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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.   


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


[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]


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 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.