Venezuela’s opposition needs to ditch the fantasy that it is running a government and go back to contesting power where the regime is weakest: in the arena of popular support.
The decision by the National Assembly elected in 2020 to appoint an electoral board including two respected opposition figures has set off a flurry of speculation about the political scenarios that may open up as a result. Some tend to see the decision as an important opening, and suggest that the Biden administration should reciprocate with concessions of its own to begin to ease tensions and start clearing the way for meaningful negotiations.
Interestingly, many critics of the decision and advocates of a hardline stand share a similar reading. In their view, there is no reasonable way of reading these moves without thinking that there was some implicit or explicit quid pro quo with the regime. Popular Will legislator of the 2015 National Assembly Freddy Guevara put it succinctly when he wrote on his Twitter account, “If the regime ‘conceded’ some new members of the CNE…What did it get in return? And from whom?”
I am generally sympathetic with the idea that any strategy that aims to contribute to a peaceful, negotiated and democratic solution to Venezuela’s tragedy must seek some level of engagement with the Maduro regime. This is because, whether we like it or not, Maduro and his clique are the ones who wield the power. Yet I also believe that thinking about Maduro’s recent steps as concessions or gestures of “good will” is at best misguided and at worst naïve. A close look at these recent gestures highlights that there is not much difference between what Maduro is willing to “concede” in a negotiation now and what he was willing to offer at just about any time since he became president. What has changed is not the willingness of Maduro to make overtures, but the willingness of the opposition and the United States to accept them.
The hard truth is that the reason we will start to get new negotiations now is not because Maduro is forced to make concessions but because the opposition and the United States have failed in their attempt to overthrow him. Acknowledging this failure, and recognizing the need to completely overhaul the opposition’s current strategy, is a necessary condition for having any chance of confronting Maduro at the ballot box.
The idea that the appointment of new electoral board members should be seen as a significant concession from Maduro is simply inconsistent with the historical experience. Chavismo’s willingness to appoint opposition members to the CNE has a long history. Between 2003 and 2005, the Chávez-dominated Supreme Court appointed an electoral council with two out of five board members from the opposition. The practice of appointing just one opposition board member goes back to 2006, when the government gained control of 100% of the National Assembly seats after an opposition boycott. Even faced with the possibility of appointing a fully pro-government board, Chavismo was willing to let at least one of the board members be a representative of the opposition – a fact that by itself should make us cautious regarding reading these appointments as concessions. More recently, the CNE appointed on June of last year had two representatives from non-government parties that chose to participate in those elections. The government also expressed its willingness to give the opposition two representatives during the failed Dominican Republic negotiations of 2018.
What has changed over the past two years is not the willingness of Maduro to make symbolic concessions that do not threaten his hold on power. What is new is the willingness of his opponents to accept them.
It is worth going somewhat more into the details here. In February 2018, the government and opposition were involved in intense negotiations hosted by the Dominican Republic ahead of that year’s scheduled presidential elections. Unfortunately, these negotiations broke down, but not before several proposals and counter-proposals had been made. What is key for our argument is that the proposal that the government was willing to subscribe at the time – originally assembled by former Spanish president and mediator José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero – would have involved the opposition gaining at least an additional council board member, thus ending in a 3-2 distribution of the electoral board.
The June 2020 appointments were made by the Venezuelan Supreme Court in preparation for that year’s parliamentary elections, which were boycotted by the mainstream opposition. Those appointments included two board members representing the opposition parties that chose to participate in the December 2020 parliamentary elections. One of the board members, José Gutiérrez Parra, was the brother of the leader of the dissident faction of Democratic Action that gained control of the party – and which, with 433 thousand votes, ended up being the most voted non-government party in the December 6 elections. The appointees to the other position – initially Rafael Simón Jiménez and later Leonardo Morales – were linked to the group of centrist parties that had entered into talks with the government through the National Dialogue Roundtable in September 2019.
Of course, it can always be claimed that these groups were not “genuine” opposition. But that type of reasoning is fallacious, and its implied argument is ultimately irrelevant. By definition, any opposition group that reaches negotiated agreements with the government can be said to be collaborating with the regime. There will always be actors who decide to sit out the negotiation because they believe that they can strengthen their negotiating position by refusing to reach an agreement with the regime; viewed from their standpoint, everyone else is a collaborationist. What is important is not how you label the parties, but that the government was willing to give two CNE representatives to the parties willing to take the deal.
A similar point can be made regarding the other unilateral “concessions” presumably granted by Maduro. The decision to sign an agreement with the World Food Program (WFP) brings no tangible political benefits to the opposition. In fact, the visit of WFP Director David Beasley to the country served to reaffirm the image of Nicolás Maduro as a president that is clearly in control of the country and dealt with as such by the international community. Beasley’s visit was, in that sense, a far cry from the February 2019 attempt to intimidate Maduro into ceding control over the territory by calling on the military to let into the country shipments of humanitarian aid on Guaidó’s orders.
This is not to discount the credible news reports of complex negotiations between the Maduro regime and the WFP that led to the decision. Maduro is said to have initially balked at admitting the program into the country because of fears of relinquishing control over the distribution of food. Such a negotiation probably did take place and appears to have ended in an agreement whose specifics (and how they relate to the initial demands of each of the parties) will likely remain out of the public eye.
Yet this is no different from the type of negotiation that typically takes place between many authoritarian regimes and international organizations, in which the political opposition plays absolutely no role. Yes, the WFP is now providing assistance in Venezuela. It is also doing so in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe. If you are expecting its entrance to be a precursor to a process of Venezuelan democratization, I suggest you do not hold your breath.
My claim is not that these decisions are unrelated to a desire of Maduro to ease tensions and set the ground for an improvement of relations with the United States. The decision to grant house arrest to the six CITGO executives convicted for corruption on April 30, 2021, is perhaps the best example in that it clearly indicates that the government is using one of its bargaining chips to gain points in its search for the negotiations with the White House it has always sought. Even then, the way that the decision was deployed – the granting of house arrest, a reversible decision, rather than the more irreversible decision of letting them return to the United States – suggests that Maduro is keeping his cards quite close to his chest. And again, this is far from the first time that Maduro has shown willingness to release Americans in captivity as a gesture to the United States. Recall that on May 2018, it released Joshua Holt, a Mormon missionary arrested on charges of stockpiling weapons in Venezuela after mediation from Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.
The point of these examples is not to argue that these gestures by Maduro are meaningless. On the contrary, there is a good chance that they will serve to jump-start a new process of negotiations. Their point is to highlight that these should not be read as a signal of weakness by Maduro. What has changed over the past two years is not the willingness of Maduro to make symbolic concessions that do not threaten his hold on power. What is new is the realization by his opponents that they have no other choice than to engage Maduro.
THE PERILS OF POSITIVE THINKING
In his White House memoir, former National Security Advisor John Bolton recounts the discussion of the decision to impose oil sanctions on Venezuela in January of 2019. “Why don’t we go for a win here?” Bolton said before a meeting of the interagency Principals Committee in the White House Situation Room. The idea behind Bolton’s argument was that oil sanctions would quickly bankrupt the Maduro regime and force the military to withdraw his support for him.
Even the staunchest supporters of sanctions would have to admit that, judged on these terms, the sanctions were a resounding failure. Of course, some may still argue that the opposition is in a stronger bargaining position now than it would have been in the absence of sanctions, but if there is something no one with a modicum of sanity would contend is that they produced a quick win for anyone other than Maduro.
Putting aside the assessment of whether sanctions have helped or hurt the opposition, what is increasingly clear is that Juan Guaidó and his interim government are undergoing their worst political moment since they first claimed power in January of 2019. According to the most recent survey by the Datanálisis polling company, carried out between April 4 and 17, Juan Guaidó’s approval rating is now at 15.4%, down from 61.2% when it was first measured in February of 2019 (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Approval ratings of main political leaders
Nor is Guaidó eclipsed by other opposition political leaders. Henrique Capriles, broadly seen as his main opponent in the opposition as well as one of the key figures behind the CNE negotiations of the past few weeks, stands at just 11.4% approval – exactly the same level as that of Nicolás Maduro.
The most popular political leader in Venezuela is neither Nicolás Maduro nor Juan Guaidó. Nor is it hardliner María Corina Machado, nor former presidential candidates Henrique Capriles or Henri Falcón. The most popular political leader in Venezuela is not alive. The most popular politician in Venezuela is the late socialist leader Hugo Chávez, whose approval rating of 62.8% dwarfs those of any of the nation’s politicians.
The most popular political leader in Venezuela is neither Nicolás Maduro nor Juan Guaidó. The most popular politician in Venezuela is the late socialist leader Hugo Chávez.
These results suggest that the opposition may not be as electorally competitive as it believes itself to be, even in the event that free and fair elections are held. It is probably true that if a leader emerges who is capable of unifying anti-Maduro forces and generating reasonable electoral turnout, Maduro will lose those elections. This is what would have likely happened in a Maduro-Guaidó election held in early 2019. But with a splintered and divided opposition and in the absence of clear leadership, electoral outcomes are likely to be much more unpredictable. There appears to be significant space for a pro-Chávez, anti-Maduro candidate who could step in to fill the vacuum left by existing options.
Over the past four years, the opposition’s leadership has become progressively captured by right-leaning movements which thrive in an environment of polarization. Their advocacy for economic sanctions and willingness to call for international military action play well in the streets of Miami, but fall flat in the ears of the majority of Venezuelan voters, many of who still feel broadly sympathetic with Chávez’s social agenda. The more convinced these groups become that Maduro can only be driven out by force or economic pressure, the more they focus on lobbying Washington and Brussels and the less they seem to care about what Venezuelan voters on the ground say. As one prominent opposition leader now in exile once told me, “we are willing to pay the popularity cost of defending sanctions if they help drive Maduro from power.” To use a popular Venezuelan refrain, the failure of this strategy has left the Venezuelan opposition with neither the goat of political legitimacy nor the rope of popular support needed to tie it down.
THE LOSER’S CURSE
In politics, those who overestimate their strength are most likely to lose. If you are convinced that you will defeat your adversary, you will demand that he back down without conditions and refuse to cut any type of deals. This is why rational-choice game theory is not very good at predicting bar brawls. If I know my enemy will beat the crap out of me, the only rational action is to head for the door. If we both decide to fight, one of us will ex post turn out to have been wrong. Those who systematically decide to fight tend to also be those who are excessively optimistic about their chances, and those who systematically tend to lose.
External observers to Venezuela are well advised to take opposition claims with a grain of salt. The Venezuelan opposition’s track record of overestimating its chances of success is by now nothing short of legendary. We are after all talking about the same opposition that thought it could dissolve all branches of government without alienating the military when it briefly seized power in 2002. It is also the same opposition that tried to drive the economy into the ground through an oil strike in 2003 and was then surprised that voters rejected them in the polls one year later. It is the same opposition that gifted the government control of the National Assembly by boycotting the 2005 parliamentary elections on the belief that Chávez would somehow be too embarrassed to accept it.
Venezuela is the only country for which the person recognized by much of the international community as its legitimate democratic leader was neither nationally elected nor can be voted out of office.
Almost two decades later, remarkably little has changed. At several moments during the recent standoff, the opposition leadership could have reached agreements with the Maduro regime that, in retrospect, look quite reasonable. Some of those agreements – such as the 2018 Dominican Republic proposal for a more balanced CNE and an invitation to UN observers to oversee that year’s presidential elections – would have been clearly better than what it is now capable of getting in negotiations.
Any analysis of Venezuela’s current political standoff must start out from the admission of what is a stark if uncomfortable reality: for now, Maduro has won the standoff. This, of course, does not guarantee that he will prevail in the end. But it does tell us that he is clearly in a stronger position vis-à-vis the opposition and the United States than he was four years ago. Refusing to acknowledge this reality is simply going to lead to further misdiagnoses feeding into continued strategic mistakes.
The loser’s curse in politics comes from the fact that those who are most likely to lose – those who systematically overestimate their own strength – are also those most likely to want to continue fighting even in the face of defeat. In order for a political movement or force to have chosen a strategy of confrontation, it must have initially believed its chances of winning to be high. Yet even as the conflict drags on and the signals become clear that it is not winning, it is precisely those leaders who pushed for confrontation who have the most to lose from admitting defeat. In highly polarized conflict settings, political movements end up controlled by hardline groups who want to continue fighting until the end, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are losing.
One of the problems for them is that admitting defeat after a high-stakes battle is not easy without relinquishing leadership. In more mature political systems, strong parties ensure that political defeats will lead to a substitution of leadership. Yet, no such mechanism exists in the Venezuelan political system, where parties have a strong tradition of top-down, centralized hierarchies inspired by the Leninist political model. Much less does it exist in Guaidó’s interim government, which lacks any institutional mechanisms to replace its leadership. Venezuela has the distinction of being the only country for which the person recognized by much of the Western world as its legitimate democratic leader was neither nationally elected nor can be voted out of office.
In the end, what we are seeing is not an indication that Maduro is ceding to pressure nor that he is willing to undertake any significant political reforms. With Venezuela’s oil revenues rising and an economy that finally appears headed out of recession (Figure 2), Maduro has little reason to make any meaningful concessions at this stage. His mostly symbolic recent overtures are not very different from those that he has offered in the past. They are not a sign of weakness. However hard it may be to accept so, we need to come to terms with the fact that they are a sign of his strength.
Figure 2: Crude oil production
More realistically, what we are witnessing appears to be the beginning of a disorderly and potentially messy process of leadership change , in which the defeat of the interim government’s strategy has made it vulnerable enough for other groups to contend for the opposition mantle. It is hard to see any specific faction firmly prevailing in this confrontation for the time being. Guaidó and other hardline groups will likely retain considerable support among the diaspora as well as in the more right-leaning sectors of the international community. Capriles and the more domestically-focused factions of the mainstream opposition will face an uphill battle to mobilize voters amid widespread disenchantment and distrust of any government-appointed electoral authorities. Their relationship with the more centrist forces that have consistently advocated for negotiations and electoral participation and opposed unpopular sanctions remains tense and adversarial. A broadly disaffected electorate creates ample space for alternative leaderships to emerge that are unaligned with either the government or opposition.
Venezuela’s opposition needs to ditch the fantasy that it runs a government and go back to thinking of itself as what it should have never stopped being: a broad and inclusive electoral majority.
The sooner the opposition comes to terms with reality, the sooner it will be able to start mapping out a strategy to effectively confront Maduro again. The international community could best invest its efforts in promoting a reunification of the opposition forces that includes the centrist groups that are better poised to speak to moderate voters without whose support it is impossible to build a solid electoral majority. Rebuilding a democratic coalition like what existed up to 2015 will require constructing a shared understanding of the challenges ahead as well as coming to terms with the failure of the last four years’ strategy of electoral boycotts and empty saber-rattling. Venezuela’s opposition needs to ditch the fantasy that it runs a government and go back to thinking of itself as what it should have never stopped being: a broad and inclusive electoral majority that contests power from the regime in the arena in which Maduro is weakest – that of popular support.
 Freddy Guevara (@FreddyGuevaraC). “Quienes tenemos serias dudas con ese “nuevo” CNE, necesitamos que nos respondan algo: Si el régimen “cedió” unos rectores del CNE… Qué recibió a cambio? Y de quién? Es justo y lógico preguntarlo.” [Those of us who have serious doubts about this “new” CNE, we need you to answer us something: If the regime “gave in” some rectors of the CNE … What did it receive in return? And from whom? It is fair and logical to ask.] May 6, 2021, 03:15pm, tweet.
 Concretely, the Zapatero proposal involved the appointment of two new board members to replace two outgoing pro-government members. The new members would have been appointed by mutual agreement. We assume that a logical default solution given that rule would be that the opposition and government would each have received one additional board member. While the government reserved veto power over the opposition appointee, the opposition had the same authority over the government appointee. ¿Qué propuestas discutieron el gobierno y la oposición en República Dominicana? – Prodavinci
 Bolton, J. (2020). The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir. The New York Times: New York.