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What is the true balance of forces in Venezuela’s National Assembly?

An analysis of legislator preferences as expressed by roll-call votes as well as public statements finds that Juan Guaidó would have received 86 votes against Luis Parra’s 71 in a full session to elect the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly. While still maintaining the support of a plurality of legislators, these calculations show that Guaidó’s ability to achieve the needed quorum for a valid session is now dependent on the votes of Amazonas legislators, whose validity is contested by Maduro’s forces. We estimate that the opposition has lost 29 legislator votes since the 2015 elections through a combination of judicial actions against it and its own errors in coalition management.

Francisco Rodríguez[1]

At around noon on Sunday, January 5th, a group of dissident opposition legislators voted with representatives of Nicolás Maduro’s socialist party to elect a new President of the National Assembly of Venezuela.  The legality of the vote was immediately contested by the country’s opposition, which convened an alternate session of the Assembly to re-elect Juan Guaidó for another term as President of the same Assembly. As a result, Venezuela now has two boards that claim to be the legally elected leaders of its Legislative Power.

Importantly, maintaining the Assembly’s presidency is key for Guaidó’s claim to being the legitimate interim president of Venezuela, which relies on a constitutional provision according to which the head of the Legislature will hold the interim office of the presidency in the absence of an elected president at the start of the constitutional term.  The country’s opposition, as well as a significant part of the international community, does not recognize the 2018 presidential elections as free and fair and thus claims that there is no legitimately elected president for the 2019-25 presidential term in Venezuela.

However, there is still considerable uncertainty regarding exactly what happened on that day and what it tells us about the balance of power within the legislative branch.  Both groups claim to have had a majority of legislators present in the sessions at the time of the vote.  Parra claims to have obtained 81 votes in a session attended by 150 legislators[2] but has yet to produce attendance records.  Since no roll-call vote was taken (voting was conducted by a show of hands)[3], there is no direct way to verify the number of legislators present or the number of votes obtained by Parra.

On the other hand, focusing on the balance of votes within the chamber is not necessarily meaningful given the evidence that some legislators were blocked from entering the chamber.[4]  Because of the way in which the National Assembly’s rules of debate (originally penned by Chavista-controlled legislatures) are written, it is technically possible to elect a National Assembly President with the support of as few as 43 legislators.  This is because while 84 legislators (more than half of the chamber’s 167 representatives) must be present for there to be a valid quorum, the board of directors of the Assembly is chosen by a simple majority of those legislators present.  Thus, it is not difficult for a group that controls access to the chamber to assure itself of a majority of legislator votes.[5]

VENEZUELAN ARITHMETIC 101

Analysis of the roll-call vote given in the evening session is more informative.  Since the session was broadcast live and is publicly available[6] there is no doubt that the legislators referred to actually cast their votes.  Therefore, we can use the roll call vote to infer legislators’ support for Guaidó at present and at the time of the vote.[7]

Our primary focus of interest is estimating the size of the coalition supporting Guaidó, for which the January 5 roll-call gives us the best direct evidence.  Understanding how many votes Guaidó commands is only part of the picture; in order to know the overall balance of forces we would also need to estimate Parra’s votes.  We attempt to estimate Parra’s support further below, though the absence of a roll-call vote makes that exercise more tentative.  However, there is one very relevant sense in which estimating the size of the Guaidó coalition in itself is relevant: to assess whether he commands the majority of votes necessary for the required quorum for the Assembly to session and take valid decisions, which is 84 legislators.

In total, 100 legislators took part in the vote held during the alternate session which re-elected Guaidó held on the evening of January 5th in the headquarters of the pro-opposition newspaper El Nacional.  All of these voted for the slate of candidates headed by Juan Guaidó.[8] It is crucial to understand that this does not imply that Guaidó would have counted with 100 votes in a regular session of the National Assembly (which is what we seek to estimate).  Several of the legislators present at the session re-electing Guaidó were substitutes of principals whose votes may have differed from theirs.  In fact, precisely because of the regime’s efforts to co-opt legislators has been focused on principal legislators, there are several cases in which we know that the principal sided with Parra (or was unwilling to support Guaidó) while the substitute supported Guaidó. In a regular session of the Legislature, the substitute’s vote intention would be rendered irrelevant if the principal were to show up.

In fact, it is technically possible for two legislatures to function in parallel and for both to hold sessions that satisfy the valid attendance quorum of more than half of legislators even if they have no participants in common.  This will happen if they are both partially stacked with substitutes whose principals participate in the alternate session. In normal conditions, it would correspond to the judiciary to decide which of the two sessions has been convened constitutionally.  In Venezuela, where the sides to the conflict do not recognize the same judiciary, there is no straightforward way to resolve this conflict.

Table 1 shows the breakdown of the 100 votes obtained by Guaidó in the evening session by the legislator’s condition (principal or substitute) as well as, in the case of substitutes, by whether the principal would have voted for Guaidó.   We also provide a subdivision by party or legislative group of the legislator who voted in the session. Of the 100 legislators, 14 were substitutes of legislators who did not support Guaidó.  These are either legislators who explicitly voiced their support for Parra (11) or who belonged to parties that had announced that they would not back Guaidó’s re-election (3).  This means that in a regular Assembly session in which legislators not supporting Guaidó were present, Guaidó would have counted with the support of only 86 legislators, two votes more than the minimum majority of 84.

Table 1: Breakdown of January 5 evening vote and hypothetical plenary votes
Source: Own calculations

However, 3 of those 86 legislators represent the state of Amazonas.[9]  Their suspension by the Supreme Court’s Electoral Chamber shortly after the 2015 election on fraud allegations is precisely what set off the protracted conflict of powers between the judicial and the legislative branches that continues to this day.  If we exclude those legislators, then Guaidó’s support would have fallen to 83, below the 84-vote threshold for a simple majority and valid quorum.  Note that this does not necessarily mean that Guaidó would have lost the vote for National Assembly President, as these 83 votes may still have exceeded the number of votes in favor of Parra (who himself claims to have obtained only 81 votes).  But it does mean that Guaidó would not have had enough votes to sustain a valid quorum.[10] This is likely the reason why Guaidó spent so much effort on an unsuccessful attempt at trying to get all legislators, including the Amazonas deputies, into the chamber on the morning of January 5th

How many votes is Parra likely to have mustered?  In Table 2 we estimate the vote of a hypothetical plenary session in which all principals in the country joined the session.  We assume that e-vote is not permitted (we return to this below).  We also assume that all PSUV legislators would have voted for Parra, as well as all opposition dissidents who have been expelled from their parties for corruption investigations or have voiced their support for Parra. However, we assume that centrist minority parties (AP and Cambiemos) would have abstained.

Our results are summarized in Table 2.  If the Amazonas deputies had been allowed to vote, Parra would have gotten 71 votes and lost to Guaidó’s 86.  Without the Amazonas legislators, the difference would fall to 83-70.  Note that there are four empty seats and six legislators who would have abstained.  Therefore, whatever the scenario, it appears that Guaidó would have won the vote by a comfortable margin of 13-15 votes.[11]

Table 2: Hypothetical balance of forces in plenary vote (without e-vote)
Source: Own calculations

Given uncertainties about legislator loyalty, it is possible that the actual number of votes could have been different if the session had actually been held on Sunday morning.  For example, the hardline 16-J faction, which voted for Guaidó in the evening session, had previously threatened not to vote for Guaidó, whom they charge with being too soft on Maduro. Recently, they had refused to vote for a proposal to change the rules of debate to permit electronic voting sought by Guaidó and approved on December 17.  If their threat had effectively materialized, then Guaidó’s 86 potential votes would have fallen to 83, and to 80 without the Amazonas legislators.  Alternatively, there are several principal legislators who are in principle pro-Guaidó and are not in exile but nevertheless did not show up to the January 5th evening session despite having no apparent physical impediment to attending. Their failure to show at the vote introduces uncertainty as to how they would vote in a full session of the Legislature.

On the other hand, if Guaidó had fallen below the required threshold he would have likely invoked the e-vote provision approved on December 17 allowing legislators to cast virtual votes.  We estimate that this would have given him 9 additional votes, taking his majority to 95 votes (92 without Amazonas).

WHERE DID ALL THE OPPOSITION VOTES GO?

The bottom line is that while Guaidó still would in all likelihood have comfortably won a fair vote for the presidency of the Assembly, he commands the support of only around half of all legislators, making his coalition vulnerable.  This is perhaps the more notable fact that surfaced out of the tumultuous January 5 sessions.  Over the course of the past four years, the opposition’s majority has fallen steeply from the 112 legislators it won in 2015 to 86 legislators (83 without the Amazonas deputies).  How did this happen?

The answer is a combination of persecution, persuasion, exhaustion and mistakes.  While some legislative seats have been lost as a result of overt and explicit actions by the judiciary, others reflect voluntary defections by legislators who were originally elected in an opposition slate and who have decided not to back Guaidó, and others reveal genuine dissent within opposition ranks.

Table 3 lists the 29 legislative seats lost by the opposition during the past four years.  Seven of these were lost as a result of judicial decisions.  This includes the 3 Amazonas legislators whose election was invalidated by the Supreme Court’s electoral chamber and 4 seats which have been rendered vacant as a result of political persecution as both principal and substitutes are in exile, jail, or otherwise impeded from attending.

Table 3: Reasons for individual legislator losses by Guaidó coalition
Sources: Own calculations

But this only explains around one-fourth of the loss of seats.  The remaining loss of votes shows a more conventional pattern of defections and dissent.  Six votes were lost as a result of the expulsion of legislators that took place in November of last year after investigative news site Armandoinfo published a report containing allegations of wrongdoing.  Another six legislators explicitly defected, announcing that they would back Parra despite still belonging to parties that support Guaidó.  Four legislators belong to minority centrist parties that strongly disagree with Guaidó on key policy and strategic issues such as economic sanctions or the boycotting of elections (both of which are supported by Guaidó but rejected by large segments of voters) and have decided not to back him.  Five legislative seats were lost by a combination of reasons, where the principal has gone into exile and the substitute switched sides. One additional legislator (Biagio Pilieri) showed up on Sunday evening’s session but did not vote for unknown reasons.[12] 

WAS THE LOSS OF LEGISLATORS INEVITABLE?

It is not unusual for authoritarian governments to be able to co-opt large parts of their opposition.  Because autocracies have unbridled control over the use of force and significant economic levers, it is easy for them to generate powerful incentives to sway some elected politicians. To a certain extent, what is surprising is that Maduro was not able to use these tools more effectively in the past, and that it is only recently that he has proven able to achieve large defections from the opposition.

But it is not enough to simply look at Maduro’s actions to explain the large decline in opposition support among legislators. If we seek to understand the magnitude of the parliamentary losses experienced in 2019, it is also important to consider some of the strategic decisions made by Guaidó and his governing team.  Holding together coalitions is a complex task, and there is evidence to suggest that some of the strategic choices made by the Guaidó administration may have contributed to accelerating the rate of legislator attrition.

Coalitions are typically held together by a combination of policy concessions and appointments.  It is common for coalitions to include actors with different viewpoints on key policy and strategic decisions. These actors are often persuaded to continue to support the coalition through the deployment of selective incentives.  Because it is difficult to maintain everyone happy on central policy issues (such as whether or not to negotiate with the regime), positions on subsidiary policy dimensions can play an important role in holding together a coalition.  So will appointments to key public offices, which are often remarkably effective in getting politicians to change their policy views.

During his administration, Guaidó has made relatively few appointments to public office, presumably out of concern with creating positions with no effective power.  He also has not tapped the funds in bank accounts of the Republic or PDVSA that were transferred to his management as a result of his recognition by the United States (except for very limited purposes).  Both of these decisions have diminished his capacity to offer the necessary selective incentives to hold the coalition together.

When the Guaidó government has made appointments, it has been much more likely to choose technocrats than political figures.  To take one example, when a Debt Restructuring Advisory Commission was appointed in July 2019 and tasked with issuing general guidelines for dealing with the nation’s debt, it was integrated by two academics and a former Wall Street analyst. Notably, it did not have any representatives from the National Assembly’s Finance Commission, which had been overseeing and investigating debt issuance decisions since 2016.[13]

If we consider the list of opposition legislators that openly backed Parra, it is striking that of the 18 legislators (14 of which are principals), none is from the capital region[14]. In stark contrast, the two highest ranking parliamentary appointees of Guaidó (Foreign Minister Julio Borges and UN representative Miguel Pizarro) are legislators who represent districts of the country’s capital. Greater geographic balance and emphasis on regional issues could have helped Guaidó deal with the discontent among legislators from the provinces.

There is also the issue of how to deal with dissidence.  When in September of 2019, a number of centrist minority opposition parties announced that they had accepted to participate in negotiations with the Maduro regime, the reaction of the Guaidó team was to strongly attack them for entering into a “false dialogue,” claiming that the government was trying to use them to create a “tailor-made opposition.” [15] It is not surprising that these parties, while refusing to back Parra’s candidacy, also refused to vote for Guaidó on the evening of January 5th.

Guaidó’s dissidence problems are not limited to the centrist parties. They have also had to do with reining in hardliners.  As we noted above, the 16-J faction had threatened not to vote for Guaidó on January 5th and only seems to have changed its mind after that morning’s events. Relations have been tense with this hardline faction for some time; for example, the group has systematically complained that Guaidó violated debate rules by impeding discussion of topics on which 16-J dissented from the majority. 

The large attrition in legislative support should also lead to a reconsideration of the effectiveness of individual sanctions in spurring regime change.  The selectiveness and conditionality of individual sanctions has often been touted as one of their advantages. When on April 30th, the commander of the National Intelligence Service sided with a failed military rebellion against Maduro, the Treasury Department promptly removed sanctions on him, citing the case as an example “that U.S. sanctions need not be permanent and are intended to bring about a positive change of behavior”[16]  However, the fact that the opposition has lost at least 17 congressional seats through defections (and gained none) over the past year precisely as these sanctions intensified suggests that this tool is at best ineffective – and at worst counterproductive – in weakening the governing coalition.

It may well be that the events of the past few days will strengthen Guaidó – at least for the time being – and lead opposition groups to rally around him in the defense of the last bastion of democratic institutionality. Yet unless the opposition leadership revises its approach to dealing with intra-coalition differences and its international allies reconsider their approach to engaging with the regime, there is a risk that the problems that generated this large attrition in legislative support will continue to weigh on the prospects for real democratic change in Venezuela.

Notes


[1] Director, Oil for Venezuela and Visiting Professor, Stone Center for Latin American Studies, Tulane University.  E-mail: frodriguez@oilforvenezuela.org, frodriguez1@tulane.edu.

[2] Luis Eduardo Parra R (@LuisEParra78). “Como cada #5Ene, el día de ayer, la Asamblea Nacional eligió una nueva Junta Directiva de conformidad con la Constitución y el Reglamento de Interior y de Debates, donde obtuvimos 81 votos de los 150 diputados presentes.” [As in every January 5, yesterday, the National Assembly chose a new board in compliance with the Constitution and the Internal Debate Rules of the Assembly, were we obtained 81 votes from 150 lawmakers present]. January 6, 2020 3:42pm. Tweet.   However, the government TV station Telesur had originally reported that 140 legislators were present. teleSur English (@telesurenglish) Luis Eduardo Parra has been elected president of #Venezuela’s National Assembly with 140 legitimate votes. January 5, 2020 3:08pm. Tweet.  Constitutional Convention President Diosdado Cabello, in turn, claimed that an opposition legislator had admitted there were 127 legislators in the session. Cabello respalda “legitimidad de la directiva autojuramentada de la AN” [Cabello backs the self-proclaimed AN’s legitimacy]. TalCual, January 6, 2020.

[3] A show of hands vote is customary by National Assembly rules and can only be replaced by a roll-call vote if a lawmaker requests it.  (Article 92 of the AN internal debate rules states that all votes are public, while article 94 stipulates that public votes are initially by show of hands, unless a lawmaker asks that it be done through roll-call). By Parra’s own count, however, the difference would have been of approximately 10 legislators, suggesting that the vote was close enough so as to make it difficult to ascertain who had the majority without a roll-call.

[4] There is significant confusion as to whose access was being restricted by the National Guard.  Government spokespersons claim that access was restricted only to the Amazonas legislators and to others who had arrest warrants issued against them(GNB y PNB se guían por lista de diputados «inhabilitados» para permitirles ingresar al Parlamento [GNB and PNB use an “disqualified” lawmaker list to decide if they can enter Parliament]. NoticiaAlDía, January 5, 2020. Also see GNB impide acceso a Juan Guaidó a la sede de la Asamblea Nacional [GNB impedes Juan Guaidó from accessing National Assembly palace], El Nacional, January 5 2020.), while the opposition claims that more legislators, including Guaidó, were restricted from access to the chamber. As we will show, an actual vote would have been tight enough that even just the Amazonas restrictions would have been enough to tilt the balance.

[5] In principle, opposition legislators could have left and broken quorum, as by Parra’s own admission he has the support of less than 84 legislators.  It is likely that the reason why the show of hands vote was taken at an unexpected moment was precisely to make it difficult for the opposition to try to break quorum.

[6] EN VIVO – Elección de la nueva directiva de la Asamblea Nacional 2020. [LIVE – Election of the new AN 2020 board]. Youtube, January 5, 2020.

[7] Since legislator preferences may have changes as a result of the political events on the past few days, the January 5 roll-call is most informative about preferences at the time of that vote; nevertheless, unless preference changes have been too great, it should still serve as a reasonable proxy for support at the present time.

[8] One legislator, Biagio Pilieri, was at the session but left before his turn to vote.  If we include him, attendance would be 101.

[9] One of those legislators, Romel Guzamana, represents the indigenous population of the Southern region of the country, which includes Amazonas and Apure.  Indigenous peoples have separate congressional representation as per article 125 of the Constitution.

[10] The National Assembly’s rules of debate do give the presidency enough latitude to incorporate substitutes when the principal is not present.  This means that if Parra’s supporters had tried to filibuster the vote, Guaidó could have incorporated the substitutes and in principle obtained the same 100 votes as in the evening session.  Nevertheless, while Guaidó could have managed to get re-elected legally, it would have been as a result of his authority to decide on the incorporation of substitutes, illustrating the fragility of the arrangements.  The threshold of 84 legislators in a full vote is meaningful because it implies that the result of the election is not conditional on the control by the Assembly’s presidency of the process of incorporation. 

[11] Is it possible that Parra obtained the 81 votes he claims in the morning session?  To do so, he would have had to gain an additional 11 votes.  We have not been able to identify the positions of opposition substitutes, but it is not impossible for there to be 11 substitutes from opposition, centrist or Chavista dissident votes that may have also been swayed by the government.  Nevertheless, we underscore again that a vote held while limiting access to the chamber has relatively little legal or normative significance.

[12] Pilieri has later claimed that he fully supports Guaidó (Bloque Parlamentario 16 de Julio (@fraccionAN16J) “2/2 #5Ene @omargonzalez6: Aunque la Fracción 16J tenia acordado abstenerse el día de hoy, decidimos de manera patriota apoyar a esta Junta Directiva” [2/2 #Jan5 @omargonzalez6: Though the 16J coaltion had agreed to not vote today, we have patriotically decided to support this Board], January 5, 2020 6:17pm) so he would potentially raise the total of votes to 87 (84 without Amazonas). Nevertheless, we prefer to hold to the strict criterion of observable votes cast rather than expressed voting intentions.  The rationale for this criterion is that legislators could have multiple incentives to dissemble, making it remarkably hard to gauge voting intentions from public statements when these contradict the vote cast.  Our methodological choice should not be taken as a judgment of this specific legislator’s loyalty to the opposition cause, on which we think there is a reasonable case that he can be expected to continue siding with the opposition.

[13] Although an expanded commission was created on August 13 to include some legislators, our discussions with market participants indicate that the role of these legislators in debt talks has been nonexistent.

[14] We count 18 legislators instead of the 17 in Table 3 to reflect the case of Lucila Pacheco, Zulia legislator originally elected as a substitute PSUV candidate who then joined the opposition yet now supports Parra. This vote is not a net loss because it originally belonged to PSUV. Rather, it is a vote that was initially gained and then lost.

[15] Julio Borges: aquellos que se presten al falso diálogo no representan a Venezuela. [Julio Borges: those who partake in the fake dialogue do not represent Venezuela]. America Digital news, September 19, 2019.

[16] Treasury Removes Sanctions Imposed on Former High-Ranking Venezuelan Intelligence Official After Public Break with Maduro and Dismissal. U.S. Department of Treasury, May 7, 2019.

La maldición del perdedor

La oposición venezolana debe deshacerse de la fantasía de que está presidiendo un gobierno y volver a competir por el poder donde el régimen es más débil: en el terreno del apoyo popular.

La decisión de la Asamblea Nacional electa en 2020 de nombrar una nueva junta directiva del Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) que incluye a dos respetadas figuras de la oposición ha desatado una oleada de especulaciones sobre los escenarios políticos que pueden abrirse. Algunos lo ven como una apertura importante y sugieren que la administración Biden debería responder con concesiones propias para comenzar a aliviar las tensiones y así despejar el camino para negociaciones significativas.

Curiosamente, muchos críticos de la decisión y defensores de una posición de línea dura comparten una lectura similar. En su opinión, no hay una manera razonable de leer estos movimientos sin pensar que hubo algún quid pro quo implícito o explícito con el régimen. El diputado de la Asamblea Nacional electa en 2015, Freddy Guevara, lo expresó de manera sucinta cuando escribió en su cuenta de Twitter: “Si el régimen “cedió” unos rectores del CNE…Qué recibió a cambio?Y de quién?”.[1]

En general, simpatizo con la idea de que cualquier estrategia que tenga como objetivo contribuir a una solución pacífica, negociada y democrática a la tragedia de Venezuela debe buscar algún nivel de entendimiento con el régimen de Maduro. Esto se debe a que, nos guste o no, Maduro y sus aliados son los que ejercen el poder. Sin embargo, también creo que pensar en las acciones recientes de Maduro como concesiones o gestos de “buena voluntad” es, en el mejor de los casos, equivocado y, en el peor, ingenuo. Una mirada cercana a estos gestos resalta que no hay mucha diferencia entre lo que Maduro está dispuesto a “conceder” en una negociación ahora y lo que estaba dispuesto a ofrecer en casi cualquier momento desde que asumió la presidencia. Lo que ha cambiado no es la voluntad de Maduro de hacer propuestas, sino la voluntad de la oposición y de Estados Unidos de aceptarlas.

La dura verdad es que la razón por la que veremos entablar nuevas negociaciones ahora no es porque Maduro se vea obligado a hacer concesiones, sino porque la oposición y Estados Unidos han fracasado en su intento de derrocarlo. Reconocer este fracaso, y reconocer asímismo la necesidad de revisar por completo la estrategia actual, es una condición necesaria para tener alguna posibilidad de enfrentar a Maduro en las urnas. 

FALACIAS CONCESIONALES

La idea de que el nombramiento del nuevo CNE debe verse como una concesión significativa de Maduro es simplemente inconsistente con la experiencia histórica. La voluntad del chavismo de nombrar miembros de la oposición al CNE tiene una larga historia. Entre 2003 y 2005, el Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, dominado por Chávez, nombró una junta directiva con dos miembros (de cinco) de oposición. La práctica de nombrar a un solo miembro de oposición se remonta a 2006, cuando el gobierno obtuvo el control del 100% de los escaños de la Asamblea Nacional después de un boicot de la oposición a las elecciones parlamentarias de 2005. Incluso frente a la posibilidad de nombrar una junta totalmente progubernamental, el chavismo estaba dispuesto a permitir que al menos uno de los miembros de la junta fuera un representante de la oposición, un hecho que por sí solo debería hacernos cautelosos al interpretar estos nombramientos como concesiones. Más recientemente, el CNE designado en junio del año pasado contó con dos representantes de partidos no gubernamentales que optaron por participar en esas elecciones. El gobierno también expresó su voluntad de otorgar a la oposición dos representantes durante las fallidas negociaciones de República Dominicana de 2018.

Vale la pena entrar un poco más en detalle. En febrero de 2018, el gobierno y la oposición participaron en intensas negociaciones celebradas en República Dominicana antes de las elecciones presidenciales programadas para ese año. Desafortunadamente, estas negociaciones fracasaron, pero no antes de que se hicieran varias propuestas y contrapropuestas. Lo que es clave para nuestro argumento es que la propuesta que el gobierno estaba dispuesto a suscribir en ese momento – originalmente presentada por el expresidente y facilitador español José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero – hubiera otorgado a la oposición un rector principal adicional al que ya tenía en el CNE, terminando así en una distribución 3-2 de la directiva.[2]

Los nombramientos de junio de 2020 fueron hechos por el Tribunal Supremo para realizar las elecciones parlamentarias de ese año, que fueron boicoteadas por la principal corriente de oposición. Las designaciones incluyeron a dos rectores que representaban a los partidos de oposición que optaron por participar en las elecciones parlamentarias. Uno de los rectores, José Gutiérrez Parra, es hermano del líder de la facción disidente de Acción Democrática que tomó el control del partido y que, con 433 mil votos, terminó siendo el partido no gubernamental más votado en las elecciones del 6 de diciembre. Los designados para el otro cargo -inicialmente Rafael Simón Jiménez y luego Leonardo Morales- estaban vinculados al grupo de partidos de centro que habían entablado conversaciones con el gobierno a través de la Mesa de Diálogo Nacional en septiembre de 2019.


 Lo que ha cambiado en los últimos dos años no es la voluntad de Maduro de hacer concesiones simbólicas que no amenacen su control del poder. Lo que ha cambiado es la disposición de sus contrincantes a aceptarlas.


Por supuesto, siempre se puede afirmar que estos grupos no eran una oposición “genuina”. Pero ese tipo de razonamiento es falaz y su argumento implícito es, en última instancia, irrelevante.  Por definición, cualquier grupo de oposición que llegue a acuerdos negociados con el gobierno puede ser llamado colaboracionista. Siempre habrá actores que decidan quedarse fuera de la negociación porque creen que pueden fortalecer su posición negociadora negándose a llegar a un acuerdo con el régimen; visto desde su perspectiva, el resto de los actores deben ser vistos como colaboracionistas.  Lo importante no es cómo unos actores se refieren a otros; lo relevante es que el gobierno de Maduro estaba dispuesto a ceder dos representantes del CNE a las partes dispuestas a aceptar el trato. 

Se puede hacer un punto similar con respecto a las otras “concesiones” unilaterales presuntamente otorgadas por Maduro. La decisión de firmar un acuerdo con el Programa Mundial de Alimentos (PMA) no aporta beneficios políticos tangibles a la oposición. De hecho, la visita del director del PMA, David Beasley, al país sirvió para reafirmar la imagen de Nicolás Maduro como un presidente que tiene claramente el control del país y es tratado como tal por la comunidad internacional. La visita de Beasley estuvo, en ese sentido, muy lejos del intento de febrero de 2019 de intimidar a Maduro para que cediera el control del territorio al pedir a los militares que dejaran entrar al país envíos de ayuda humanitaria por orden de Guaidó.

 Este argumento no descarta la validez de la información publicada en medios internacionales sobre las complejas negociaciones entre el régimen de Maduro y el PMA que culminaron con la llegada del programa al país. Según esa información, Maduro inicialmente se negó a admitir el programa en el país por temor a ceder el control sobre la distribución de alimentos. Tal negociación probablemente tuvo lugar y parece haber terminado en un acuerdo cuyos detalles (y cómo se relacionan tales detalles con las demandas iniciales de cada una de las partes) probablemente permanecerán fuera del ojo público por un buen tiempo.

 Sin embargo, esto no es diferente del tipo de negociación que típicamente tiene lugar entre muchos regímenes autoritarios y organizaciones internacionales, en las que la oposición política no juega absolutamente ningún papel. Sí, el PMA ahora está brindando asistencia en Venezuela. También lo está haciendo en Cuba, Irán, Corea del Norte, Siria y Zimbabue. Si usted espera que su entrada sea precursora de un proceso de democratización venezolana, espero que no esté muy apurado en ver resultados.

No estoy argumentando que estas decisiones no estén relacionadas con el deseo de Maduro de aliviar las tensiones y sentar las bases para una mejora de las relaciones con Estados Unidos. La decisión de otorgar arresto domiciliario a los seis ejecutivos de CITGO condenados por corrupción el mes pasado es quizás el mejor ejemplo de ello, ya que indica claramente que el gobierno está utilizando una de sus fichas para ganar puntos en su búsqueda de negociaciones con la Casa Blanca. Pero la forma en que se ejecutó la decisión, con la concesión del arresto domiciliario – una decisión reversible – en lugar de dejarlos regresar a Estados Unidos, sugiere que Maduro mantiene sus cartas pegadas al pecho. Y nuevamente, esto está lejos de ser la primera vez que Maduro ha mostrado su disposición a liberar a los estadounidenses en cautiverio como un gesto hacia Estados Unidos. Recordemos que, en mayo de 2018, liberó a Joshua Holt, un misionero mormón arrestado por cargos de almacenamiento de armas de guerra en Venezuela, luego de la mediación del senador republicano Orrin Hatch.

 El objetivo de estos ejemplos no es argumentar que estos gestos de Maduro no tengan sentido. Por el contrario, es muy probable que sirvan para impulsar un nuevo proceso de negociaciones. Su punto es resaltar que estos no deben ser interpretados como una señal de debilidad por parte de Maduro. Lo que ha cambiado en los últimos dos años no es la voluntad de Maduro de hacer concesiones simbólicas que no amenacen su control del poder. Lo nuevo es que sus oponentes se dan cuenta de que no tienen más remedio que tratar con Maduro.

LOS PELIGROS DEL PENSAMIENTO POSITIVO

En sus memorias de su tiempo en la Casa Blanca, el exasesor de Seguridad Nacional John Bolton relata la discusión de la decisión de imponer sanciones petroleras a Venezuela en enero de 2019. “¿Por qué no buscamos una victoria aquí?” [3], dijo Bolton antes de una reunión del Comité de Directores inter agencial en la Sala Situacional de la Casa Blanca. La idea detrás del argumento de Bolton era que las sanciones petroleras llevarían rápidamente a la bancarrota al régimen de Maduro y obligarían a los militares a retirarle su apoyo. 

Incluso los partidarios acérrimos de las sanciones tendrían que admitir que, juzgada con estos términos, las sanciones fueron un rotundo fracaso. Por supuesto, algunos todavía pueden argumentar que la oposición está en una posición de negociación más fuerte ahora de lo que hubiera estado en ausencia de sanciones, pero si hay algo que nadie con un mínimo de cordura sostendría es que produjeron una rápida victoria para cualquiera que no sea Maduro. 

Incluso dejando de lado la valoración de si las sanciones han ayudado o perjudicado a la oposición, lo que está cada vez más claro es que Juan Guaidó y su gobierno interino están atravesando su peor momento político desde que dijeron asumir el poder en enero de 2019. Según la encuesta más reciente realizada por Datanálisis, realizada entre el 4 y el 17 de abril, el índice de aprobación de Juan Guaidó está ahora en 15,4%, frente al 61,2% cuando se midió por primera vez en febrero de 2019 (ver Figura 1). 

Figura 1: índices de aprobación de los principales líderes políticos

Fuente: Datanálisis

Guaidó, sin embargo, no es eclipsado por otros líderes políticos de la oposición. Henrique Capriles, ampliamente visto como su principal contrincante en la oposición, así como una de las figuras clave detrás de las negociaciones del CNE de las últimas semanas, tiene solo el 11,4% de aprobación, exactamente el mismo nivel que el de Nicolás Maduro.

El líder político más popular de Venezuela no es Nicolás Maduro ni Juan Guaidó. Tampoco es la dirigente radical María Corina Machado, ni los excandidatos presidenciales Henrique Capriles o Henri Falcón. El líder político más popular de Venezuela no está vivo. El político más popular en Venezuela es el fallecido líder socialista Hugo Chávez, cuyo índice de aprobación del 62,8% eclipsa al de cualquiera de los políticos de la nación.


El líder político más popular de Venezuela no es Nicolás Maduro ni Juan Guaidó. El político más popular de Venezuela es el fallecido líder socialista Hugo Chávez.


Estos resultados sugieren que la oposición puede no ser tan competitiva electoralmente como cree que es, incluso en el caso de que se celebren elecciones libres y justas. Probablemente sea cierto que, si surge un líder capaz de unificar fuerzas anti-Maduro y generar una participación electoral razonable, Maduro perdería esas elecciones. Esto es lo que probablemente habría sucedido en una elección de Maduro-Guaidó celebrada a principios de 2019. Pero con una oposición fragmentada, y en ausencia de un liderazgo claro, es probable que los resultados electorales sean mucho más impredecibles. Parece haber un espacio significativo para un candidato pro-Chávez y anti-Maduro que podría llenar el vacío dejado por las opciones existentes.

Durante los últimos cuatro años, el liderazgo de la oposición ha sido capturado progresivamente por movimientos de inclinación de derecha que prosperan en un entorno de polarización. Su defensa de las sanciones económicas y su voluntad de pedir una acción militar internacional funcionan bien en las calles de Miami, pero no tienen mucha acogida entre la mayoría de los votantes venezolanos, muchos de los cuales todavía sienten una amplia simpatía por la agenda social de Chávez. Cuanto más convencidos se vuelven estos grupos de que Maduro solo puede ser expulsado por la fuerza o la presión económica, más se centran en hacer lobby en Washington y Bruselas y menos parece importarles lo que piensen los votantes venezolanos en la calle. Como me dijo una vez un destacado líder de la oposición que ahora se encuentra en el exilio, “estamos dispuestos a pagar el costo en popularidad de defender las sanciones si ayudan a sacar a Maduro del poder”. Apelando a un refrán popular venezolano, podríamos decir que el fracaso de esta estrategia ha dejado a la oposición venezolana sin el chivo de la legitimidad política ni el mecate del apoyo popular necesario para amarrarlo.

LA MALDICIÓN DEL PERDEDOR

En política, quienes sobrestiman su fuerza tienen más probabilidades de perder. Si estás convencido de que derrotarás a tu adversario, le exigirás que retroceda sin condiciones y te negarás a llegar a ningún tipo de acuerdo.  Ésta es la razón por la que la teoría de juegos de elección racional no es muy buena para predecir golpizas. Si sé que mi enemigo me va a moler a golpes, la única acción racional es irme corriendo hacia la puerta. Si ambos decidimos pelear, uno de los dos habrá estado equivocado a posteriori. Aquellos que sistemáticamente deciden luchar tienden a ser también aquellos que son excesivamente optimistas sobre sus posibilidades de ganar y por tanto sistemáticamente tienden a perder.

Es recomendable que quienes están comenzando a ver a Venezuela tomen las afirmaciones de la oposición con un grano de sal. El historial de la oposición venezolana de sobrestimar sus posibilidades de éxito ya es nada menos que legendario. Después de todo, estamos hablando de la misma oposición que pensó que podía disolver todos los poderes públicos sin alienar a los militares cuando tomó brevemente el poder en 2002. También es la misma oposición que trató de hundir la economía a través de una huelga petrolera en 2003 y luego se sorprendió de que los votantes los rechazaran en las urnas un año después. La misma oposición que le regaló al gobierno el control de la Asamblea Nacional al boicotear las elecciones parlamentarias de 2005, bajo la creencia de que Chávez de alguna manera estaría demasiado apenado de aceptarlo.


Venezuela es el único país para el cual la persona reconocida por gran parte de la comunidad internacional como su líder democrático legítimo no fue elegida a nivel nacional ni puede ser cambiada mediante una votación.


Casi dos décadas después, muy poco ha cambiado. El liderazgo de la oposición podría haber llegado a acuerdos con el régimen de Maduro que, en retrospectiva, parecen bastante razonables. Algunos de esos acuerdos, como la propuesta de República Dominicana de 2018 para un CNE más equilibrado y una invitación a los observadores de la ONU para supervisar las elecciones presidenciales de ese año, habrían sido claramente mejores de lo que ahora se puede aspirar lograr en una negociación. 

Cualquier análisis del actual enfrentamiento político de Venezuela debe partir de la admisión de lo que es una cruda, aunque incómoda, realidad: por ahora, Maduro ha ganado el enfrentamiento. Esto, por supuesto, no garantiza que finalmente prevalecerá. Pero sí nos dice que está claramente en una posición más fuerte frente a la oposición y a los Estados Unidos que hace cuatro años. Negarse a reconocer esta realidad simplemente conducirá a más diagnósticos erróneos que alimentarán continuos errores estratégicos.

La maldición del perdedor en la política proviene del hecho de que aquellos que tienen más probabilidades de perder, aquellos que sobrestiman sistemáticamente su propia fuerza, son también los que más probablemente quieran seguir luchando incluso cuando se hallen frente a la derrota.  Para que un movimiento o fuerza política haya elegido una estrategia de confrontación, debe haber creído inicialmente que sus posibilidades de ganar eran altas. Sin embargo, los líderes que presionaron por la confrontación son también los que tienen más que perder si admiten la derrota. Aún si el conflicto se prolonga y se vuelve evidente que no se está ganando, ellos se resistirán a cambiar la ruta. En situaciones altamente polarizadas, los movimientos políticos terminan controlados por grupos radicales que quieren seguir luchando hasta el final, incluso frente a la abrumadora evidencia de que están perdiendo.

Uno de los problemas para ellos es que admitir la derrota después de una batalla en la que se arriesgó todo no es fácil sin renunciar al liderazgo. En sistemas políticos más maduros, los partidos fuertes aseguran que las derrotas políticas conduzcan a una sustitución de liderazgo. Sin embargo, tal mecanismo no existe en el sistema político venezolano, donde los partidos tienen una fuerte tradición de jerarquías centralizadas verticales, inspiradas en el modelo político leninista. Y aún menos existe en el gobierno interino de Guaidó, que carece de mecanismos institucionales para reemplazar su liderazgo. Venezuela tiene la distinción de ser el único país para el cual la persona reconocida por gran parte del mundo occidental como su líder democrático legítimo no fue elegida a nivel nacional ni puede ser cambiada mediante una votación.

Al final, lo que estamos viendo no es un indicio de que Maduro esté cediendo a la presión ni de que esté dispuesto a emprender reformas políticas significativas. Con el aumento de los ingresos petroleros de Venezuela y una economía que finalmente parece salir de la recesión (Figura 2), Maduro tiene pocas razones para hacer concesiones significativas en este momento. Sus ofertas recientes, en su mayoría concesiones simbólicas, no son muy diferentes de las que ha ofrecido en el pasado. No son un signo de debilidad. Por difícil que se nos haga admitirlo, debemos aceptar que son una señal de su fortaleza.

Figura 2: Producción petrolera

Fuente: OPEP

Lo que estamos presenciando parece ser más bien el comienzo de un proceso de cambio de liderazgo potencialmente desordenado, en el que la derrota de la estrategia del gobierno interino lo ha hecho lo suficientemente vulnerable para que otros grupos compitan por el mando de la oposición. Es difícil ver a una facción específica prevalecer firmemente en este enfrentamiento por el momento. Guaidó y otros grupos de línea dura probablemente mantendrán un apoyo considerable entre la diáspora, así como en los sectores más conservadores de la comunidad internacional. Capriles y las facciones más enfocadas hacia la política local de la oposición tradicional se enfrentarán a una batalla cuesta arriba para movilizar a los votantes en medio del desencanto generalizado y la desconfianza de las autoridades electorales designadas por el gobierno. Su relación con las fuerzas más centristas que consistentemente han abogado por las negociaciones y la participación electoral y se han opuesto a las impopulares sanciones económicas sigue siendo tensa y antagónica. Un electorado ampliamente descontento crea un amplio espacio para que surjan liderazgos alternativos que no están alineados ni con el gobierno ni con la oposición.


La oposición venezolana necesita deshacerse de la fantasía de que dirige un gobierno y regresar a pensar en sí misma como lo que nunca debió haber dejado de ser: una mayoría electoral amplia e inclusiva.


Cuanto más rápido la oposición acepte la realidad, más rápido podrá comenzar a trazar una estrategia para enfrentar nuevamente a Maduro de una forma efectiva. La comunidad internacional podría invertir mejor sus esfuerzos en promover una reunificación de las fuerzas de oposición que incluya a los grupos centristas que están mejor preparados para hablar con los votantes moderados sin quienes es imposible construir una sólida mayoría electoral. Rearmar una coalición democrática como la que existía hasta 2015 requerirá construir una comprensión compartida de los desafíos futuros, así como aceptar el fracaso de la estrategia de los últimos cuatro años de boicots electorales y ruido de sables vacíos. La oposición venezolana debe deshacerse de la fantasía de que dirige un gobierno y regresar a pensar en sí misma como lo que nunca debió haber dejado de ser: una mayoría electoral amplia e inclusiva que disputa el poder del régimen en el terreno en el que Maduro es más débil: el del apoyo popular.

NOTAS

[1] 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.” 6 de mayo de 2021, 15:15 p. M., Tuit.

[2] Concretamente, la propuesta de Zapatero implicó el nombramiento de dos nuevos rectores en sustitución de dos progubernamentales salientes. Los nuevos miembros habrían sido nombrados de mutuo acuerdo. Suponemos que una solución lógica por defecto dada esa regla sería que la oposición y el gobierno habrían recibido cada uno un miembro adicional en el directorio del CNE. Si bien el gobierno se reservaba el poder de veto sobre la persona designada por la oposición, la oposición tenía la misma autoridad sobre la persona designada por el gobierno. ¿Qué propuestas discutieron el gobierno y la oposición en República Dominicana? – Prodavinci

[3] Bolton, J. (2020). La habitación donde sucedió: una memoria de la Casa Blanca. The New York Times: Nueva York.

The Loser’s Curse

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?”[1]

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.

CONCESSIONAL FALLACIES

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.[2]

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?”[3] 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

Source: Datanálisis

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

Source: OPEC

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.


NOTES

[1] 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.

[2] 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

[3] Bolton, J. (2020). The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir. The New York Times: New York.

Sanciones y producción petrolera: evidencia de la Faja Petrolífera del Orinoco

En esta investigación usamos una nueva base de datos de producción mensual en 33 bloques de la Faja Petrolífera del Orinoco para estimar el efecto de las sanciones financieras y petroleras sobre la industria petrolera venezolana. Hallamos efectos económica y estadísticamente significativos que indican que en ausencia de sanciones, la producción de la Faja sería entre tres y cinco veces su nivel actual.

Resumen no técnico

Esta investigación utiliza evidencia nueva de una de las regiones de mayor producción de petróleo en Venezuela para medir el efecto de las sanciones financieras y petroleras sobre la industria petrolera del país. El colapso de la producción petrolera en los últimos 5 años, que previamente generaba más de 90% de los ingresos por exportaciones del país, juega un rol central en la crisis económica del país. Menores ingresos de exportación petrolera han llevado a mayor escasez de divisas, obligando a que el gobierno recorte fuertemente las importaciones y causando una de las contracciones económicas más grandes de la historia contemporánea.


Empezando en 2017, los Estados Unidos impusieron restricciones cada vez más fuertes sobre transacciones financieras y comerciales relacionadas con el gobierno venezolano. El rol de esas sanciones en el colapso petrolero y económico es un tema controversial. Usando diversos métodos cuantitativos, varias publicaciones científicas han identificado efectos significativos desde el punto de vista estadístico y económico de rondas sucesivas de sanciones. Otros expertos han advertido que hay múltiples explicaciones alternativas, incluyendo falta de inversión previa y mal manejo de la empresa petrolera bajo propiedad del estado, que pudiesen igualmente explicar el colapso.


A esta fecha, todos los estudios cuantitativos del efecto económico de las sanciones sobre la industria petrolera venezolana se han enfocado en el análisis de producción petrolera nacional agregada. Mientras que la data nacional muestra una aceleración de la tasa de decrecimiento de la producción petrolera después de cada ronda de sanciones, esta evidencia es a lo sumo sugestiva, dados los múltiples otros potenciales determinantes del desempeño de la industria. Un problema clave de la discusión es cuánto del efecto puede ser atribuido a las sanciones financieras de 2017, que han evitado que la empresa petrolera estatal pida prestado o refinancie su deuda, y cuánto a las sanciones petroleras de 2019, que le impidieron acceder a mercados de exportación específicos.


La contribución de esta investigación es abordar estas cuestiones usando un set de datos microeconómicos que contiene información de producción petrolera mensual de empresas específicas de una región de la industria petrolera venezolana desde 2008. Esta data detallada nos permite controlar por otros potenciales factores que pudiesen también afectar la producción a nivel nacional. En concreto, nos permite separar el efecto de cualquier otra variable que afecte al sector petrolero completo en un determinado momento del tiempo, así como aquellos que afectan solo a empresas específicas. Hacer esto nos permite estimar de forma más precisa cómo distintas empresas varían en su reacción a las sanciones económicas.
Nuestro enfoque estadístico está basado en la observación de que hay diferencias significativas en el grado en el cual las empresas del sector petrolero del país fueron expuestas a mercados financieros internacionales previo a las sanciones. Una parte importante de la inversión en la Faja Petrolifera del Orinoco (el área en que nuestro estudio se enfoca) se llevó a cabo a través de arreglos de empresas mixtas en los que empresas del sector privado se asocian con PDVSA. Previo a las sanciones, algunas de estas empresas mixtas habían entrado en acuerdos especiales de financiamiento que les permitían pedir prestado de sus socios en el exterior para financiar proyectos de inversión existentes. Nuestra hipótesis es que en respuesta a las sanciones, el comportamiento de estas empresas con acceso a financiamiento internacional fue diferente de las del resto del sector, que no tenía ese acceso.


Si las sanciones financieras de 2017 impactaron la producción petrolera, deberíamos esperar que las empresas más afectadas fuesen las que tenían acceso a los mercados financieros previo a las sanciones. Para esas empresas, las sanciones implicaron perder ese acceso. En contraste, no hay razón para que las empresas que no tenían acceso a los mercados financieros previo a las sanciones se viesen afectadas por las sanciones. En consecuencia, esperamos ver una caída más rápida en la producción, relativa a su desempeño previo, en empresas con acceso previo a mercados financieros respecto al resto de la muestra.


De hecho, encontramos tal efecto. El efecto es cuantitativamente y estadísticamente significativo y robusto para especificaciones alternativas. Empresas que entraron en acuerdos especiales de financiamiento previo a las sanciones sufrieron una caída mucho más rápida en el crecimiento durante el período post-sanciones comparadas con las que no tenían tal acceso. Acorde con nuestras estimaciones base, las sanciones explican entre 45 y 54% de la caída observada en la producción de empresas con acceso a mercados financieros. De forma algo contra intuitiva, encontramos que las empresas con socios basados en Estados Unidos se vieron más protegias que aquellas que tenían socios en otros países. Una explicación a esto es la disposición de las autoridades de Estados Unidos de otorgar licencias especificas eximiendo de las sanciones a empresas basadas en Estados Unidos.

Dado que las empresas con acceso a mercados financieros generaban aproximadamente 50% de la producción en la Faja previo a las sanciones, el efecto que identificamos explica aproximadamente a un cuarto de la caída de la producción en la región. Esta estimación debe interpretarse como un límite inferior del efecto de las sanciones, dado que solo captura el efecto que funciona a través de un canal especifico (el de acceso a mercados de crédito a través de acuerdos especiales de financiamiento).


En una visión diferente pero complementaria de nuestras estimaciones, las sanciones evitaron que la industria petrolera tuviese acceso a una forma específica de acuerdos de financiamiento (prestamos de socios de empresas mixtas con pagos asegurados a través del control de flujos de exportación) que probaron ser exitosos entre 2013 y 2017 y que el gobierno probablemente hubiese optado por continuar extendiendo al resto del sector. En ese escenario alternativo, estimamos que el efecto de las sanciones corresponde aproximadamente a tres quintos de la caída observada en la región.
No hacemos ningún esfuerzo por extrapolar nuestras estimaciones fuera de la Faja del Orinoco. Sin embargo, nuestras estimaciones indican que la producción en la región hubiese sido entre 3 y 5 veces mayor a su actual nivel en la ausencia de sanciones. Solo considerando la producción adicional de la Faja, nuestros estimados indican que los ingresos por exportación de Venezuela en la ausencia de sanciones pudieron haber sido entre 2 y 3 veces mayores de lo que fueron en 2020.

Para leer el documento completo, pulse en la imagen.

Sanctions and Oil Production: Evidence from Venezuela’s Orinoco Basin

We use the differential access to credit of oil firms in Venezuela’s Orinoco Basin to identify the economic effects of financial and oil sanctions on firm output.  Using a panel of monthly firm-level oil production from 2008-2020, we provide estimates showing that financial and oil sanctions led to large losses in oil production among firms which had access to international credit prior to sanctions.  The estimated effects explain around half of the output drop experienced in those firms since the adoption of sanctions, and argue that in the absence of sanctions, production in the Basin would be between three to five times its current level.

Non-Technical Summary

This paper uses new evidence from one of Venezuela’s largest oil-producing regions to assess the effect of financial and oil sanctions on the nation’s oil industry.  The collapse over the past five years of oil output, which previously generated more than nine-tenths of the country’s export earnings, plays a central role in the country’s broader economic crisis.  Lower export revenues from oil have led to a dearth of foreign exchange, causing the government to sharply cut back imports and triggering one of the largest economic contractions in contemporary world history.

Starting in 2017, the United States imposed increasingly tight restrictions on financial and trade-related transactions involving the government of Venezuela.  The role of these sanctions in the country’s oil and economic collapse is a controversial issue.  Using diverse quantitative methods, several research papers have identified large and significant effects of successive waves of sanctions.  Other scholars have warned that there are multiple competing explanations, including prior lack of investment and mismanagement of the state-owned oil company, which could equally well explain the collapse.

To this date, all quantitative studies of the economic effect of sanctions on the Venezuelan oil industry have focused on the analysis of aggregate national oil production data.  While the national data does show an acceleration of the rate of decline of oil production after each round of sanctions, this evidence is at best suggestive, given the multiple other potential determinants of industry performance.  A key issue of discussion is how much of the effect can be attributed to the 2017 financial sanctions, which barred the state-owned oil company from borrowing or refinancing its debt, and how much to the 2019 oil sanctions, which impeded it from accessing specific export markets.

This paper’s contribution is to address these questions using a microeconomic data set which contains information on monthly oil production of specific firms in a region of Venezuela’s oil industry since 2008.  This detailed data allows us to control for other potential factors that could also affect production at the national level. Concretely, it allows us to separate out the effect of any other variables that affect the whole oil sector at a given moment of time, as well as those that affect only specific firms.  Doing so allows us to more precisely estimate how different firms vary in their reaction to economic sanctions.

Our statistical approach is based on the observation that there are significant differences in the degree to which firms in the country’s oil sector were exposed to international financial markets prior to sanctions.  A large part of investment in the country’s Orinoco Basin – the area in which our study focuses – is carried out by joint venture arrangements in which private sector companies partner with PDVSA.  Prior to sanctions, some of these joint ventures had entered special financing deals which allowed them to borrow from their foreign partners to fund ongoing investment projects.  Our hypothesis is that in response to sanctions, the behavior of these firms with access to international finance was different from that of the rest of the sector, which lacked that access.

If the 2017 financial sanctions impacted oil production, we would expect the most-affected firms to be those that had access to financial markets prior to sanctions.  For those firms, sanctions meant losing that access.  In contrast, there is no reason for firms that lacked financial market access prior to sanctions to have been affected by sanctions.  Therefore, we expect to see a faster drop in output, relative to their prior performance, in firms with prior financial market access than in the rest of the sample.

Indeed, we find such an effect. The effect is quantitatively and statistically significant and robust to alternative specifications. Firms that had entered special financing deals prior to sanctions suffered a much more rapid drop in growth in the post-sanctions period than those that had no such access.  In our baseline estimates, sanctions explain between 45 and 54% of the observed drop in production in firms with financial market access.  Somewhat counterintuitively, we find that firms with U.S.-based partners were more protected than firms where the partners came from other countries.  One explanation of this may be the willingness of U.S. authorities to grant specific licenses exempting U.S.-based firms from sanctions.

Given that firms with financial market access accounted for around half of production in the Orinoco Basin prior to sanctions, the effect that we identify can account for around one-fourth of the observed drop in output in the region.  This should be interpreted as a lower bound estimate of the effect of sanctions, as it captures the effect that works through one specific channel – that of access to credit markets via special financing vehicle arrangements. 

In a different yet complementary interpretation of our estimates, sanctions barred the oil industry from a specific form of financing arrangements – namely loans from joint-venture partners with payment secured through control of export flows – that had proven successful between 2013 and 2017 and which the government would likely have chosen to continue extending to the rest of the sector.  In that alternative scenario, we estimate that sanctions can account for around three-fifths of the decline observed in the region.  We make no attempt to extrapolate our estimates outside of the Orinoco Basin.  However, our estimates indicate that Orinoco Basin production would be between three to  five times as high as its current level in the absence of sanctions.  Only considering the additional Orinoco Basin production, our estimates indicate that Venezuela’s export revenues in the absence of sanctions would have been two to three times as high as they were in 2020.

To read the full paper, click on the image below.

Imaginar la transición

Una transición negociada requiere encontrar puntos en común entre aquellos que ven sus diferencias como irreconciliables. A menos que las partes del conflicto en Venezuela aprendan a cooperar para abordar los problemas más urgentes del país, es poco probable que las negociaciones se traduzcan en resultados.

Más de dos años después de la decisión de Juan Guaidó de asumir los poderes de la presidencia con el respaldo de Estados Unidos, Europa y América Latina, la oposición venezolana se encuentra en completo desorden, sin una estrategia clara. Maduro ha consolidado su control sobre las fuerzas armadas y las instituciones clave del Estado, y ha demostrado ser capaz de resistir duras sanciones económicas. Las más recientes encuestas de opinión sitúan los índices de aprobación de los principales líderes de la oposición, incluido Guaidó, en dos dígitos bajos y en niveles que no se distinguen estadísticamente de los de Maduro [1]. Los mercados de predicción ahora solo asignan un 1 por ciento de probabilidad a que Nicolás Maduro sea el próximo líder latinoamericano en dejar el cargo. En contraste, en febrero de 2019, fijaban una probabilidad del 64% de que dejara el cargo ese año. [2]

La creciente conciencia de que la crisis de Venezuela ha llegado a un callejón sin salida ha llevado a un resurgimiento de los esfuerzos para repensar la estrategia de los actores clave. Las contribuciones recientes de especialistas han variado desde llamados a redoblar la estrategia de “máxima presión” de la administración Trump; [3] más multilateralismo y contacto directo tanto con el régimen de Maduro como con grupos más amplios de actores de la oposición [4]; y propuestas de acuerdos para compartir el poder, con reformas graduales. [5] La propia oposición parece no estar clara sobre cuáles deberían ser sus próximos pasos, con un creciente llamado desde sus propias filas a regresar a una estrategia de participación electoral en las elecciones de gobernadores y alcaldes de este año. [6]

Mientras tanto, los gobiernos que apoyaron la presidencia de Guaidó parecen converger cada vez más en la idea de que una solución negociada es la única salida a la crisis de Venezuela. Ese énfasis es comprensible y esperado. La administración Biden, a todos los efectos, ha dejado de lado las ideas de “todas las opciones sobre la mesa” y “máxima presión”, que habían caracterizado el enfoque de Trump sobre Venezuela. Al hacerlo, también ha enviado un mensaje claro de que le corresponde a la oposición generar la dinámica que pueda conducir a una transición en el país. La oposición puede tener la simpatía y el apoyo de la comunidad internacional, pero no debe contar con actores externos para desalojar a Maduro del poder.


La propia oposición parece poco clara sobre cuáles deberían ser sus próximos pasos, con más actores pidiendo un retorno a la participación electoral.


Lamentablemente, gran parte de la estrategia de la oposición durante los últimos cuatro años se basó en la tesis de que la comunidad internacional finalmente podría detener a Maduro. Respaldados por el apoyo aparentemente inquebrantable de la superpotencia más grande del mundo y sus aliados, parecía ser solo una cuestión de tiempo hasta que el régimen saliera del poder. Es por eso que la oposición no pensó en cómo convivir con Maduro. Estaba convencida de que no sería necesario.

Para muchos partidarios de la oposición que pasaron la mayor parte de los últimos dos años esperando que Trump sacara a Maduro del poder, estos son pensamientos incómodos y algo deprimentes. Visto desde su punto de vista, el conflicto venezolano debe parecerse a una versión distópica del drama de Al Pacino de 1975 sobre el robo de un banco, Tarde de perros. En la versión original de la película, se engaña al secuestrador haciéndole creer que se le permitirá escapar al aeropuerto, pero es arrestado después de que la policía le dispara a su compañero. La forma en que la oposición venezolana lo está viviendo, es como si la policía hubiera decidido abandonar el lugar en medio del asedio, dejando una nota a los rehenes diciéndoles que les toca a ellos llegar a un acuerdo con sus secuestradores.

SANCIONES (Y TELÉFONOS) INTELIGENTES

Un artículo de opinión publicado la semana pasada por el economista y exfuncionario de la administración Guaidó, Ricardo Hausmann, y José Ramón Morales, un estudiante de posgrado venezolano en la Escuela Kennedy de Harvard, ilustra bien estas frustraciones. Hausmann y Morales argumentan que las sanciones y el reconocimiento del gobierno interino son lo que le ha dado a la oposición su poder de negociación y que, en todo caso, deben ser recalibrados para hacer la vida del régimen aún más difícil. (Por primera vez, sin embargo, admiten que las sanciones han perjudicado a algunos venezolanos de a pie). En términos de recomendaciones políticas concretas, sugieren una repetición de la consulta popular virtual realizada por la oposición el año pasado, ahora para elegir un nuevo presidente interino, y una expansión del programa de Guaidó de transferencias de efectivo a los trabajadores de la salud, los cuales requieren el uso de un teléfono inteligente o una plataforma con acceso a Internet.

Se acabaron las referencias a la intervención militar, que estaba en el centro de las propuestas de Hausmann sobre Venezuela hace tres años [7]. Fueron reemplazadas por propuestas para escalar iniciativas digitales de alcance inherentemente limitado en el territorio venezolano, que parece poco probable que afecten significativamente el equilibrio político del país. [8] Aplicado a un país en el que la penetración de la telefonía celular ha disminuido enormemente en los últimos años y ahora es menos de la mitad de la población, los mecanismos de voto electrónico y transferencia directa de efectivo que requieren el uso de teléfonos inteligentes llegarían solo a una minoría y se arriesgarían a contribuir aún más a la marginación política de la oposición [9].


La oposición de Venezuela pensó poco en cómo coexistir con Maduro porque estaba convencida de que no sería necesario.


Quizás aún más sorprendente en el artículo de Hausmann y Morales es la falta de consideración dada a cualquier solución que contemple la cooperación entre la oposición venezolana y el régimen de Maduro. Es reveladora la omisión de la Mesa Nacional de Vacunación formada bajo el patrocinio de la Organización Panamericana de la Salud, para tratar de forjar una solución cooperativa que permita el ingreso de Venezuela al programa COVAX y así acceder a las vacunas contra el COVID-19. Esto sugiere que los autores ven la cooperación con el régimen de Maduro -incluso las formas limitadas de cooperación que actualmente han sido adoptadas por la administración Guaidó- como esencialmente imposible.

Esta línea de pensamiento sugiere que la intelectualidad de la oposición continúa enfocándose en una visión del conflicto venezolano como intrínsecamente confrontacional. Esto no es sorprendente, pero es problemático. Sugiere que podemos esperar que la oposición continúe poniendo todos sus esfuerzos en tratar de ganar una batalla total con el chavismo. El problema es que esta es una batalla que claramente está perdiendo y en la que parece poco probable que la marea cambie en el corto plazo.

PENSANDO EN EL CONFLICTO

El poder político es un bien excluible: cuanto más se tiene, menos tienen los demás. También lo son la mayoría de los bienes que consumimos. Sin embargo, a diferencia de las manzanas o las arepas, la distribución del poder es inherentemente relacional. Yo puedo comerme mi arepa de forma aislada, pero el poder es inútil sin nadie sobre quien ejercerlo. Por tanto, el poder no se distribuye a través de los mercados; se disputa en la esfera pública.

En ocasiones, hay un proceso institucional ordenado para determinar la asignación del poder. Ese es el caso de países que tienen elecciones y aquellos con sistemas autoritarios con mecanismos institucionales bien establecidos que determinan la asignación y transferencia del poder (por ejemplo, el partido comunista chino). En otros casos, las partes que compiten por el poder entran en un conflicto armado explícito, ya sea a través de guerras, insurrecciones militares o revoluciones.

El pensamiento contractualista, que se remonta al menos a la Ilustración, ha enfatizado los incentivos para la cooperación como fuente de las instituciones democráticas modernas. En esta visión, la democracia es mucho más que elecciones. Es un conjunto de instituciones que determinan la distribución del poder político a través de una combinación de sufragio y un marco institucional básico que limita el poder de los funcionarios electos. Los teóricos políticos generalmente no consideran a los regímenes políticos en los que no existe una separación efectiva de poderes como democracias.

En términos generales, mientras más sean los riesgos del poder (los beneficios de estar en el poder en relación con los costos de estar fuera del poder), es más probable que veamos un conflicto en lugar de una resolución pacífica. Hay pocos o ningún incentivo para que los perdedores de la contienda política reconozcan la derrota en los sistemas políticos en los que el ganador se lo lleva todo.


En los juegos políticos de suma cero, no hay nada que ganar con la negociación.


Por lo tanto, no es sorprendente ver que el conflicto político es un elemento tan omnipresente en la vida política venezolana desde 1999, el año en que Chávez ganó el referendo para modificar la Constitución. La Constitución de 1999 aumentó significativamente los poderes del ejecutivo, incluso otorgándole la facultad de iniciar la disolución de otros poderes del gobierno. [10] Más que una democracia, Venezuela bajo la Constitución de 1999 parece una autocracia electoral.

Un indicador de cuán inestable es el diseño institucional de Venezuela se puede encontrar en la frecuencia con la que los perdedores de las elecciones venezolanas no reconocen los resultados. La oposición de Venezuela cantó fraude con poca o ninguna evidencia en 2004, 2013 y 2017, y boicoteó las elecciones, alegando que estaban irremediablemente viciadas, en 2005, 2018 y 2020. El gobierno ha hecho esencialmente ha hecho lo mismo, incluso si aparenta reconocer formalmente los resultados. Cuando perdió el referendo revocatorio en 2007, simplemente llamó a uno nuevo para aprobar la disposición constitucional que más le interesaba y utilizó el proceso legislativo para impulsar muchas de las reformas que habían sido rechazadas por los votantes. Cuando perdió las elecciones parlamentarias en 2015, utilizó su control sobre la Corte Suprema para despojar a la Asamblea Nacional de sus facultades. Y cuando quedó claro que la oposición estaba a punto de recolectar suficientes firmas para invocar un referéndum revocatorio en 2004 y 2016, acusó a la oposición de falsificación de firmas y utilizó su control sobre las autoridades electorales y los tribunales para crear obstáculos importantes a la realización de la revocatoria. [11] Los perdedores venezolanos, al menos en política, son siempre malos perdedores.

En este contexto, es difícil imaginar cómo la celebración de nuevas elecciones presidenciales y parlamentarias sería, por sí sola, una solución a los problemas de gobernabilidad del país. No es que sea difícil visualizar tales elecciones, que eventualmente se llevarán a cabo. Incluso es concebible que las partes puedan llegar a un acuerdo para someterse a observación internacional y elijan nuevas autoridades electorales más creíbles. Lo que es mucho más difícil de imaginar es que el perdedor de esa elección, sea quien sea, acepte la derrota.

CONSIDERANDO LA CONVIVENCIA

Hasta ahora, la oposición ha tratado de ganar el conflicto político mediante el uso de todos los medios a su alcance: la movilización popular, el reconocimiento internacional y la voluntad de otros países de imponer sanciones personales y económicas al régimen de Maduro. Por supuesto, no hay nada de malo en este enfoque si se cree que puede ganar. El problema es que, en esta contienda de fuerzas, cada vez parece más claro que es Maduro quien está ganando.

La alternativa al enfrentamiento es la negociación. Sin embargo, para muchos en el lado de la oposición, el diálogo y las negociaciones son simplemente sinónimo de estabilización de Maduro en el poder. Esto es comprensible. Venezuela ha sufrido una historia de negociaciones fallidas en los últimos cinco años; si lo miramos más ampliamente, el historial se remonta hasta 2002. En las pocas excepciones en las que se han alcanzado algunos acuerdos, como las conversaciones mediadas por el Vaticano de diciembre de 2016 o el acuerdo COVID AN-Ministerio de Salud de junio de 2020, estos se han derrumbado rápidamente bajo recriminaciones de parte y parte. ¿Por qué debería ser diferente ahora?

El fracaso de las negociaciones en Venezuela no debería sorprender a nadie. La teoría de la negociación se basa en la idea de encontrar espacios de cooperación mutuamente ventajosos. En los juegos políticos de suma cero, como aquellos en los que las partes luchan por la distribución del poder o el control, y donde los costos de lucha son bajos, hay poco que ganar con la negociación. Ambas partes insistirán en una solución negociada en la que estén al menos tan bien como en el status quo, pero por definición de un juego de suma cero, la única solución de este tipo es el propio status quo. [12] En los raros casos en los que las partes llegan a un acuerdo, puede deberse a que tienen información imprecisa sobre los resultados reales del acuerdo; una vez que se revelan estos resultados, la parte que salió perjudicada tratará rápidamente de volver al status quo, incumpliendo cualquier condición.

Las negociaciones políticas solo pueden producir cambios estables desde el principio si la negociación se lleva a cabo sobre una estructura de pagos de suma positiva, y existe además una manera de hacer que los acuerdos sean ejecutables. Los acuerdos pueden ser ejecutables solo si a las partes les conviene seguir cumpliéndolos a lo largo del tiempo, o si existe una tecnología que se puede utilizar para hacer cumplir el compromiso (es decir, para castigar o prohibir la falta de cumplimiento).

Para que una negociación política produzca un resultado estable que conduzca a una transición política en Venezuela, esa transición debe producir mejoras, o al menos evitar deterioros, en relación con el status quo de ambas partes. Esa es una tarea difícil: requiere que el chavismo esté al menos tan bien fuera del poder como en el poder. En su artículo, Hausmann y Morales ofrecen este hecho como una justificación para una estrategia de endurecimiento de las sanciones, con el objetivo de “hacer la vida lo más difícil posible para la élite” y así reducir sus beneficios bajo el status quo. Sin embargo, ignoran el efecto de las sanciones y la criminalización del régimen bajo la alternativa al status quo, la entrega del poder. Cuanto más espere el régimen ser perseguido apenas salga del poder, menos dispuesto estará a entrar en una negociación que arriesgue su control. En este sentido, las sanciones parecen haber hecho que la transición sea menos, no más, probable.


Cuanto más espere el régimen la persecución una vez fuera del poder, menos dispuesto estará a arriesgar su control del poder a través de una negociación.


Una implicación necesaria, aunque incómoda, de esta línea de razonamiento, es que no habrá una solución negociada en Venezuela a menos que los principales líderes del régimen crean que pueden estar razonablemente a salvo de ir a la cárcel una vez abandonen el poder. Tales garantías no pueden darse de manera creíble en el marco del derecho internacional, donde los estados tienen una capacidad limitada o nula para restringir las acciones futuras de sus poderes judiciales. La dura verdad es que la única forma en que se pueden dar es permitiendo que el chavismo retenga suficiente influencia y poder durante la transición para que se sientan razonablemente protegidos de ser procesados ​​dentro del país.

Hacerlo probablemente requeriría una reforma constitucional que restringa significativamente los poderes de la presidencia, incluida la capacidad de convocar asambleas constituyentes todopoderosas. También es probable que implique garantías constitucionales explícitas de que la actual corte suprema y el fiscal general, o las nuevas personas designadas por el chavismo para esos cargos, permanecerían en su lugar durante la duración de sus mandatos, lo que limitaría significativamente cualquier intento de enjuiciar a los funcionarios salientes en los tribunales venezolanos.

Un posible modelo de transición sería el de Nicaragua en 1990, en el que la candidata de la oposición se comprometió a respetar las instituciones establecidas por la Constitución de 1987, incluido el control sandinista del ejército y el poder judicial [13]. Violeta Chamorro ganó el control del Poder Ejecutivo, pero no logró el control del poder de todo el Estado. Si hubiera estado en juego un poder tan absoluto, probablemente nunca se le habría permitido ganar. Las garantías implícitas en este acuerdo permitieron a los sandinistas mantenerse políticamente activos y, de hecho, volver al poder 16 años después. Dichos riesgos son inherentes a cualquier acuerdo de reparto del poder o, más específicamente, a cualquier acuerdo en el que una de las partes no elimine a la otra.

OPCIONES TRÁGICAS

Para muchos, la sola idea de que Maduro y su camarilla no responderán por sus crímenes en una transición es inaceptable. Hay buenas razones para pensar así. La inviolabilidad de los derechos humanos y la condena de los regímenes que sistemáticamente permiten su violación, mucho más si se puede decir que han incurrido en crímenes de lesa humanidad, es una piedra angular de la forma en que hoy pensamos sobre la justicia básica.

De hecho, hay un argumento instrumental muy fuerte por el cual no se debe permitir que Maduro y los niveles más altos del régimen se escapen sin enfrentar la justicia. Incluso si permitirles hacerlo facilitara una transición venezolana, simplemente invitaría a otros autócratas a cometer las mismas atrocidades para mantenerse en el poder. Para que las penas contra los crímenes atroces cometidos por los estados tengan un efecto real, deben aplicarse de manera consistente, y eso implica no abrir la puerta a sacrificarlas por razones de conveniencia política.

Este argumento puede ser correcto, pero es poco consuelo para los venezolanos. En él, el sufrimiento de los venezolanos bajo Maduro es el costo que se debe pagar para dar un ejemplo que disuadirá a otros líderes de tomar la ruta de la autocracia. Esto puede beneficiar a las personas de otros países que, como resultado, podrán evitar un deslizamiento hacia la autocracia, pero no a los millones de venezolanos que tienen que vivir bajo el régimen de Maduro.

La realidad es que las transiciones políticas a veces requieren tomar decisiones desagradables. En última instancia, la oposición venezolana debe decidir si quiere seguir aferrándose a la idea de una transición perfecta que nunca ocurra o si, en cambio, decide optar por un proceso de cambio defectuoso, pero real.

El enviado especial de Trump para Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, destacó algunos de estos temas en un lúcido artículo de 2017 que reflexiona sobre la muerte del hombre fuerte panameño Manuel Noriega. Vale la pena citarlo extensamente:

“Pudimos ofrecerle a Noriega el trato que no aceptó: te vas y anulamos la acusación, y puedes ir a buscar refugio en algún lugar y disfrutar de tu dinero, tal como lo habíamos hecho en Haití. Allí, en 1985, logramos sacar a Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

Reagan también consiguió que Ferdinand Marcos dejara el poder en Filipinas y se exiliara en 1986.

En todos estos casos, las negociaciones probablemente hubieran sido imposibles si hubiera existido una Corte Penal Internacional (CPI). Si hubiera existido, estos dictadores se habrían aferrado con fuerza, como lo hizo Noriega. El resultado habría sido más represión y violencia.

La CPI está destinada a hacer justicia, pero uno debe ser consciente del posible costo: persuade a los tiranos de que dejar el poder significa cadena perpetua o muerte, y eso hace que sea mucho más difícil sacarlos del poder”[14].

La oposición venezolana y la comunidad internacional podrían estarse enfrentando exactamente a esa elección. Existe una posibilidad real de que las restricciones aludidas por Abrams también estén vigentes en Venezuela y que Maduro finalmente enfrente una acusación de la CPI. [15] Incluso si no lo hace, parece poco probable que Estados Unidos u otros países puedan comprometerse de manera creíble a no procesarlo por los múltiples delitos de los que ha sido acusado.

LO PEQUEÑO ES POSIBLE

Incluso si la oposición está dispuesta a aceptar el costo de la convivencia con un régimen que muchos de sus seguidores consideran intrínsecamente criminal, un gran acuerdo sería extremadamente difícil de implementar. Hacerlo requeriría de un apoyo internacional considerable, voluntad política y mucha suerte. Desde el principio, estaría plagado de problemas de implementación. La oposición tendría que contraer compromisos que tal vez no tenga ningún incentivo para cumplir. Asumir que sus opciones futuras podrían verse suficientemente limitadas por reformas legales y constitucionales tal vez sea depositar demasiada confianza en el poder de las limitaciones formales.

Existe una alternativa menos grandiosa pero quizás mucho más realista. Las negociaciones sectoriales, aquellas que tienen como objetivo cooperar para resolver problemas específicos de los venezolanos, pueden ofrecer espacios tangibles para la cooperación y las interacciones de suma positiva. Por negociaciones sectoriales nos referimos a aquellas negociaciones que tienen un impacto directo para los venezolanos más allá del uso instrumental para resolver otros problemas. Distinguimos los acuerdos sectoriales de los acuerdos parciales, que son aquellos en los que el ámbito de la negociación tiene solo un valor instrumental para abordar un problema más complejo. El nombramiento de las autoridades electorales sería un ejemplo de un acuerdo parcial: no tiene ningún valor directo significativo para los miembros de la sociedad, excepto por su contribución a un proceso que sí tiene valor: la capacidad de ejercer la libertad política para elegir a los funcionarios del gobierno. Un acuerdo de vacunación humanitaria, en cambio, es un acuerdo sectorial en el sentido de que resuelve un problema específico y tiene valor para los venezolanos, incluso si no se abordan otros temas.

El hecho de que los acuerdos sectoriales tengan valor para las personas en sí mismos, implica que existen beneficios potenciales de la cooperación entre las partes en conflicto. Por ejemplo, los líderes políticos de ambas facciones que participen en un acuerdo para vacunar al país contra el COVID y sean percibidos por los votantes como contribuyentes a resolver ese problema acumularán un importante capital político que les permitirá aspirar a roles importantes en el futuro bajo diversos escenarios políticos. Es más fácil encontrar ganancias inmediatas de la cooperación en acuerdos sectoriales que en acuerdos políticos parciales o globales, entre otras razones porque requieren que los actores corran riesgos mucho menores y les permiten construir credibilidad a lo largo del tiempo en el contexto de interacciones repetidas.


La oposición debe decidir entre una transición perfecta que quizás nunca ocurra o un proceso de cambio real pero defectuoso.


Para que las partes encuentren que tiene sentido celebrar estos acuerdos sectoriales, deben estar convencidas de que no podrán abordar los problemas por sí mismas. En otras palabras, debe haber ganancias genuinas de la cooperación. Maduro no tiene ninguna razón para buscar la ayuda de Guaidó para vacunar al país si Maduro puede vacunar al país por sí mismo y reclamar todos los beneficios políticos de hacerlo.

Curiosamente, debido a la estructura actual de restricciones sobre el control de los activos y la representación legal creada por las sanciones y el reconocimiento del gobierno interino de Guaidó, hay muchos problemas que Maduro y Guaidó solo pueden resolver de manera cooperativa. Aquellos que requieren la movilización de recursos, por ejemplo, accediendo a fondos bloqueados o mercados petroleros, son completamente intratables en ausencia de cooperación. Incluso teniendo acceso a los fondos, no hay mucho que Guaidó pueda hacer con ellos (al menos dentro del país) sin cooperar con Maduro; De manera similar, es poco lo que Maduro puede hacer con respecto a costosas intervenciones políticas si no tiene acceso a los fondos para pagarlas.

Dicho esto, no es improbable que las partes aún puedan terminar atrapadas en diferencias irreconciliables, que al final son un reflejo de la lucha suma-cero por el poder. Es probable que ambas partes se pregunten cómo estos acuerdos influirán en su intento de alcanzar o mantener su control del poder. Si, por ejemplo, la movilización de recursos que ayuden a abordar la emergencia humanitaria aumenta la popularidad de Maduro, lo que le permite ganar una elección futura o simplemente reduce las posibilidades de que una rebelión popular o militar lo derroque, es probable que la oposición llegue a la conclusión de que entrar en el trato es una mala elección. Este tipo de razonamiento probablemente explica la decisión de la Asamblea Nacional controlada por la oposición de archivar la iniciativa CAF / PNUD para reparar la infraestructura eléctrica del país en diciembre de 2019.

No obstante, los acuerdos sectoriales de hoy pueden ser más viables que los acuerdos conceptualmente similares presentados en 2019 o 2020. Una razón, como ya hemos argumentado, es que la oposición es consciente de que su estrategia no está funcionando. El reconocimiento de que perderá en un escenario en el ganador se lo lleva todo, puede llevarla a considerar alternativas que equivalen a un reparto limitado del poder y que habría rechazado en el pasado. Maduro, por otro lado, aún necesita resolver problemas económicos y humanitarios concretos, algunos de los cuales no puede abordar sin la oposición. En otras palabras, la oposición necesita al gobierno más que en el pasado, y el gobierno aun necesita a la oposición tanto como en el pasado.

Sin embargo, quizás una razón más importante por la que los acuerdos sectoriales humanitarios pueden ser viables es que pueden contar con el apoyo de actores internacionales clave que podrían converger bajo un enfoque multilateral para convencer a ambas partes de que estén de acuerdo con la solución. Es poco probable que la oposición, que depende de su poder de negociación sobre el reconocimiento internacional y las sanciones, se niegue a aceptar una iniciativa fuertemente apoyada por Estados Unidos y Europa. También es poco probable que Maduro se niegue a aceptar una iniciativa que China y Rusia apoyan firmemente. Y si bien puede que no sea factible llegar a un acuerdo entre los EE. UU., La UE, China y Rusia sobre el diseño de una gran transición política de poder en Venezuela, puede ser mucho más factible que tal acuerdo surja en torno a una iniciativa para abordar la crisis económica y humanitaria del país. Una resolución unánime del Consejo de Seguridad de la ONU en apoyo de un acuerdo humanitario cooperativo en Venezuela sería muy difícil de rechazar para Maduro o Guaidó.


Las negociaciones sectoriales pueden ofrecer espacios tangibles para la cooperación y las interacciones de suma positiva.


Desarrollar la cooperación de abajo hacia arriba puede no parecer un objetivo muy ambicioso. Sin embargo, al crear instituciones que puedan modelar la cooperación y permitir que surjan nuevos actores políticos, quizás menos manchados por el conflicto de los últimos años, tal enfoque puede comenzar a construir un modelo diferente a través del cual los venezolanos de diferentes lados del espectro político interactúen y comiencen a abordar los problemas del país. En última instancia, una visión cooperativa de la sociedad requerirá mecanismos a través de los cuales los venezolanos de ambos bandos puedan trabajar juntos para abordar los problemas apremiantes del hambre, las enfermedades y las privaciones.

En su esclarecedor relato de las conversaciones secretas que llevaron al fin del Apartheid, el filósofo sudafricano Willie Esterhuyse, quien actuó como interlocutor e intermediario clave en las conversaciones, recuerda los momentos cruciales en los que las conversaciones entre el gobierno sudafricano y los líderes del partido del Congreso Nacional Africano (ANC) de Nelson Mandela tomaron el giro que les permitiría llegar a un punto de inflexión y comenzar la transición de Sudáfrica hacia una democracia inclusiva y no racial. Recuerda cuando, luego de varias reuniones entre representantes del ANC y reformistas afrikaner, las conversaciones comenzaron a girar en torno a objetivos compartidos:

“Miré [a los líderes del ANC] Mbeki, Pahad, Trew, [y los representantes de los Afrikaner] DeKlerk y Terreblanche, y escribí medio sorprendido en mi cuaderno: ‘Ni siquiera somos ‘enemigos amistosos’ porque confiamos el uno en el otro sobre el futuro, aunque no tenemos idea de cómo será dentro de cinco o diez años. Estamos sentados aquí discutiendo sobre Botha, Mandela, De Klerk, Tambo, la violencia en el país, la liberación de presos políticos y negociaciones como si estuviéramos jugando para el mismo equipo. Aceptamos que nuestro país está siendo consumido por el conflicto y que una tierra arrasada no beneficia a nadie. Y compartimos palabras como ‘paz’ y ‘reconciliación’ entre nosotros “.

¿Surgirá alguna vez una visión compartida como esta en las conversaciones entre líderes chavistas y de la oposición? Quizás. Tal vez no. Me imagino que tal posibilidad debe haber parecido igualmente improbable para los observadores de la crisis de Sudáfrica en 1989.  Pero lo menos que debemos hacer los venezolanos de diferentes tendencias políticas – así como aquellos en la comunidad internacional que deseen ayudarnos – es dedicar todos nuestros esfuerzos a intentar establecer ese terreno común. La alternativa es la prolongación de un conflicto que seguirá destruyendo el futuro de millones de venezolanos.

REFERENCIAS:

[1] En la encuesta de Datanálisis de febrero, por ejemplo, el índice de aprobación de Guaidó cayó al 17,6%, 3,4 puntos porcentuales por encima del de Maduro, una diferencia que está dentro del margen de error de la encuesta de ± 4,4%

[2] Más precisamente, una apuesta que paga $ 1 si Maduro es el próximo líder latinoamericano en dejar el cargo actualmente se cotiza por un centavo. Nótese que la pregunta ha cambiado con el tiempo: hace dos años se refería a si Maduro estaría en el cargo a fin de año, mientras que ahora se refiere a si será el próximo líder en dejar el cargo. Ver: Which of these 10 Latin American leaders will leave office next? PredictIt, 2021.  Sobre las condiciones bajo las cuales los mercados de predicción se pueden interpretar como probabilidades, véase Wolfers & Zitzewitz (2006) Interpreting prediction market prices as probabilities, NBER, Working Paper No. 12200.

[3] Ver: What Should Biden Do About Venezuela?, Project Syndicate, 4 de marzo de 2021  y Joe Biden faces a key decision on Venezuela, CNN, 17 de diciembre de 2020.

[4] Ver Opinion: Trump’s bluster failed Venezuela. Biden must use diplomatic and economic levers to address the crisis, The Washington Post, 19 de enero de 2021, Venezuela is the perfect test case for Biden’s promised return to multilateralism, Responsible Statecraft, 12 de enero de 2021, y The Exile Effect: Venezuela’s Overseas Opposition and Social Media, Crisis Group, 24 de febrero de 2021.

[5] How Biden can clean up Trump’s Venezuela mess, The Hill, 9 de febrero de 2021

[6] La oposición se pone en marcha para las elecciones regionales en Venezuela pese al rechazo de Guaidó, Europa Press, 20 de febrero de 2021.

[7] D-Day Venezuela, Project Syndicate, 1ro de enero de 2018.

[8] What Should Biden Do About Venezuela?, Project Syndicate, 4 de marzo de 2021.

[9] Tengase en cuenta que la penetración de teléfonos celulares probablemente sobreestima la proporción de venezolanos con acceso a teléfonos celulares dada la cantidad de personas que pueden tener más de una línea. Aunque no tenemos datos sobre este fenómeno, la evidencia anecdótica sugiere que es frecuente entre las élites del país.

[10] El artículo 348 de la Constitución de 1999 permite al presidente convocar elecciones a una Asamblea Nacional Constituyente, que tiene el poder de disolver todas las ramas del gobierno existentes.

[11] La revocatoria se llevó a cabo en 2004, y la ganó Chávez, pero fue suspendida en 2016 por tribunales controlados por Maduro, en un momento en el que las encuestas mostraban sistemáticamente que perdería el voto.

[12] O, más precisamente, cualquier equilibrio que produzca beneficios esperados iguales al status quo.  Ver: 2-Player zero-sum games, Yishay Mansour, 2003.

[13] Ambos controles estaban sujetos a plazos. Humberto Ortega, hermano de Daniel Ortega, permaneció como jefe del ejército hasta 1995. Los magistrados designados por sandinistas pudieron permanecer en el cargo por el resto de sus mandatos de 6 años, mientras que Chamorro nombró dos nuevos magistrados, aumentando el tamaño de la Corte a 9 magistrados. . Esto implicaba que los jueces designados por los sandinistas tendrían la mayoría en la corte hasta 1994.

[14] Elliott Abrams: How to Dispose of a Dictator Like Noriega, Yahoo News, 2 de junio de 2017.

[15] La CPI está llevando a cabo actualmente la tercera fase de exámenes preliminares para determinar si se cometieron crímenes de lesa humanidad en Venezuela luego de la ola de protestas de 2017. La nueva fase comenzó en noviembre, después de que la oficina del fiscal de la CPI encontró “base suficiente para creer que se han cometido crímenes bajo la jurisdicción de la Corte”. Ver: Informe sobre las actividades de examen preliminar 2020, ICC Office of the Prosecutor, 4 de diciembre de 2020. Esta tercera fase determinará si las autoridades venezolanas han buscado investigar y enjuiciar a personas involucradas en delitos contra la humanidad. No hay fecha límite ni fecha prevista para que concluya esta fase.

Imagining Transition

A negotiated transition requires finding common ground between those who see their differences as irreconcilable. Unless the parts to Venezuela’s conflict learn to cooperate in addressing the country’s most pressing problems, negotiations are unlikely to yield a stable outcome.

More than two years after Juan Guaidó’s decision to assume the powers of the presidency with the backing of the United States, Europe, and Latin America’s most important economies, Venezuela’s opposition finds itself in complete disarray and with a strategy in tatters.  Maduro has consolidated his control over the military and key state institutions and proved able to weather harsh economic sanctions. Recent opinion polls place the approval ratings of all major opposition leaders, including Guaidó, in the low double digits and at levels that are not statistically distinguishable from those of Maduro.[1] Prediction markets are now only assigning a 1 percent probability to Nicolás Maduro being the next Latin American leader to leave office.  In contrast, back in February of 2019, they were pricing in a 64% probability that he would leave office that year.[2]

Increasing awareness that Venezuela’s crisis has reached a dead end has led to a resurgence of efforts to rethink the strategy of key actors. Recent contributions by specialists have ranged from calls to double-down on the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy,[3] more multilateralism, and direct engagement with both the Maduro regime and broader sets of opposition actors[4] and proposals for power-sharing agreements and incremental reforms.[5]  The opposition itself appears unclear as to what its next steps should be, with a growing set of actors proposing that it return to a strategy of electoral engagement in this year’s gubernatorial and mayoral elections.[6]

Meanwhile, the governments that supported Guaidó’s claim to the presidency now appear to increasingly converge on the idea that a negotiated solution is the only way out of Venezuela’s crisis.  That emphasis is understandable and expectable.  The Biden administration has, for all effects, shelved the ideas of “all options on the table” and “maximum pressure,” which had characterized Trump’s Venezuela approach.  In doing so, it has also sent a clear message that it is up to the opposition to generate the dynamics that can lead to a Venezuelan transition.  The opposition may have the sympathy and the support of the international community, but it should not count on external actors to dislodge Maduro from power.


The opposition itself appears unclear as to what its next steps should be, with more actors calling for a return to electoral engagement.


Regrettably, much opposition strategizing over the past four years was premised on the thesis that the international community would ultimately be able to put a stop to Maduro.  Backed by the apparently unwavering support of the world’s largest superpower and its allies, it seemed to be just a matter of time until the regime was forced out of power. That’s why Venezuela’s opposition put so little thinking on the issue of how to co-exist with Maduro.  It was convinced it wouldn’t need to. 

To many opposition supporters who spent the better part of the last two years expecting Trump to force Maduro out of power, these are uncomfortable and somewhat depressing thoughts.  Viewed from their vantage point, Venezuela’s conflict must look something like a dystopian version of Al Pacino’s 1975 bank robbery hostage drama Dog Day Afternoon.  In the movie’s original version, the kidnapper is fooled into believing he will be allowed to escape to the airport but is arrested after the police shoot his partner.  The way Venezuela’s opposition is living through it, it’s as if the police had decided to leave the scene in the midst of the siege, dropping a note to the hostages telling them it’s up to them to reach a deal with their kidnappers.

SMART(PHONE) SANCTIONS

An op-ed published last week by former Guaidó official Ricardo Hausmann and José Ramón Morales, a Venezuelan graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School, illustrates well these frustrations.  Hausmann and Morales argue that sanctions and recognition of the interim government are what has given the opposition its bargaining power and that, if anything, they need to be recalibrated to make the regime’s life even harder.  (For the first time, however, they admit that sanctions have hurt some ordinary Venezuelans.) In terms of concrete policy recommendations, they suggest a re-do of the virtual popular consultation made by the opposition last year, now to elect a new interim president, and an expansion of Guaidó’s program of cash transfers to health workers, both of which require the use of a smartphone or a platform with internet access.

Gone are any references to military intervention, which was at the center of Hausmann’s Venezuela proposals three years ago.[7]  They are now replaced by proposals to upscale digital initiatives of inherently limited reach in the Venezuelan territory that appear unlikely to affect the country’s political equilibrium significantly.[8]  Applied to a country in which cell phone penetration has gone down massively over the past years and is now less than half of the population, e-voting and direct cash transfer mechanisms requiring the use of smartphones would reach only a minority and risk contributing even more to the political marginalization of the opposition.[9]


Venezuela’s opposition put little thinking on how to co-exist with Maduro because it was convinced it wouldn’t need to.


Perhaps even more striking in the Hausmann-Morales piece is the lack of consideration given to any solution that contemplates co-operation between the Venezuelan opposition and the Maduro regime.  The omission of even an allusion to the National Vaccination Roundtable formed under the Pan American Health Organization’s sponsorship to try to forge a cooperative solution to allow the entry of Venezuela into the COVAX program for accessing COVID-19 vaccines is telling. It suggests that the authors view co-operation with the Maduro regime – even the limited forms of co-operation that have currently been embraced by the Guaidó administration – as essentially impossible.

This line of thinking suggests that the opposition’s intelligentsia continues to be focused on a view of the Venezuelan conflict as inherently confrontational.  This is not surprising, but it is problematic.  It suggests that we can expect the opposition to continue to pour all its efforts into trying to win an all-out battle with Chavismo.  The problem is that this is a battle that it is clearly losing and in which the tide seems unlikely to turn any time soon.

THINKING ABOUT CONFLICT

Political power is an excludable good: the more that one has of it, the fewer others have.  So are most of the goods that we consume.  Yet, in contrast to apples or arepas, the distribution of power is inherently relational. I can consume my arepa in isolation, but power is useless without anyone to exert it over.  Power is thus not allocated through markets; it is disputed over in the public sphere.

Sometimes there is an orderly institutional process to determine the allocation of power. That is the case in countries that have elections and those with authoritarian systems with well-established institutional mechanisms that determine the allocation and transfer of power (e.g., the Chinese Communist Party).  In other cases, the parts vying for power enter explicit armed conflict –  be it through wars, military insurrections, or revolutions.

Contractualist thinking going back at least to the Enlightenment, has emphasized the incentives for co-operation as the source of modern democratic institutions.  In this vision, democracy is much more than elections.  It is a set of institutions that determine the distribution of political power through a combination of suffrage and a basic institutional framework that limits the power of elected officials.  Political theorists generally do not consider political regimes in which there is no effective separation of powers as democracies.

Generally speaking, the higher the stakes of power (the benefits of being in power relative to the costs of being out of power), the more likely that we are to see conflict instead of peaceful resolution. There are few if any incentives for the losers of the political contest to recognize defeat in winner-take-all political systems. 


In zero-sum political games, there is nothing to gain from negotiation.


Thus, it is not surprising to see political conflict be such a pervasive element in Venezuelan political life since 1999 – the year in which Chávez won a vote to change the Constitution.  The 1999 Constitution significantly increased the powers of the executive branch, even granting it the power to initiate the dissolution of other branches of government.[10]  More than a democracy, Venezuela under the 1999 Constitution looks like an electoral autocracy.

One marker of how unstable Venezuela’s institutional design is can be found in the frequency with which the losers of Venezuelan elections fail to recognize the results. Venezuela’s opposition called fraud with little to no evidence in 2004, 2013 and 2017, and boycotted elections, alleging that they were hopelessly rigged in 2005, 2018, and 2020.  The government has essentially done the same, even if shrouded in apparent formal recognition of the results.  When it lost a recall referendum in 2007, it simply scheduled a new one to get the constitutional provision it was most interested in passed and used the legislative process to advance many of the reforms that had been turned down by voters.  When it lost the parliamentary elections in 2015, it used its control over the Supreme Court to strip the National Assembly’s powers.  And when it became clear that the opposition was about to collect enough signatures to invoke a recall referendum in 2004 and 2016, it charged the opposition with falsifying signatures and used its control over electoral authorities and courts to create significant obstacles to the holding of the recall.[11]  Venezuelan losers, at least in politics, are always sore losers.

Against this backdrop, it is hard to see how the holding of new presidential and parliamentary elections would by itself be a solution to the country’s governability problems.  It is not that it is hard to visualize such elections eventually being held.  It is even conceivable that the sides could reach an agreement to hold them under international observation and with new, more credible, electoral authorities.  What is much harder to imagine is the loser of that election, whoever it may be, accepting defeat. 

CONSIDERING COEXISTENCE

Until now, the opposition has tried to win this confrontation through the use of all the means at its disposal – popular mobilization, international recognition, and other countries’ willingness to impose personal and economic sanctions on the Maduro regime.  There is, of course, nothing wrong with this approach if you think you can win.  The problem is that in this contest of forces, it appears increasingly clear that it is Maduro who is winning.

The alternative to confrontation is negotiation. Yet to many on the opposition side, dialogue and negotiations are simply by-words for Maduro’s stabilization in power.   This is understandable.   Venezuela has suffered a history of failed negotiations over the past five years – or, if we take a broader look, going back as far as 2002.   In the few exceptions where some agreements have been reached – such as the December 2016 Vatican-mediated talks or the June 2020 AN- Ministry of Health COVID agreement –  they have broken down rapidly under back-and-forth recriminations.  Why should it be any different now?

Failure of Venezuela’s negotiations should not come as a surprise to anyone.  Negotiation theory is based on the idea of finding mutually advantageous arenas of co-operation.  In zero-sum political games, such as those in which parties are fighting over the distribution of power or control and the costs of fighting for the parts in conflict are low, there is little to gain from negotiation.  Both sides will insist on a negotiated solution in which they are at least as well off as in the status quo, but by definition of a zero-sum game, the only such solution is the status quo itself.[12]  In the rare instances where parties come to an agreement, it may be because they have imperfect information about the actual outcomes; once they find these out, the party that lost out from a deal will rapidly try to go back to the status quo by reneging on whatever deal it agreed to. 

Political negotiations can only yield stable changes from initial conditions if bargaining takes place over a positive-sum structure of payoffs and there is a way to make the agreements enforceable.  Agreements can be enforceable only if it is to the advantage of players to continue complying with them over time or if there is a technology that can be used to enforce commitment (i.e., to punish or prohibit lack of compliance).

For a political negotiation to yield a stable outcome that is conducive to a political transition in Venezuela, that transition must yield improvements – or at the very least, avoid deteriorations – relative to the status quo for both parts.  That is a tall order: it requires Chavismo to be made at least as well off outside of power as it is in power. In their article, Hausmann and Morales offer this fact as a justification for a strategy of tightening sanctions, aiming to “make life as burdensome as possible for the elite” and thus lowering their payoffs under the status quo.  Yet they ignore the effect of sanctions and criminalization of the regime on its payoff under the alternative to the status quo in which they hand over power. The more that the regime expects to be persecuted once out of power, the less willing it will be to enter a negotiation that risks its hold on power.  In this sense, sanctions appear to have made transition less, not more, likely.


The more the regime expects persecution once out of power, the less willing it will be to risk their hold on power through a negotiation.


A necessary, even if uncomfortable, implication of this line of reasoning is that there will be no negotiated solution in Venezuela unless top regime leaders believe that they can be reasonably safe from going to jail once they give up power.  Such guarantees cannot be credibly given in the framework of international law, where states have limited to no capacity to constrain future actions of their judiciaries.  The hard truth is that the only way they can be given is by allowing Chavismo to retain sufficient influence and power during the transition so as to allow them to be reasonably protected from prosecution inside the country. 

Doing so would likely require a constitutional reform that significantly restrained the powers of the presidency – including the ability to convene all-powerful constitutional conventions.  It would also likely include explicit constitutional guarantees that either the current supreme court and prosecutor general – or new appointees made by Chavismo to those positions – would remain in place for the duration of their terms, thus significantly constraining any attempts to prosecute outgoing officials in Venezuelan courts.

One possible model for the transition would be that of Nicaragua in 1990, in which the opposition candidate committed to respecting the institutions set up by the 1987 Constitution, including Sandinista control of the army and judiciary.[13]  Violeta Chamorro won control over the executive branch in 1990.  She did not win control over the power of the whole state. Had such absolute power been at stake, she would probably never have been allowed to win.  The guarantees implicit in this accord allowed the Sandinistas to remain politically active, and in fact, to come back to power 16 years later. Such risks are inherent in any power-sharing agreement, or, more specifically, in any agreement in which one side does not obliterate the other.

TRAGIC CHOICES

To many, the sole idea that Maduro and his clique will not be made to answer for their crimes in a transition is unacceptable.  There are good reasons to think that way.  The inviolability of human rights and the condemnation of regimes that systematically allow them to be violated – much more so if they can be said to have incurred in crimes against humanity – is a cornerstone of the way that we now think about basic justice.

In fact, there is one very strong instrumental argument why Maduro and the top echelons of the regime should not be allowed to get away without facing justice. Even if allowing them to do so were to facilitate a Venezuelan transition, it would simply invite other autocrats to commit the same atrocities to stay in power.  For penalties against heinous crimes committed by states to have an actual bite, they must be enforced consistently, and that implies not opening the door to sacrificing them for reasons of political expediency.

This argument may be right, but it is little consolation to Venezuelans.  In it, the suffering of Venezuelans under Maduro is the cost that must be paid to make an example that will deter other leaders from going down the route of autocracy.  This may be to the benefit of the people of other countries who will be able to avert a slide into autocracy as a result, but not for the millions of Venezuelans that have to live under Maduro’s regime.

The reality is that political transitions sometimes require making unsavory choices.  Ultimately, Venezuela’s opposition must decide whether it wants to continue holding to the idea of a perfect transition that never occurs or if it instead decides to opt for a flawed yet real process of change.

Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, highlighted some of these issues in a lucid 2017 article reflecting on the death of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. It is worth citing him at length:

“[W]e were able to offer Noriega the deal he did not take—you leave, and we quash the indictment, and you can go find refuge someplace and enjoy your money—just as we had done in Haiti. There in 1985, we had successfully gotten Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier out.

Reagan also got Ferdinand Marcos to leave power in the Philippines and go into exile in 1986.

In all these cases, the negotiations would likely have been impossible had there been an International Criminal Court (ICC). If there had been, these dictators would have held on tight, as Noriega actually did. More repression and violence would have been the result.

The ICC is meant to bring justice, but one should be aware of the possible cost: it persuades tyrants that leaving power means life in prison or death, and that makes it much harder to get them out of power.”[14]

Venezuela’s opposition – and the international community – may now face exactly this choice.  There is a real possibility that the constraints set out by Abrams will also be in place in Venezuela and that Maduro will ultimately face indictment from the ICC.[15]  Even if he doesn’t, it seems unlikely that the U.S. or other countries would be able to credibly commit not prosecuting him for the multiple crimes he has been accused of.   

SMALL IS POSSIBLE

Even if Venezuela’s opposition is willing to accept the cost of cohabitation with a regime that many of its followers consider inherently criminal, a grand agreement would be extremely hard to implement.  Doing so would require considerable international support, political will, and a good deal of luck.  From the outset, it would be riddled with implementation problems.  The opposition would have to enter commitments that it may have no incentive to abide by. Assuming that its future choices could be sufficiently constrained by legal and constitutional reforms is perhaps placing too much trust on the power of formal constraints.

There is a less grandiose yet perhaps much more realistic alternative. Sectoral negotiations – those aimed at cooperating to solve specific problems of Venezuelans – may offer tangible spaces for co-operation and positive-sum interactions.  By sectoral negotiations, we mean those negotiations that have direct value to Venezuelans over and above the instrumental use for solving other problems.  We distinguish sectoral agreements from partial agreements, which are those in which the sphere of negotiation has instrumental value in addressing a more complex problem.  The appointment of electoral authorities would be an example of a partial agreement: it has no meaningful direct value to members of society except for its contribution to a process that does have value – the capacity to exercise the political freedom to elect government officials.  A humanitarian vaccination agreement, in contrast, is a sectoral agreement in that it solves a specific problem and has value for Venezuelans even if other issues are not addressed.

The fact that sectoral agreements have value for people in and of themselves implies that there are potential gains from co-operation through them between the parts to the country’s conflict.  For example, political leaders from both factions that participate in an agreement to vaccinate the country against COVID and are seen by voters as having contributed to solving that problem will accumulate important political capital that will allow them to aspire to important roles in the future under diverse political scenarios.  It is easier to find immediate gains from co-operation in sectoral agreements than in partial or global political agreements, among other reasons because they require actors to run much lesser risks and allow them to build up credibility over time in the context of repeated interactions.


Venezuela’s opposition must decide between a perfect transition that might never occur or a flawed yet real process of change.


For the sides to find that it makes sense to enter into these sectoral agreements, they must be convinced that they would be unable to address the problems on their own.  In other words, there must be genuine gains from co-operation.  Maduro has no reason to seek Guaidó’s help to vaccinate the country if Maduro can vaccinate the country by himself and claim all the political benefits from doing so. 

Interestingly, because of the current structure of constraints over control of assets and legal representation created by sanctions and the recognition of Guaidó’s interim government, there are many problems that Maduro and Guaidó can only solve cooperatively.  Those that require the mobilization of resources – for example, by accessing blocked funds or oil markets – are completely intractable in the absence of co-operation.  Even having access to the funds, there is not much Guaidó can do with them (at least inside the country) without cooperating with Maduro; similarly, there is little that Maduro can do regarding costly policy interventions if he doesn’t have access to the funds to pay for them.

That said, it is not improbable that the sides could still end up stuck in irreconcilable differences, which in the end are reflective of the zero-sum struggle for power.  Both sides are likely to ask themselves how these agreements will factor into their bid to reach or maintain their hold on power.  If, for example, mobilizing resources that help address the humanitarian emergency leads to increases in Maduro’s popularity, allowing him to win a future election, or simply reducing the chances that a popular or military rebellion will oust him, the opposition is likely to conclude that entering into the deal is a poor choice.  This type of reasoning likely explains the opposition-controlled National Assembly’s decision to shelve the CAF/UNDP initiative to repair the country’s electricity infrastructure in December of 2019.

Sectoral agreements today may nevertheless be more feasible than conceptually similar agreements put forward in 2019 or 2020. One reason, as we have already argued, is that the opposition is aware that its strategy is floundering.  Recognition that it will not win the winner-take-all contest may lead it to consider alternatives that amount to limited power-sharing and which it would have refused in the past.  Maduro, on the other hand, still needs to solve concrete economic and humanitarian problems, some of which he cannot deal with without the opposition.  In other words, the opposition needs the government more than in the past, and the government still needs the opposition as much as it did in the past.

Yet perhaps a more important reason why humanitarian sectoral agreements may be feasible is that they may be able to count on the support of key international actors who could converge under a multilateral approach to convince both parts to go along with the solution.  It is unlikely that the opposition, which depends for its bargaining power on international recognition and sanctions, would refuse to go along with an initiative strongly supported by the U.S. and Europe.  It is also unlikely that Maduro would refuse to go along with an initiative that China and Russia strongly support.  And while it may not be feasible to reach an agreement between the US, EU, China, and Russia on the design of a grand political transition of power in Venezuela, it may be much more feasible for such an agreement to emerge around an initiative to address the country’s economic and humanitarian crisis.  A UN Security Council unanimous resolution in support of a cooperative humanitarian agreement in Venezuela would be very difficult for either Maduro or Guaidó to refuse. 


Sectoral negotiations may offer tangible spaces for cooperation and positive-sum interactions.


Building co-operation from the bottom-up may not sound like the most ambitious of goals.  Yet by creating institutions that can model co—operation and allow new political actors – perhaps less stained by the conflict of the past years – to emerge, such an approach can begin to build a different model through which Venezuelans from different sides of the country’s political spectrum engage with each other and begin to address their country’s problems. Ultimately, a cooperative vision of society will require mechanisms through which Venezuelans from both camps can work together and address the pressing issues of hunger, disease, and deprivation.

In his compelling recounting of the secret talks that led to the end of Apartheid, South African philosopher Willie Esterhuyse, who acted as a key interlocutor and intermediary in the talks, recalls the pivotal moments in which the talks between the South African government and leaders of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party took the turn that would enable them to reach an end to the deadlock and begin South Africa’s transition to non-racial, inclusive democracy.  He recalls when, after several meetings between representatives of the ANC and Afrikaner reformists, the conversations began to revolve around shared goals:

“I looked at [ANC leaders] Mbeki, Pahad, Trew, [and Afrikaner representatives] DeKlerk and Terreblanche, and wrote half-amazed in my notebook: ‘We’re not even ‘friendly enemies’ because we trust each other with the future even though we have no idea what it will look like in five or ten years’ time.  We’re sitting here discussing Botha, Mandela, De Klerk, Tambo, the violence in the country, the release of political prisoners and negotiations as if we’re playing for the same team.  We accept that our country is being consumed by conflict, and that a scorched earth is not in anyone’s interest.  And we share words like ‘peace’ and ‘reconciliation’ with each other.’” 

Will such a shared vision ever emerge in conversations between Chavista and opposition leaders?  Perhaps. Perhaps not.  I imagine such prospects may have seemed similarly unlikely to observers of the South African crisis in 1989.  At the very least, Venezuelans of different political persuasions – and those in the international community who wish to help us – should devote all of our efforts to try to establish such common ground.  The alternative is the prolongation of a conflict that will continue to destroy the future of millions of Venezuelans


NOTES:

[1] In the February Datanálisis survey, for example, Guaidó’s approval rating fell to 17.6%, 3.4 percentage points above that of Maduro, a difference that is within the poll’s margin of error of ±4.4%. 

[2] More precisely, a bet paying $1 if Maduro is the next Latin American leader to leave office currently trades for one cent.  Note that the question has changed over time: two years ago it referred to whether Maduro would be in office at the end of the year, while now it refers to whether he will be the next leader to leave office. See: Which of these 10 Latin American leaders will leave office next? PredictIt, 2021.  On the conditions under which prediction markets can be interpreted as probabilities, see Wolfers & Zitzewitz (2006) Interpreting prediction market prices as probabilities, NBER, Working Paper No. 12200, April.

[3] See What Should Biden Do About Venezuela?, Project Syndicate, March 4, 2021  and Joe Biden faces a key decision on Venezuela, CNN, December 17, 2021.

[4] See Opinion: Trump’s bluster failed Venezuela. Biden must use diplomatic and economic levers to address the crisis, The Washington Post, January 19, 2021, Venezuela is the perfect test case for Biden’s promised return to multilateralism, Responsible Statecraft, January 12, 2021, and The Exile Effect: Venezuela’s Overseas Opposition and Social Media, Crisis Group, February 24, 2021.

[5] How Biden can clean up Trump’s Venezuela mess, The Hill, February 9, 2021.

[6] La oposición se pone en marcha para las elecciones regionales en Venezuela pese al rechazo de Guaidó [The opposition starts to move toward regional elections in Venezuela despite Guaidó’s rejection], Europa Press, February 20, 2021.

[7] D-Day Venezuela, Project Syndicate, Jan 1, 2018.

[8] What Should Biden Do About Venezuela?, Project Syndicate, March 4, 2021

[9] Note that cellphone penetration likely overestimates the share of Venezuelans with cellphone access given the number of persons who may have more than one line. Though we do not have data on this phenomenon, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is not uncommon among the country’s elites.

[10] Article 348 of the 1999 Constitution allows the president to convene elections for a Constitutional Convention that has the power to dissolve all existing branches of government.

[11] The recall was held in 2004 – and won by Chávez – but suspended in 2016 by Maduro-controlled courts, at a time at which polls consistently showed he would lose the vote.

[12] Or, more precisely, any equilibrium that yields expected payoffs equal to the status quo.  See 2-Player zero-sum games, Yishay Mansour, 2003.

[13] Both of these controls were time-bound.  Humberto Ortega, Daniel Ortega’s brother, remained as head of the army until 1995.  Sandinista-appointed justices were allowed to remain in office for the remainder of their 6-year terms, while Chamorro appointed two new justices, increasing the Court’s size to 9 magistrates.  This implied that the Sandinista-appointed justices would hold the majority in the court until 1994.

[14] Elliott Abrams: How to Dispose of a Dictator Like Noriega, Yahoo News, June 2, 2017.

[15] The ICC is currently undertaking the third phase of preliminary examinations to determine whether crimes against humanity were committed in Venezuela following the 2017 wave of protests. The new phase began in November, after the ICC’s office of the prosecutor found “sufficient basis to believe that that crimes under jurisdiction of the Court have occurred.” See: Informe sobre las actividades de examen preliminar 2020 [Report on the activities of preliminary examinations 2020], ICC Office of the Prosecutor, December 4, 2020. This third phase will determine whether Venezuelan authorities have sought to investigate and prosecute persons involved in crimes against humanity. There is no deadline nor an expected date for this phase to conclude.

Have Venezuela Sanctions Failed?

Four years after the Trump administration began intensifying Venezuela sanctions, Maduro seems to be firmly ensconced in power. many have concluded that sanctions have failed. Yet perhaps driving Maduro from power was never their primary objective.

Perhaps no question is as capable of inflaming deep passions among Venezuelans today as that of whether sanctions imposed on the Maduro regime have failed. Even the suggestion of the question is typically associated with a presumed position. Advocates of a hard line against the Maduro regime are likely to react defensively to any such suggestion, perceiving that admission of failure brings with it an acceptance of the need to lift them.  Opponents of sanctions, who have highlighted their collateral effects, tend to feel their convictions reaffirmed if it is proven that these sanctions, despite enacting high costs, have yielded few benefits.

The standard argument against sanctions is that Maduro seems more firmly entrenched in power today than at the start of sanctions several years ago.  Venezuela’s opposition is weaker, and the government is more repressive and authoritarian.  If the aim of sanctions was to drive Maduro from power, they don’t seem to have attained that objective.  Defenders of sanctions respond by noting that sanctions are the only source of the opposition’s bargaining power, and that Maduro would be even stronger if sanctions were lifted.

As with any discussion about intervention effects, this is really a discussion about counterfactuals.  The key question is what would have happened in Venezuela in the absence of sanctions.  Surely, reasonable people can construct different counterfactuals in which Venezuela would be closer – or farther from – democracy in the absence of sanctions.  The difficulty in constructing such counterfactuals is one of the main reasons why the evaluation of the success of sanctions is so difficult.

Then there is the issue of costs.  Sanctions critics may believe that the current level of democratic deterioration is not that different from what it would have been in the absence of sanctions, yet also believe that the economy has borne significant costs from these.  The higher the costs from sanctions, the more evidence you would demand to see that they have made a difference with respect to regime change in order to support them.

Much of the discussion – including a great part of my prior writing[1] – has focused on broad economic sanctions that bar the country from having access to international oil and financial markets.  These remain deeply controversial.  In contrast, there is a more significant political consensus in opposition circles around the issue of personal sanctions.  Generally speaking, both moderate and hardline opposition groups agree that individual sanctions, at least when they are appropriately targeted, have no major economic or humanitarian spillovers. For example, Progressive Advance legislator to the National Assembly elected in 2020, Luis Romero, said during a televised debate against pro-government candidates ahead of the December 6 elections that “those who open accounts in Andorra with money from our country, I’m willing to have them sanctioned.” [2]

THE LOGIC BEHIND PERSONAL SANCTIONS

Yet personal sanctions can also backfire. While they are intended to generate selective incentives that lead key power holders to withdraw their support of the regime, they can end up having the opposite effect if they are not well calibrated.  The key problem comes from the fact that sanctions aim to generate incentives for defection from regime loyalists. [3] Yet if the sanctions are not powerful enough to generate incentives for a sufficiently large number of defections to occur, they can have the opposite effect of strengthening the sanctioned group’s resolve to fight on.  If the sanctions end up promoting internal unity in the regime, they could strengthen Maduro’s leadership and consolidate his hold on power.

To think through these arguments, it is useful to discuss a simple model of individual sanctions.  Consider an authoritarian regime in which a subgroup of the population can determine who holds power.  In a democracy, this is known as the electorate, and the mechanism through which this determination occurs is that of periodic elections.  In a non-democratic state, this is what political scientists call the “selectorate.[4]” In order to remain in power, a leader must count with the support of a minimum winning coalition of the selectorate.

Consider a selectorate whose members differ in terms of their “proximity” to the regime.  Members with greater proximity to the regime also derive more significant benefits from the status quo.  These benefits can be economic but can also be purely political or even symbolic.  What sanctions do is impose an individual-specific cost on the selectorate members who support the regime.

Personal sanctions are typically specified as conditional punishments on an individual’s actions to support the regime. In fact, the United States usually goes out of its way to signal that sanctions are dependent on conduct and can be lifted.  Note, for example, this statement on the Treasury Department’s sanctions page on filing petitions for removal from lists of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC):

The power and integrity of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions derive not only from its ability to designate and add persons to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (SDN List) but also from its willingness to remove persons from the SDN List consistent with the law.  The ultimate goal of sanctions is not to punish but to bring about a positive change in behavior.  Each year, OFAC removes hundreds of individuals and entities from the SDN List.  (emphasis added in bold).[5]

Therefore, we can think of a sanction as a cost that is imposed on a member of the selectorate who supports the regime, and that is not imposed on a member who does not support the regime.  This conditionality of the reward on the member’s action can happen through one of two ways. Either a selectorate member who does not support the regime avoids the sanction and its associated costs, or a member of the regime who was supporting the regime changes course and gets the sanction lifted. From a theoretical standpoint, these choices are equivalent, as long as we can take at face value OFAC’s claim that sanctions are conditional on actions. In any case, the aim of sanctions is to generate a sufficiently high cost to supporting the regime so as to make the number of selectorate members backing the regime fall below the minimum winning coalition.

Exhibit 1: Effect of sanctions on members of the selectorate

Source: own construction

This dynamic is illustrated in Exhibit 1, which represents the benefits from the status quo for selectorate members and the reward from defection implicit in the sanctions.  The higher the reward, the larger the defections.  Let R be the individual-specific cost of the sanction and let B be the benefit that the individual receives from the status quo (benefit that can only be enjoyed if they support the regime). Then it follows that individuals for whom R>B will not support the regime, and thereby avoid sanctions; individuals for whom B>R, in contrast, will continue supporting the regime and end up sanctioned.

We illustrate two possible sanctions levels: one (A) which is insufficient to force enough defections to generate regime change, and another one (B) that is large enough to provoke enough defections so as to make the regime unable to count with the support of a minimum winning coalition.  A appears to be the equilibrium that Venezuela is stuck in: extensive use of sanctions, and a regime that maintains the support of a sufficiently large coalition.

Why not just raise sanctions to the level C* or higher needed to generate a break in the minimum willing coalition and thus forcing the regime to lose power?  This, indeed, appears to be the logic behind proponents of the “maximum pressure” approach. One reason why this may not be so simple is that it is costly.  It requires giving a reward of C to Xc defectors.  The total cost of this strategy, CˑXc, may exceed the benefits that the sanctioning country would derive from regime change.  Therefore, the optimal strategy for the sanctioner may be to impose sanctions at a lower level such as A.  In equilibrium, (1-XA) members of the selectorate are sanctioned, XA defect, and the regime manages to hold on to power as (1-XA)>M, the minimum size of the winning coalition.

To understand why this may be a consistent explanation of the failure of regime change efforts, it’s worth considering more in detail what the reward from defection is.  The standard U.S. sanction – and its EU analogue – involves freezing of assets through inclusion in OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals List.  Avoiding these sanctions could mean maintaining access to these funds and the capacity to make transactions in the U.S. financial system.  This may be a sizable incentive for some members of the selectorate.  However, government officials – or their associates – with large deposits in the U.S. financial system are likely to have obtained these funds through corrupt practices and therefore be subject to other risks independent from individual sanctions.  It is unclear that, even if they were to have access to their funds abroad, they would be able to use them in a relatively unimpaired manner.  They would likely be liable to prosecution under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or other laws associated with drug trafficking or money laundering.  For other officials who in the absence of sanctions would not have had assets in the U.S. anyway (be it because they are honest or because they decided to stash the money away elsewhere), this reward from avoiding sanctions is likely negligible.

Personal sanctions can also backfire. While they are intended to generate selective incentives that lead key power holders to withdraw their support of the regime, they can end up having the opposite effect if they are not well calibrated.

Of course, there may be much more than meets the eye in the rewards offered to key officials who defect.  At the limit, the U.S. or its associates could be offering them substantial economic rewards using covert funds, for example.  But the challenges associated with setting up such a reward structure today are significant.  For starters, public opinion is unlikely to take kindly to having monetary rewards being offered to human rights violators. The point is that raising the rewards to defectors can be not only economically but politically costly.  There is thus a limit to how high R can be made.

In principle, one could also try to lower the benefits to selectorate members from the status quo. An extreme case of this is a military intervention that makes life very hard for regime insiders.  But the costs associated with these actions are significant. This puts us back in the territory in which the sanctioner is unwilling to pay the costs necessary to generate regime change. 

In the absence of a full-scale military intervention, other tools available to reduce selectorate member benefits under the status quo are often too blunt. If the regime stays in power, a non-defecting member of the selectorate will likely enjoy significant benefits regardless of the external pressure. The government is, after all, playing essentially the same game: it is designing the benefits function so as to target benefits to its minimum winning coalition.  Broad-ranging economic sanctions may thus limit the ability of the government to reward its coalition, but at a very high cost to the population at large.  Even then, it is unlikely that economic sanctions have the capacity to make a sufficiently large part of regime insiders miserable enough to lead them to prefer a situation in which they lose power.

Another reason why it is difficult to raise R is because of the lack of capacity to make credible commitments.  While it may be possible to promise key regime insiders significant benefits to betray the regime, it is unclear that the sanctioner will have any incentive to live up to that promise once the regime loses power.  In fact, it is probable that neither the U.S. nor the opposition have the capacity to stop trials against regime officials for corruption or human rights abuses from going forward in the event of a transition, even if they wanted to do so.  Furthermore, even if they do have the capacity, it is not clear that they would have any willingness to do so once the regime has lost power.  Rational regime insiders are likely to be able to infer this and will thus treat any promises of rewards upon defection as non-credible promises.

One way credible promises can be made to regime defectors is by promising them power in a transition.  This, in fact, appears to have been the thinking behind U.S. actions to support the attempted military rebellion against Maduro of April 30, 2020.  Key regime insiders, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and Chief Supreme Court Justice Maikel Moreno, are said to have participated (or claimed to be participating) in the conspiracy,[6] which would have ensured that they could have been in a position of power after pushing Maduro from power.  If successful, they could have had the possibility of retaining their current roles or even having more prominent roles in the transition government.  This would have given them a reasonable degree of protection against prosecution for their alleged crimes and would have offered them the prospect of key roles in a legitimate transitional government – presumably a much better agreement than their roles in the current pariah de facto government.

It is unlikely that economic sanctions have the capacity to make a sufficiently large part of regime insiders miserable enough to lead them to prefer a situation in which they lose power

However, these benefits can only materialize if the conspiracy is successful.  Put differently, defectors don’t just have to take a personal decision to defect; they also have to solve a coordination problem among themselves.  This coordination problem can be very difficult to solve not just because of the inherent difficulties of these situations (e.g., incentives to free-ride) but also because coordinating is potentially dangerous.  Participants in a failed conspiracy can be sure that the regime will ruthlessly punish them.  Potential conspirators may prefer to become regime informants than to run the risk of spending the rest of their lives in the regime’s torture chambers.  There is very little that sanctions can do to help potential defectors solve this coordination problem.

MAKING AN EXAMPLE

The foregoing discussion has assumed that the international community’s objective setting the sanctions is to generate a change in Venezuela’s political situation and force the de facto government to revert its violations of human and political rights.  Yet while that is probably one of the objectives of sanctions, it is not necessarily the only one nor the most important one.

Politicians care about votes. If we want to understand the rationale for sanctions, it would make sense to start by thinking about their implications for domestic politics in the sanctioning countries.  Among the few demographic groups in which Donald Trump made important gains over the past four years were Hispanics; his tough stance on the Venezuelan and Cuban regimes is thought to have contributed to these gains. Appealing to radicalized diasporas of Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans helped the former president win the swing state of Florida comfortably, receiving one million more votes in it than four years ago. Despite his anti-immigrant rhetoric, Trump made significant gains in the Latino community, increasing his share of the Florida vote by 11 percentage points since 2016.  Had 54 thousand persons changed their votes in three other states, Donald Trump would still be leading the country.

Although there is limited research on the issue, there is some evidence that the Venezuelan diaspora strongly backs sanctions – in contrast to those living in Venezuela, who strongly oppose them. More broadly, diasporas appear to be generally supportive of sanctions: a 2018 study found that a one percentage point increase in the size of a country’s diaspora in a swing state increased the probability of sanctions by 11 percentage points.[7]  How much of this reflects strategic as opposed to just emotive thinking is an open issue, yet even just from selection bias, we would expect emigrant populations to be more strongly opposed to the regime than those who stay behind.  Emigrants are also obviously less affected directly by the collateral effects on the sanctioned economy.

Yet perhaps an even more important consideration for imposing sanctions has to do with their deterrent effect on the actions of others. Just as in the case of law enforcement, it makes little sense to evaluate a punishment just for its effect on the punished person.  While reforming criminals and converting them into productive members of society is one of the aims of the criminal justice system, it isn’t the only one, nor is it the one that it is typically most effective at. Rather, the most important aim of criminal punishment in contemporary societies is that of acting as a deterrent to the conduct of others than the punished criminal.

Figure 1: Economist Democracy Index evolution in LatAm (2015 and 2020)

Sources: Economist Intelligence Unit

In fact, most research in criminology finds that individual deterrence effects (the change in the conduct of punished individuals) are low or nonexistent.[8] There is some more evidence – although also a fair amount of skepticism – that collective deterrence (the reduction in criminal behavior in a population as a result of its punishment) is more effective.[9]

Similarly, much of the literature on sanctions emphasizes their effect in deterring conduct among non-sanctioned countries.  Examples abound.  International sanctions on the white-rule government of Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) were more effective at dissuading white colonists in other parts of Africa from pursuing a similar model.[10] Iraq sanctions in 1990 never got Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait but were considered necessary to send a signal that the international community would not accept nations simply taking over less powerful neighbors. UN sanctions against Iran and North Korea are justified appealing to the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.  A study of this latter set of sanctions concludes:

“Sanctions have been ineffective in halting ongoing nuclear weapons programs, but they have succeeded in deterring states from starting nuclear weapons programs in the first place and have thus contributed to a decline in the rate of nuclear pursuit.”[11]

Venezuela is the most prominent case of democratic backsliding in te region’s recent history.  According to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, for example, Venezuela dropped from a score of 5.0 to one of 2.8 between 2015 and 2020  (0 indicates complete autocracy, 10  complete democracy). It is now the least democratic country in the region, even slightly below Cuba. 

It is quite plausible that sanctions may have intended not so much to stop this deterioration but to avert its occurrence in other countries in the region.  Their effectiveness then may not be so much in changing the conduct of the sanctioned regime.  As we have argued above, the incentives for this to happen can be relatively low-powered.  Yet by very strongly signaling what life would be like for a regime that overstepped democratic bounds, the international community may have sought to show other budding autocrats what the consequences could be of undermining democratic institutions in the same way that Maduro did.

The deterrent effect of sanctions also needs to be understood in a context in which the United States has a more specific policy objective of deterring the emergence of non-democratic states associated with leftist political movements, particularly when this happens in the region it has historically seen as its backyard. Former President Donald Trump made this point prominent in a 2019 meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi when he quipped, “Where’s my favorite dictator?”[11]  Trump appears to have cared little about Sisi’s well-known human rights abuses, as long as Sisi remained his ally.  Even in Latin America, it seems that the U.S. is less uncomfortable with democratic backsliding in right-leaning governments such as those of Honduras under Juan Orlando Hernández or El Salvador under Nayib Bukele than in left-leaning governments like those of Bolivia and Venezuela.

If the aim of U.S. policy could be characterized as stopping democratic backsliding in leftist governments in the region, we should judge its success by its effect on those countries in which the backsliding did not occur as much as in those where it did.  Judged by that standard, the policy could arguably look more successful.  In any case, its conduct needs to be assessed more in the absence of democratic backsliding in countries with leftist governments such as Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico.

That this is the case is not necessarily good news for Venezuelans.  The sanctioning of the Maduro regime may not seek to generate a change in Venezuela.  It may rather seek to deter, say, the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in México or Alberto Fernández in Argentina from behaving like Maduro. Venezuela’s opposition should have no expectations that sanctions will help them recover democracy.  This is not because the international community doesn’t want to help.  Rather, it could be because it has by now given up on Venezuela and decided to focus on stopping other countries from going the same route.

If this view is correct, then Venezuelan pro-democracy forces may be well-advised to focus less on lobbying for sanctions and more on acting on domestic levers that have a greater potential effect on generating regime change. Tightening or loosening sanctions is unlikely to make much of a difference to Venezuela’s political stalemate. Rather, the key challenge continues to be getting a large enough part of the selectorate to support an alternative to the status quo. Domestic coalition-building that seeks to include moderate factions of that selectorate in the pro-democracy camp may be a much more efficient route in seeking change for Venezuela.


Notes

[1] See, for example, Rodríguez, Francisco R. Sanctions and the Venezuelan Economy: What the data say, retrieved from https://franciscorodriguez.net/2020/01/11/sanctions-and-the-venezuelan-economy-what-the-data-say/ February 22, 2021.

[2] Luis Romero propone crear sistema de respaldo a la moneda nacional, El Universal, November 13, 2020.

[3] We refer to members of the selectorate who do not support the regime as defectors.  It is immaterial whether they have supported the regime in the past.  What is important is that they have power, and that they currently do not support the regime.

[4] See Mesquita, B., Smith, A., Siverson, R.(2004) The Logic of Political Survival, The MIT Press, March 1

[5] Filing a Petition for Removal from an OFAC List, U.S. Department of Treasury, 2021. 

[6] How a plot filled with intrigue and betrayal failed to oust Venezuela’s president, The Washington Post, May 3, 2019.

[7] Kustra, Tyler (2018) Sanctioning the Homeland: Diasporas’ Influence on American Economic Sanctions Policy, SSRN, August 6.

[8] Nagin, D., Cullen, F., & Lero, C. (2009) Imprisonment and Reoffending, Crime and Justice, vol. 38.

[9] Dölling, D., Entorf, H., Hermann, D (2009) “Is Deterrence Effective? Results of a Meta-Analysis of Punishment,” European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 15, 201–224, March 3.

[10] See the discussion in Baldwin, D. (2020) Economic Statecraft, Princeton University Press, chapter 8.

[11] Miller, N. (2014) “The Secret Success of Nonproliferation Sanctions,” International Organization, 68(4), pp. 913-944.

[12] Trump, Awaiting Egyptian Counterpart at Summit, Called Out for ‘My Favorite Dictator’, Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2019.