- Only outsiders can break Venezuela’s deadlock
IN DECREEING that the Carnival holiday would last an extra two days this year, Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, seemed to have hit on a clever way to damp down opposition protests that began four weeks ago. But the gambit failed. The protests have claimed 18 lives; scores have been injured and hundreds arrested. And still they rage.
As in 2002-04, when a similar protest wave threatened Hugo Chávez’s populist regime, Venezuela is split into two irreconcilable camps. Back then, an unpopular Chávez withstood vast demonstrations, a short-lived coup and prolonged strikes-cum-lockouts. Mr Maduro seems to think he can likewise ride out the storm. His security forces continue to beat up demonstrators and his officials denounce the opposition as “fascists”. His offers of dialogue smack of bad faith and the government shows no sign of entertaining the opposition’s demands.
Contrary to the regime’s claim, these do not include the overthrow of the government (though that would surely delight many). Instead the opposition is calling for the restoration of democratic norms—the release of its jailed leaders, the disarming of chavista paramilitaries, an investigation into the deaths and torture of demonstrators, media freedom and the replacement by bipartisan consensus of Supreme Court justices and members of the electoral tribunal whose terms expired last year.
Mr Maduro, narrowly elected after Chávez died a year ago this week, still has the support of many poorer Venezuelans. But the opposition senses that time is no longer on the government’s side. Mr Maduro lacks both his mentor’s political skills and also his good fortune. Chávez survived in 2002-04 largely because the oil price shot up, giving him a windfall that he spent on Cuban-designed social programmes. In contrast, Mr Maduro must grapple with a rotten legacy: soaring inflation, widespread shortages and crime. The economy needs a devaluation and also for the private sector to function. But that is anathema to his base.
By taking to the streets, the opposition is laying bare the contradiction at the heart of chavismo. Though Chávez claimed to lead a revolution, his legitimacy came from the ballot box. If Mr Maduro steps up repression, the regime will become an outright dictatorship for the first time. But the opposition has a problem, too. The next election (for the legislature) is not due until 2015 and a recall referendum cannot be held before 2016. It fears that by then Venezuela will be a totalitarian state and its chance will have gone—so it will not give up today.
With the two sides locked in mutual mistrust, more Venezuelans are likely to pay the price with their lives. Breaking the deadlock needs the help of outsiders. But whom? The government refuses any role for the Organisation of American States (because it includes the United States); after Panama called for a debate there, Venezuela broke off ties with the Central American country on March 5th.
Neither the Union of South American Nations, whose secretary-general is a chavista, nor CELAC, a broader regional group currently chaired by Cuba, which provides Mr Maduro with political and security advice, is credible as a referee. By giving subsidised oil to a dozen Caribbean and Central American countries, Venezuela has bought their loyalty.
Back in 2003 Brazil organised a “Group of Friends” to mediate in Venezuela. Could it do so again? Brazil’s left-wing presidents have sided with Venezuela’s government out of a mixture of ideology and business opportunity.
Latin American leaders clothe their silence over chavismo’s gutting of democracy with the mantra of non-intervention, as Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff did last month. But that policy is applied only when it suits them. Brazil intervened to punish both Honduras and Paraguay when left-wing presidents were ousted (constitutionally in Paraguay’s case). Argentina’s foreign minister complains that Venezuela’s demonstrations risk overthrowing an elected government—yet that was how his own party came to power in 2001.
Brazilian officials say that they are working behind the scenes to persuade Mr Maduro to be more moderate. If so, they are not having much success. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former president and political opponent of Ms Rousseff, notes that Brazil would not be taken seriously as a world power if “we stayed paralysed in our area of direct influence”.
On March 11th Mr Maduro will join other regional leaders for the inauguration of Chile’s new president. It is a timely moment to launch a mediation effort to bring peace and restore democratic norms to Latin America’s most troubled country. Venezuela’s turmoil poses a test of the region’s political maturity. Looking the other way is no answer.