Crisis in Venezuela: Is this the dark before dawn?

While attempts to transition from dictatorship to democracy have largely failed elsewhere over the last decade, the Venezuelan story is unlike any other, writes Michael Petrou.

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February 27, 2019
A couple at their home in Caracas before leaving Venezuela for Chile, November 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Michael Petrou

Journalist, author and fellow-in-residence in Carleton University’s Global and International Studies program

It is bad luck for Venezuela’s self-declared interim president, Juan Guaidó, and his supporters that their efforts to supplant the country’s sitting president, Nicolás Maduro, come at a time when regime change in the name of democracy and human rights has, for many, acquired a taint of futility and deception.

A generation or two ago, democracy’s momentum appeared unstoppable, especially in Latin America. The so-called third wave of democratization that began in Portugal in 1974 crossed the Atlantic and swept the continent.

“Out of the 20 Latin American countries, only Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela were democratic in 1977,” political scientists Scott Mainwaring and Luis Schenoni write in a recent essay. “By 1990, Cuba and Haiti were the only unequivocal autocracies left.”

Meanwhile, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union birthed a wave of democratic revolutions across Eastern Europe and the Baltic states in the late 1980s and early 90s. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama was inspired to declare the “End of History” and the final global triumph of liberal democracy.

History, it turned out, hadn’t ended. Autocratic China and Russia reasserted themselves. The 9/11 attacks forced the West to confront militant Islam’s appeal. In Latin America, the retirement and then death of Fidel Castro failed to dislodge the communist government in Cuba. Hugo Chávez’s populist regime in Venezuela politicized the bureaucracy and judiciary, used state-controlled media as a weapon, and targeted political opponents with trumped up criminal charges. Ordinary Venezuelans who signed a petition calling for a presidential recall referendum were blacklisted from public sector jobs.

Maduro, who became president following the death of Chávez in 2013, pushed Venezuela further along the same trajectory. He jailed political rivals or banned them from running for office. Anti-government protesters were incarcerated. After the opposition won control of the National Assembly in a 2015 election, a new “National Constituent Assembly” was convened in 2017 to override it. In the 2018 presidential election, government workers tracked who voted by registering their national benefits card and promising food and medicine in exchange.

Democracy’s progress, it appeared, was not assured after all.

And yet the early twenty-first century also witnessed the so-called coloured revolutions in places such as Yugoslavia, Georgia and Ukraine. American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq defeated murderous dictatorships and promised to replace them with democracies. Ukrainians rose up a second time, in 2014, and forced their pro-Russian president from office. In 2011, the citizen-led protest movements of the Arab Spring toppled long-established autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

“The power of the people is greater than the people in power,” claimed Wael Ghonim, the one-time Google executive who became the face of Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution. And, for a time, it seemed he was right: dictators were not immovable objects; democracy could emerge from revolution.

Today, a lot of that optimism is gone. Russia invaded and then annexed Crimea following Ukraine’s 2014 revolution. Afghanistan and Iraq are more hopeful places today than they were under the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but the costs borne by citizens of those countries after Western military invasions have been enormous. Neither Ukraine, Afghanistan nor Iraq is ranked “free” by Freedom House, an NGO that measures political freedoms globally.

And the Arab Spring has produced a functioning democracy in only one country, Tunisia, where secularists and moderate Islamists share power in the legislature. That spirit of political compromise and cooperation is rare elsewhere in the region.

Egypt’s first free election briefly brought to power the illiberal Muslim Brotherhood. It is now governed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a military man far more repressive than Hosni Mubarak, the dictator forced out by protests in the first place. Libya, where a NATO military intervention helped topple Muammar Gaddafi, is a failed state. Bashar al-Assad still rules Syria, minus the almost six million Syrians who have fled the country and the half a million who are dead.

It all adds up to an easy argument for those claiming regime change is inevitably a disaster, and pro-democracy protesters are naïve or, worse, puppets controlled by Washington for the purpose of bringing ruin to a country whose government defies America.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s been saying as much for years. Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, recently echoed this view on Twitter, speaking about Venezuela. Guaidó, he said, was unconstitutionally ‘elected’ by crowds on the street in a “quasi government coup.” (Guaidó was in fact elected by the country’s National Assembly, which has been made largely powerless because of its opposition to Maduro.)

Putin and Medvedev have good reasons to scorn political street demonstrations. They are driven by fear that such a movement might one day sweep them from the Kremlin. But other, less personally invested voices have been making a similar case.

“We’ve seen the west’s approach to Venezuela before — in Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, need I go on?” reads the headline on an essay by journalist Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent newspaper.

In Canada, New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh criticized the Liberal government for recognizing Guaidó as president because “Canada should not simply follow the US’s foreign policy, particularly given its history of self-interested interference in the region.”

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” Mark Twain is supposed to have said. Yet in the case of Venezuela, the apparent similarities between the anti-Maduro protest movement, endorsed by Western nations, and uprisings in places such as Syria, Ukraine and Egypt obscure what is unique about Venezuela and democracy’s prospects there. Its success is never guaranteed. But the odds of re-establishing it in Venezuela are good.


Standing in the way is Maduro. Venezuela is beset by corruption, poverty and hunger. Some three million Venezuelans have fled as refugees. Maduro’s continued hold on power given this state of affairs is puzzling on one level, but here comparisons with the Arab Spring are revealing.

“To stay in power, an autocrat needs two things: money and loyalty,” wrote Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds in a 2013 paper analyzing the “modest harvest” of the Arab Spring. Money buys off opponents or pays for their destruction. The loyalty of security services that can dispense violence ensures a despot can ignore the will of the people.

In the Middle East, money usually comes from oil. The authors argue that loyalty, the second key ingredient for an autocrat’s survival, is most clearly demonstrated by “dynasticism,” or hereditary succession. This is clearly the case in monarchies such as Jordan, but also in Syria, a republic, where Bashar al-Assad has inherited power from his father, Hafiz, and where Assad family members occupy senior positions in the armed forces.

Most of the dictators that fell in the Arab Spring lacked oil and were not dynastic regimes. Libya is an outlier. It has oil, but Gaddafi was toppled all the same. The authors contend this would not have happened without NATO’s military intervention.

Maduro has tried to construct the appearance of dynasty, invoking Chávez all the time and displaying his image at rallies. But Venezuela is not a dynastic regime. It does have oil, though, and Maduro has used it in an effort to keep the military loyal. In 2017 he put a career military man with no experience in the oil sector in charge of the state-owned oil company.

Venezuelan refugees
Venezuelans walk on a field as they cross from Venezuela into Pacaraima, Brazil, on February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

While oil wealth buttresses Maduro’s government, the oil sector has been badly mismanaged. Countries such as Kuwait can use oil revenue to bribe all their citizens with $4,500 payouts. In Venezuela, there’s money for the generals and a little left over to court strategically chosen segments of the population with eggs and frozen chickens. That’s not enough to buy the backing of people who live in what was once one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America. Maduro’s rule depends on the military. If he loses its loyalty, as Mubarak in Egypt did in 2011, his presidency is over.

And what then? Will a successful uprising in Venezuela lead to just another autocracy under the guise of a democratic revolution? Will the state collapse? Will America invade?

Likening Venezuela in 2019 to Syria, Egypt or Afghanistan, or to other Latin American countries in which America did back blood-soaked right-wing movements in the name of fighting communism during the Cold War, suggests these are probable outcomes. They are not. Venezuela is unique. But the struggle for democracy elsewhere holds more lessons for what might lie ahead in Venezuela.


Venezuela’s biggest advantage is its history and geography. It has been a democracy in the past — a flawed one, and one in which wealth was not fairly distributed, but the impact of that precedent doesn’t quickly evaporate. Venezuela has democratic institutions. It has a cultural memory of democracy. It exists in a democratic neighbourhood.

In Arab Spring countries in which dictators were toppled, citizens tried to build democracies more or less from scratch.

In Libya, the state’s political identity rested on a Gaddafi personality cult and the dictator’s bizarre philosophy on government. When he was gone, there were no democratic institutions and no collective memory of how one might function.

Egypt’s post-Arab Spring foray into democracy floundered for similar reasons. Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue in their recent book, How Democracies Die, that American democracy in particular is underpinned by two cultural norms: mutual toleration, meaning that political players treat their opponents as legitimate; and forbearance, meaning victorious politicians don’t use all legal tools at their disposal to crush opposition.

When the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi won the post-Arab Spring election, he exercised little restraint, and showed scant respect for the legitimacy of his secular opponents — granting himself additional powers and overseeing the design of a constitution that alienated Egyptian liberals. In short, he wasn’t guided by the cultural norms of toleration and restraint that are vital to a democracy’s long-term health.

Morsi was deposed in a military coup after only a year in office. Egyptian society had by then become perhaps irredeemably divided. Millions celebrated the coup, and few protested the deadly repression of the Muslim Brotherhood that followed.

"In Arab Spring countries in which dictators were toppled, citizens tried to build democracies more or less from scratch."

There is a danger that a post-Maduro Venezuela will fall victim to Egypt-style revenge-takings. The country has a history of attempted coups and political rhetoric can be polarized, casting a shadow on the compromises and reconciliation that will eventually be necessary.

But Guaidó and his party, Voluntad Popular, are social democrats, not right-wing extremists. When Guaidó took an oath declaring himself interim president, he did so holding a copy of the Venezuelan constitution decorated with a portrait of Simón Bolívar, a revolutionary who led an independence struggle against the Spanish Empire in the nineteenth century. Bolívar is a hero to Maduro, too. Chávez renamed the country after him: “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”

A decade ago, I spent a day with the Voluntad Popular’s national coordinator, Leopoldo Lopez (now under house arrest), as he campaigned in the poor hillside slums of Caracas where Chávez once drew his most fervent supporters. He understood then, as Guaidó does now, that Venezuela’s opposition cannot win a class war that appears to pit the rich against the poor.

Venezuela is also lucky to have the neighbours it does. Most of Latin America is now democratic. Only Venezuela and Cuba are judged by Freedom House to be “not free.” Colombia, bordering Venezuela on the west, is “partly free,” as are several other Latin American countries. This matters, because countries over time tend to become like their neighbours, and Venezuela is surrounded by states that are better governed than it is.

Superpowers can shape the governance of states in their spheres of influence, too. We saw this with the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. The European Union, although not a state, has exercised an outsized influence on the governance of former Soviet bloc countries that wished to join it.

The Venezuelan opposition is today championed by the United States. It is true that America has been a malignant influence in Latin America — supporting, to give but one example, the murderous military junta that replaced Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973. But America’s support for democracy in Latin America from 1978 on was crucial to the region’s democratization.

Venezuelan democracy is also a goal of the “Lima Group,” consisting of 13 countries in the Americas that support Guaidó and oppose the Maduro dictatorship. Canada is a leading member of the group.

The Maduro government has international support, too. Cuba is invested in blocking Venezuela’s democratization. Russia would like to stop it, too. Moscow sent soldiers into Ukraine to prevent that country successfully transitioning to a stable democracy that is integrated into Europe. It did the same to prop up Assad in Syria when his regime was threatened by revolution and civil war. In Venezuela, however, Russia has less at stake, and its support is unlikely to extend beyond propaganda and money.


Exactly how the Venezuelan opposition’s international allies might help it is not an easy question.

America has sent aid to Venezuela’s borders as a humanitarian gesture and a pressure tactic. Maduro’s government has refused to let the aid into the country. Clashes on Venezuela’s frontier with Brazil and with Colombia, involving Maduro supporters and security forces on one side and his opponents on the other, resulted in at least four deaths last weekend after pro-Maduro militia fired at anti-government demonstrators in Brazil.

US President Donald Trump has left open the possibility of military intervention in Venezuela, claiming “all options are on the table.” Guaidó says that after the weekend’s events, he is asking the international community to do the same. This was foolish, as it gives oxygen to those wishing to portray Maduro as some sort of resistance hero standing up to American imperialism.

Writing in The Washington Post, Venezuelan journalist Francisco Toro says the chances of an American attack on Venezuela are in fact rising. This would be a disaster, he says, not least because it would target the Venezuelan military, which is the only institution capable of preventing the country from collapsing into lawlessness.

Gauido
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido greets supporters at a meeting to coordinate humanitarian aid in Caracas, February 16, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

But an American military intervention probably won’t happen. Maduro has not called his opponents rats and cockroaches and vowed to cleanse his country “house by house,” as did Gaddafi in Libya, before NATO launched an air war to unseat him. The cruelty of Maduro’s security forces does not approach that of Assad’s in Syria, where America armed opposition fighters. And American interventions in both those countries did not work out the way Washington had hoped. Even a president less isolationist than Trump would be reluctant to send soldiers to Venezuela.

This is for the best. Venezuela doesn’t need American bombs. It might, however, benefit from measures that target what Maduro relies on to stay in power: money and the loyalty of the security services.

Economic sanctions are often disparaged because they hurt everyday people while leaving those in power untouched. They also provide governments with a scapegoat to blame for the sorry state of the country they run. Imposing them is a risky tactic. But citizens are already hungry in Venezuela, while oil wealth flows to the military. Oil sanctions, such as those America has imposed, may result in less money for loyal generals, and therefore less loyal generals. A vulnerability in this strategy is that Russia may pick up the slack by buying more Venezuelan oil.

Sanctions that target individual members of the regime may also undermine the security forces’ loyalty, as might the threat of eventual prosecution for human rights violations. Military men who calculate that they risk their own futures by committing acts of violence to protect Maduro may hesitate before doing so. Canada has already imposed sanctions on 40 Venezuelan officials, and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland says Canada is talking to allies about expanding this list.

That such measures haven’t yet yielded results doesn’t mean Maduro’s hold on power is secure. If it slips, Venezuela will face a second, bigger challenge in protecting the democracy that will replace Maduro’s dictatorship. Venezuela’s neighbours and allies can help at that stage by tightening their political, cultural and trade ties with it.

Such an outcome might seem unlikely at the moment. The last two decades have provided too many examples of dashed hopes for democracy elsewhere in the world, and it’s easy to be cynical about its chances in Venezuela. But the country is well placed to succeed where others have not.