Left-wing populism

The currency of Venezuelan politics

In late February, Venezuela’s political crisis was escalating. Both the government and the opposition used mass rallies to show their strength. The international community should not fan the flames.
Opposition leader Juan Guaidó addressing a rally in Caracas in early February. Leo Alvarez/picture-alliance/Sputnik/dpa Opposition leader Juan Guaidó addressing a rally in Caracas in early February.

The mobilisation of protestors in Venezuela is a response to the hardships people are facing. The government of President Nicolas Maduro has mismanaged the economy and curtailed political rights. People suffer food shortages, unemployment, hyper-inflation and increasingly precarious health care.

The multitude of protest marches since January is not new. For more than a decade, similar demonstrations have been recurring. They are a standard tool of political mobilisation. Maduro’s camp uses them too. Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor, was a left-wing populist whose promise of social justice appealed to masses of people. Chavistas have always used rallies to consolidate their power.

The main difference between previous opposition protests and the current rallies is that marches against Maduro are now taking place in former Chavista strongholds and even include former Chavistas. Huge opposition rallies not only challenge the power of the government that claims to be directly represent “the people”. They fracture its legitimacy. In the same sense, mass mobilisation by the government boosts its credentials. Mass mobilisation is now the currency of Venezuelan politics.

Observers have counted more than 2,500 opposition marches this year. It is no coincidence that Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader and speaker of the legislature, swore himself in as interim president during a march. He has a reputation of a moderate who is not linked closely to the oligarchy. He appeals to people who are angry for a broad spectrum of different reasons, including political, economic and social grievances.

In response, the Chavistas are mobilising too. They want the domestic and international public to see that the opposition does not represent the whole population of Venezuela. At the same time, military drills are broadcast to prove that Maduro still enjoys the support of the armed forces.

Pro- and anti-Maduro rallies are happening in other countries, moreover, with repercussions in Venezuela. The so called “international community” has an impact on the domestic balance of power.

A significant number of foreign governments, including from the EU, has taken an anti-Maduro stance. They demand a regime change. For several reasons, this approach is dangerous:

  • Explicit threats of military intervention by the US administration were probably meant to intimidate Maduro, but they have actually strengthened him. Venezuelans value their sovereignty, and the military leadership is mostly rallying behind Maduro.
  • Venezuela has the world’s biggest oil reserves. Fears of escalating political violence are driving up the oil price, so the revenues of Maduro’s government are increasing. The higher the oil price rises, the better his chances of staying in power become.
  • International polarisation is pushing the Maduro government into the corner of China, Russia and other powers that want to enhance their global influence.
  • US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are unconvincing advocates of democracy in Venezuela, because they have shown contempt for relevant principles at home and abroad. It adds to the problems that Elliott Abrams, the special US envoy for the crisis in Venezuela, has a history of backing violent right-wing extremists in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala during civil wars in the 1980s.

The threat of military intervention is destructive. Ousting the regime of a resource-rich country by force has regularly resulted in civil war and the collapse of state institutions. There is no reason to believe things would be different in Venezuela.

Guaidó is aware of these risks. The opposition wants a political transition, not a civil war. Therefore, Guaidó offered amnesty to leading Chavistas – including Maduro – and the security forces. In this difficult situation, foreign governments must not fan the flames. The challenge is to support legitimate demands for democratic governance without playing into the hands of the Chavistas. Mexico and Uruguay are setting a good example by insisting on negotiations between Venezuela’s opposition and government.

Fabio Andrés Díaz Pabón is a research associate at Rhodes University in South Africa and a researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

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