold on power by removing political opposition, then there is next to no hope for change within the country.

However, it would be wrong to only place blame on Maduro. The opposition’s failure to trigger any political change goes further than Maduro’s moves against democracy. Since the end of military dictatorship in 1958, Venezuela has been critically divided between left and right. Maduro belongs to the legacy of Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution: a socialist politics which represent the poor and non-white population. Although many belonging to this group are critical of Maduro, they are nevertheless reticent to leave behind the values of the Bolivarian Revolution. The problem is that the MUN is comprised of many rich white individuals who have been unsuccessful in using the five years of Maduro’s unpopular policies to win over the poor and non-white population. Failing to cash in on this opportunity has cost the Coalition. Before the May elections, 51 percent of the Venezuelan population said they wanted neither Maduro nor the MUN to win the election.

The likelihood of Venezuela plummeting further into humanitarian and economic crisis before any prospect of change emerges is high.

The problem is not only how the MUN can gain back power in the face of Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian governance but also how the how they can offer a new order that would appeal to more than half the country.

Stuck in a political stalemate, with inflation set to rise to over one million percent this year and the number of refugees fleeing the country since 2014 estimated at 2.3 million, Venezuela is experiencing a real impasse. What will happen if Brazil and Columbia introduce harsher migrant policies? And what if Trump’s increasing sanctions on Venezuela finally deter Chinese and Russian investment and support? The likelihood of Venezuela plummeting further into humanitarian and economic crisis before any prospect of change emerges is high.

It is clear that President Maduro is not the man to lead Venezuela out of its dilemma. But the more worrying question is, if not Maduro, then who? Not only does the prospect of Venezuelan political change depend on Maduro resigning (something which seems very unlikely), but it also depends on there being an alternative leader who has the people’s backing. The Venezuelan opposition is facing the age-old question: can a party rooted in the upper and middle classes win over the poor? In a country distinctly torn between the left and the right, this leader will have to reach out to the former Chavistas, maintaining Chavez’ legacy of supporting the poor but also providing coherent, extensive economic strategies that will attract private investment, reform the oil industry and improve international relations. Until then, Venezuela will remain stuck in its political and economic drought.

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