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]


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).


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] 


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.


[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.

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]


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.


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.


[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.

Sanctions Are Driving Iran and Venezuela Into Each Other’s Arms

Maximum pressure has not destroyed the Iranian economy, and Tehran is now sharing its lessons in resilience with Nicolás Maduro’s beleaguered regime in Caracas.

With Esfandyar Batmanghelidj. Originally published in Foreign Policy

¿Qué puede aprender la oposición venezolana de Surinam?

La decisión de participar en una elección no se trata de asignar legitimidad, sino de elegir un terreno en el que se pueda disputar el poder a un régimen autoritario.
Con Pilar Navarro, Economista Senior, EMFI Securities

El presidente de un país del norte de América del Sur violó todas las reglas de la democracia. Compró votos descaradamente con recursos públicos, intimidó a los líderes políticos de la oposición y restringió a los partidos que lo adversaban. Escogió a las autoridades electorales y llenó las instituciones con sus seguidores, frustrando las esperanzas de un proceso electoral imparcial. No mostró ninguna intención de dejar el poder pacíficamente, en parte, porque fue declarado culpable de tráfico de drogas en una jurisdicción extranjera.

Se podría pensar que la única forma de sacar del poder a este presidente sería mediante sanciones económicas, presiones externas y, tal vez incluso, una intervención militar. Ciertamente, participar en sus falsas elecciones solo serviría para legitimar su gobierno. ¿Correcto? Pues no fue así. Este país es Surinam, y su oposición hizo bien todo lo que la oposición venezolana está haciendo mal.

El 16 de julio, una década de gobierno del líder autoritario Desi Bouterse llegó a su fin después de que el parlamento del país eligiera al líder de la oposición Chandrikapersad ‘Chan’ Santokhi como nuevo presidente del país. Fue la consecuencia de una sorprendente victoria del Partido de Reforma Progresista (VHP, por sus siglas en holandés) de Santokhi en las elecciones generales de mayo de 2020, dos meses después de que se construyera una coalición para lograr una supermayoría parlamentaria y lograr la elección de Santokhi.

Hubiera sido más sencillo boicotear las elecciones generales de mayo, como hizo la oposición en Venezuela con las elecciones presidenciales de 2018, y que ya ha anunciado que volverá a hacer con las elecciones legislativas de este año. Ciertamente, había muchas razones para denunciar el proceso electoral de Surinam como irremediablemente sesgado. Las autoridades electorales fueron seleccionadas por Bouterse, se prohibieron las alianzas entre partidos electorales y las listas de votantes incluían personas fallecidas o que no vivían en las direcciones que habían indicado. Durante la campaña Bourterse celebró reuniones masivas durante la cuarentena, incluso cuando éstas habían sido legalmente prohibidas. Incluso, un video en Twitter muestra una caravana del Partido Nacional Demócrata (NDP, por sus siglas en holandés) de Bouterse arrojando dinero a la gente.

Típico del manual del dictador, el gobierno de Bouterse también impulsó cambios de última hora en la legislación electoral que incluyeron la creación de colegios electorales móviles, un proceso que se vio empañado por retrasos en la entrega de tarjetas de votación y materiales electorales. A todo esto se suma que Surinam tiene una legislación electoral ya sesgada: por ejemplo, el tamaño del distrito es independiente del tamaño de la población y las regiones rurales, donde el NDP de Bouterse tiene mayor apoyo, están sobrerrepresentadas en relación con su población, lo que hace que el gobierno tenga más probabilidades de ganar incluso si la oposición recibe más votos totales.

Teniendo en cuenta la discusión en la vecina Venezuela sobre actos similares del gobierno de Maduro y su Tribunal Supremo de Justicia para las próximas elecciones a la Asamblea Nacional, vale la pena comprender hasta qué punto las autoridades electorales de Surinam han estado bajo el control del gobierno de Bouterse. Hay dos instituciones electorales en Surinam, la Oficina Electoral Independiente (OKB) y la Autoridad Electoral Central (CHS). Ambas tienen jefes designados por el presidente y ambos son miembros del NDP. No solo eso, sino que la organización del evento electoral está directamente a cargo del Ministerio del Interior. El control de Bouterse era tal que, hacia el final del día de las elecciones, él y varios ministros se reunieron con la presidenta de la OKB para decidir cuánto tiempo dejar abiertos los colegios electorales. El régimen de Maduro, al menos, ha tenido la mínima decencia de mantener tales reuniones fuera del ojo público.

Ciertamente, el VHP podría haber decidido boicotear la votación y afirmar que no había condiciones para unas elecciones libres y justas. En cambio, el movimiento de oposición asumió el desafío, apostando a que la creciente impopularidad de Bouterse, la profunda crisis económica del país y la frustración de los votantes por el aislamiento internacional los ayudarían a superar a un sistema electoral corrupto y politizado. Claro, los gobernantes siempre pueden intentar manipular las elecciones, pero hacerlo es mucho más difícil cuando una avalancha de votantes quiere expulsarlos del poder.

Y valió la pena. El VHP obtuvo el 39,4% de los votos nacionales, frente al 24% del NDP. Si bien esto le garantizó al VHP una pluralidad de escaños en el parlamento, no obtuvo la supermayoría de dos tercios necesaria para nombrar a un presidente sin apelar a la Asamblea Popular, un órgano más amplio que incluye representantes regionales. Lo que siguió fueron dos meses de hábiles negociaciones, en las que el VHP pudo obtener el apoyo de cuatro partidos más pequeños que aseguraron la supermayoría requerida.
Probablemente nunca obtendremos una imagen completa de todo lo que ocurrió detrás del escenario para hacer posible la transición, pero podemos obtener algunas pistas de las señales externas.

Primero, el VHP necesitaba llegar a acuerdos con algunos personajes desagradables. Un ejemplo destacado es Ronnie Brunswijk, un ex guardaespaldas de Bouterse que ahora encabeza el Partido de Desarrollo y Liberación General (ABOP), y que además fue elegido por la legislatura para ocupar el cargo de vicepresidente junto con Santokhi a cambio de los votos de su partido. Brunswijk, quien fue cortejado asiduamente por Bouterse, también ha sido condenado in absentia por tráfico de drogas en los Países Bajos y Francia. Después se llegó a un acuerdo de transferencia de poder en una reunión cara a cara de una hora entre Bouterse y Santokhi. Como escribió el periodista belga Walter Lotens, “Lo que se discutió durante esa conversación no aparecerá en los registros históricos, pero sin duda tuvo que ver con dar garantías a Bouterse de una manera diplomáticamente discreta”. Bouterse, que inicialmente había exigido un recuento de los votos, anunció después de la reunión que aceptaría los resultados. “Cuando la gente ha hablado, tenemos que inclinar la cabeza”, dijo el exdictador.

¿Por qué competir?

Los líderes autoritarios a menudo convocan elecciones semicompetitivas en su intento por permanecer en el poder. Las razones son múltiples, y van desde cumplir con mandatos constitucionales hasta la necesidad de obtener algún nivel de legitimidad nacional e internacional. La evidencia internacional sugiere que boicotear este tipo de elecciones no es una buena idea. Existen numerosos casos – Chile en 1988, Nicaragua en 1990, Serbia en 2000 – donde una victoria contra un proceso electoral amañado puso en marcha una transición que llevó a la destitución de líderes autoritarios.

Impugnar las elecciones no implica necesariamente legitimarlas. Los movimientos de oposición pueden denunciar sistemáticamente las irregularidades electorales y aun así llamar a la gente a votar. La decisión de participar en una elección no se trata de asignar legitimidad, sino de elegir un terreno en el que se puede disputar el poder a un régimen autoritario. Los partidos opositores que deciden boicotear las elecciones e intentan usar la fuerza para expulsar a los gobernantes del poder suelen llevar la contienda a un escenario que disminuye sus posibilidades de éxito.

Una de las razones por las que las transiciones electorales suelen ser mucho más viables que la revolucionarias es porque participar en las elecciones implica algún tipo de negociación implícita sobre el espacio y el ritmo del cambio viable. Esto se debe a que los ganadores de una elección pueden obtener el control de la rama del gobierno para la que han sido elegidos, pero deben comprometerse a respetar las ramas restantes, que pueden haber sido nombradas por el gobierno saliente. En Nicaragua, en 1990, la decisión de la oposición de competir en las elecciones implicó un quid-pro-quo implícito de respetar el poder judicial y otras instituciones estatales, incluyendo el ejército -controlado por los sandinistas-. Al respetar cierto grado de separación de poderes, la oposición acepta un trato que excluye un enfoque de “el ganador se lo lleva todo”.

Por supuesto, no hay dos casos idénticos y los críticos pueden señalar la relativa independencia del poder judicial de Surinam como una razón para tener una mayor confianza en las instituciones. De hecho, la presidenta de la Corte Suprema, Cynthia Valstein-Montnor, fue la jueza que presidió el Tribunal Militar en el juicio contra Bouterse por el asesinato de 15 políticos opositores en 1982. El Fiscal General, Roy Baidjnath Panday, quien ayudó a bloquear los intentos de Bouterse de detener el juicio, también goza de un amplio nivel de independencia.

Sin embargo, también se da el caso de que es más fácil mantener instituciones independientes cuando las fuerzas de oposición van a elecciones y defienden los espacios políticos. La oposición de Venezuela ha demostrado ser más capaz de frustrar los avances del chavismo cuando ha tenido representación parlamentaria que cuando boicoteó las elecciones parlamentarias en 2005. De hecho, está claro que la carta más fuerte de la oposición venezolana hoy contra el régimen de Maduro – el reconocimiento internacional de Juan Guaidó como presidente interino por 58 naciones – es una consecuencia directa de la decisión de la oposición de participar en las elecciones parlamentarias de 2015 en lugar de boicotearlas, incluso en condiciones desiguales.

Un grupo de decisiones recientes del Tribunal Supremo de Justicia de Venezuela ha despojado de sus partidos a líderes clave de la oposición, entregándolos a disidentes respaldados por Maduro. Debido a esto, algunos argumentan que la oposición venezolana realmente no tiene la opción de participar en las próximas elecciones parlamentarias; la decisión ya fue tomada por ellos. Sin embargo, este argumento es incorrecto. Todavía hay varios partidos establecidos a nivel nacional en cuyas tarjetas se pueden registrar candidaturas opositoras. Estas tarjetas fueron inscritas por algunos dirigentes opositores que anticiparon la jugada del régimen sobre el control de sus partidos.

La oposición de Venezuela puede aprender de la tenacidad de algunos de sus obstinados rivales en otros países. Después de que las autoridades electorales designadas por el presidente ecuatoriano Lenín Moreno le quitaron el control del partido Alianza País a su fundador, el expresidente Rafael Correa, y rechazaron las solicitudes de los seguidores de Correa para registrar su propio partido, el líder de izquierda siguió adelante, negándose a abandonar el terreno electoral. Entró en una alianza con un pequeño partido – el Movimiento Revolución Ciudadana- y sus candidatos lograron obtener el segundo mayor número total de votos en todo el país, a pesar de que solo pudieron presentar candidatos en 11 de las 23 elecciones estatales. Las encuestas indican que el candidato designado por Correatiene buenas posibilidades de ganar las elecciones presidenciales del próximo año.

Lograr una transición exitosa es mucho más que disputar y ganar una elección. Hacer posible una transición pacífica implica la necesidad de concesiones importantes. El líder del VHP, Santokhi, ya ha declarado que la extradición de Bouterse a los Países Bajos está fuera de discusión, ya que no está permitida por la legislación actual. Puede resultar más complicado lidiar con la sentencia de 20 años que pesa sobre la cabeza de Bouterse por los asesinatos de 1982 en las cortes surinamesas: es probable que sea necesario negociar algún tipo de amnistía para que un acuerdo sea aceptable para Bouterse. El 28 de julio, la apelación de Bouterse fue aplazada hasta nuevo aviso, una decisión que lo ayudará a evitar la cárcel. Es difícil creer que no haya habido algún nivel de negociación política detrás de esta suspensión.
Algunos dirán que este tipo de acuerdos son inaceptables. Dirán que Maduro, Bouterse y sus compinches deben enfrentar la cárcel y que cualquier solución que implique compartir el poder con sus regímenes implica un compromiso moralmente inaceptable. Uno nunca debe negociar con criminales, dirán.

Sin embargo, ¿cuál es el punto de defender una transición moralmente ideal que nunca va a ocurrir?

Este artículo fue publicado originalmente en inglés en Chatam House.

What Venezuela’s Opposition Can Learn from Suriname

The decision to participate in an election is not about assigning legitimacy, but about choosing a terrain in which to contest power from an authoritarian regime.
With Pilar Navarro, Senior Economist, EMFI Securities.

The president of a country on the northern coast of South America violated every rule of democracy. He shamelessly bought votes with public resources, intimidated opposition leaders and restricted opposition political parties. He handpicked electoral authorities and stacked electoral institutions with loyalists, dashing hopes for an impartial electoral process. He showed no intention of leaving power peacefully in part because he had been brought to trial for drug trafficking in a foreign jurisdiction.

One might think that the only way to drive him from power would be through economic sanctions, external pressure and maybe even a military intervention. Certainly, participating in his sham elections would only serve to legitimize his rule. Right?

Think again. The country is Suriname, and its opposition got right everything that Venezuela’s opposition is getting wrong.

On 16 July this year, the ten-year rule of authoritarian leader Desi Bouterse came to an end after the country’s parliament elected opposition leader Chandrikapersad ‘Chan’ Santokhi to the country’s presidency. This followed a stunning victory by Santokhi’s Progressive Reform Party (VHP) in the country’s May 2020 general elections and two months of careful coalition-building aimed at garnering the necessary support for Santokhi’s election by a parliamentary supermajority.

It would have been easy to boycott the May general elections, as Venezuela’s mainstream opposition did with the country’s presidential elections two years ago and has announced it will do again with this year’s legislative elections. Certainly, there were plenty of reasons to denounce Suriname’s electoral process as hopelessly biased. Electoral authorities were hand-picked by Bouterse, electoral party alliances were banned, and voter registration rolls included dead persons or people who did not live in the addresses they had listed. The incumbent’s campaign held meetings during the lockdown even when these gatherings had been legally banned. A video was even uploaded on Twitter showing a National Democratic Party (NDP) caravan throwing money at people.

Borrowing from the dictator’s playbook, the Bouterse government also pushed ahead with last-minute changes in electoral legislation that included the creation of mobile polling stations, a process that was marred by delays in the delivery of voting cards and electoral materials. All this on top of an already biased Surinamese electoral legislation – for example, district size is independent of population size, and rural regions, where Bouterse’s NDP is dominant, are over-represented relative to their population, making the government more likely to win even if the opposition receives more votes in the country as a whole.

In light of the discussion in neighboring Venezuela regarding similar acts by the Maduro government and its Supreme Court to game the upcoming National Assembly elections, it’s worth understanding the extent to which Surinamese electoral authorities had been under the thumb of the government. There are two electoral institutions in Suriname, the Independent Electoral Council (OKB) and the Central Electoral Committee (CHS), both of which have heads appointed by the president and both of whom are members of the NDP. Not only that, but the organization of the electoral event is directly in charge of the Minister of Home Affairs. Bouterse’s control ran so deep that toward the end of election day, he, along with several ministers, even met with the Chair of the OKB to decide how long to keep polling stations open. The Maduro regime, at least, has had the minimal decency to keep any such meetings out of the public eye.

The VHP could have certainly decided to boycott the vote and claim that there were no conditions for free and fair elections. Instead, the opposition movement took on the challenge, betting that Bouterse’s growing unpopularity, the country’s deep economic crisis, and voters’ frustration over international isolation would help it overcome the corrupted, politicized electoral system. Sure, incumbents can always try to rig elections, but doing so is much harder when an avalanche of voters wants to drive you from power.

Their bet paid off big time. The VHP won 39.4 per cent of the national vote, against the NDP’s 24.0 per cent. While this guaranteed the VHP a plurality of National Assembly seats, they did not win the two-thirds supermajority needed to appoint a president without appealing to the broader United People’s Assembly – which includes sub-national representatives. What followed were two months of skillful negotiations, in which the VHP was able to gain the support of four smaller parties that ensured the required supermajority.

We will probably never get a complete picture of all of the behind-the-scenes gamesmanship that took place to make the transition possible, but we can garner some clues from outward signals.

First, the VHP needed to enter into deals with some unsavory characters. A prominent example is Ronnie Brunswijk, a former Bouterse bodyguard who now heads the minority General Liberation and Development Party (ABOP) who was elected by the legislature to serve as Vice-President alongside Santokhi in exchange for his party’s votes. Brunswijk, who was assiduously courted by Bouterse, has also been convicted in absentia for drug trafficking in the Netherlands and France. Then, a transfer of power agreement was hashed out in an hours-long one-on-one meeting between Bouterse and Santokhi. As Belgian journalist Walter Lotens wrote, ‘What was discussed during that conversation will not appear in the history records, but it undoubtedly had to do with giving guarantees to Bouterse in a diplomatically discreet way.” Bouterse, who had initially demanded a recount of the vote, announced after the meeting that he would accept the results. ‘When the people have spoken, we have to bow our heads,’ said the former dictator.

Why compete?

Authoritarian leaders often call semi-competitive elections in their bid to remain in power. The reasons are manifold, and range from constitutional mandates to the need to obtain some level of national and international legitimacy. The international evidence strongly suggests that boycotting these elections is not a good idea. There are numerous cases – Chile in 1988, Nicaragua in 1990, Serbia in 2000 – where an electoral victory against a rigged electoral process set in motion a transition that led to the ousting of authoritarian leaders.

Contesting elections does not necessarily imply legitimizing them. Opposition movements can consistently denounce electoral irregularities and still call on people to vote. The decision to participate in an election is not about assigning legitimacy, but about choosing a terrain in which to contest power from an authoritarian regime. Opposition movements that decide to eschew elections and attempt to use force to drive their governments from power are often simply taking the contest for power to an arena where they are sure to lose.

One reason why electoral transitions are often much more viable than revolutionary ones is because participating in elections entails some type of implicit negotiation over the space and pace of viable change. This is because the winners of an election can gain control of the branch of government to which they have been elected yet need to commit to respecting the remaining branches, which may have been appointed by the outgoing incumbent. In Nicaragua in 1990, the opposition’s decision to compete in elections carried an implicit quid-pro-quo to respect the judiciary and other state institutions, including the Sandinista-controlled army. By respecting some degree of separation of powers, the opposition accepts a bargain that precludes a winner-take-all approach.

Of course, no two cases are identical, and critics may point to the relative independence of Suriname’s judiciary as a reason for having greater trust in institutions. In fact, High Court President Cynthia Valstein-Montnor was the presiding judge officiating the Military Court in the murder-trial against Bouterse for the killing of 15 political opponents in 1982. Attorney General Roy Baidjnath Panday, who helped block Bouterse’s attempts to stop the trial, also enjoys a broad level of independence.

Yet it is also the case that it is easier to maintain independent institutions when opposition forces contest elections and defend political spaces rather than abandon them. Venezuela’s opposition has proved more able to thwart the advances of Chavismo when it has had parliamentary representation than when it boycotted parliamentary elections in the past. In fact, it is clear that the Venezuelan opposition’s strongest card today against the Maduro regime – the international recognition of Juan Guaidó as interim president by 58 nations – is a direct consequence of the opposition’s decision to contest parliamentary elections in 2015 rather than boycotting them, even while facing an uneven playing field.

Recent decisions by Venezuela’s Supreme Court have stripped key opposition leaders of their parties, handing them over to Maduro-backed dissidents. Because of this, some argue that Venezuela’s opposition doesn’t really have a choice of participating in coming parliamentary elections – the choice has already been made for them.  This argument, however, is incorrect. There are still several nationally-established parties on whose tickets opposition leaders can register their candidacies—some of them registered by these leaders in anticipation that the regime would decide to take control of their parties.1

Venezuela’s opposition may do well in learning from the tenacity of some of its obstinate rivals in other countries. After electoral authorities appointed by Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno stripped control of the governing Alianza País party from its founder, former President Rafael Correa, and refused requests by Correa’s followers  to register their own party, the leftist leader forged ahead, refusing to abandon the electoral terrain. He entered into an alliance with a small third party, and his candidates managed to get the second highest total number of votes nationwide despite only being able to field candidates in 11 of the 23 state races. Polls indicate that Correa, or a candidate appointed by him, has a good chance of winning next year’s presidential election (Correa now faces a new attempt to ban his party, yet is giving no indication that he will willingly abandon the electoral terrain).

Achieving a successful transition is about much more than contesting and winning an election.  Making a peaceful transition possible implies the need for significant concessions. VHP leader Santokhi has already stated that extradition of Bouterse to the Netherlands is out of the question as it is not permitted under current legislation. It may prove trickier to deal with the 20-year domestic sentence weighing on Bouterse’s head for the 1982 killings; some type of amnesty will likely be necessary to make a deal palatable for Bouterse. On 28 July Bouterse’s appeal was postponed until further notice, a decision that will help Bouterse avoid jail.  It is hard to believe that some level of political negotiation was not behind this suspension.

Some will say that these types of agreements are unacceptable. They will say that Maduro, Bouterse, and their cronies must face prison and that any solution that entails power-sharing with their regimes implies a morally unacceptable compromise. One should never negotiate with criminals, they’ll say.

Yet what is the point of advocating for a morally ideal transition that never happens?

This article was originally published in Chatam House.