Foreign Policy Blogs

Venezuela’s Struggles Continue as Government and Opposition Clash

Frustrated anti-government protesters flooded the streets of Caracas, Venezuela in October 2016. The country's supreme court blocked a recall referendum that could have removed unpopular President Nicolas Maduro from power. Sadly the country's struggles continue, but there is some hope for change. Photo: Rodrigo Abd/AP

Frustrated anti-government protesters flooded the streets of Caracas, Venezuela in October 2016. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

This summer I wrote about the economic and political struggles in Venezuela. Unfortunately the country’s situation has not greatly improved since, and recent events have shown the frustration and discontent with President Nicolas Maduro’s leadership. Nevertheless, each side has made some recent concessions which offer hope.

Opposition parties began a petition in May asking for a recall election which could remove Maduro from power. Yet such an action would only take place with the approval of Venezuela’s supreme court, which is controlled by Maduro.

In the last few weeks this dispute reached a boiling point. In late October, the country’s supreme court suspended the recall election petition, a move derided by the U.S. State Department and the Organization of American States. Venezuelan lawmakers announced that this decision amounted to Maduro staging a coup. Outraged, they vowed to put the president on trial themselves.

Despite growing opposition, some protests rose up in support of the government. Days after the court decision a legislative session was disrupted by hundreds of pro-government protesters who muscled their way onto the floor yelling “Congress will fall!”

Though symbolic, this action was easily dwarfed by the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who subsequently took to the streets of Caracas and other cities demanding Maduro’s removal from power. Opposition leaders termed the demonstrations of outrage “the takeover of Venezuela.”

Polls indicate as much as 80% of Venezuelans want him removed from office, tired of the stagnating economy, food shortages, and significant health care deficiencies. Victoria Rodriguez of Caracas, a recent high school graduate, told the Associated Press she hoped to vote to cast her first vote to support recalling Maduro. Rodriguez further lamented her “emptying country,” noting that 15 of her 25 classmates have left Venezuela since graduation, which is just one reflection of the country’s hardships.

After the court decision to suspend the recall intensified the political crisis, various interests have attempted to broker a resolution. Representatives of Vatican City tried to organize talks between Maduro’s government and the opposition but with limited success. Some common ground was reached by Nov. 14, 2016, as both sides agreed to cooperate to address the food and medicine shortages. However some anti-government activists characterized these developments as a ploy by Maduro to divert attention from the main issue: reinstating the recall referendum. Opposition protests were called off when the Vatican-backed talks began with the understanding that a recall vote would be on the table.

Despite the mistrust, both sides have made some concessions. On Nov. 15 the opposition consented to the resignation of 3 legislators the government accused of committing fraud. Maduro commended the move, stating “The process begins for the National Assembly to respect the Supreme Court, respect the Constitution.”

As reconciliation talks continued, three days later the government released Rosmit Mantilla, a politician who had been imprisoned on suspicion of fomenting violent protests against Maduro in 2014. Mantilla had been a key figure in the opposition-controlled congress. While encouraged by the government releasing Mantilla as a first step, Amnesty International expressed the opinion of many opposition supporters in saying, “He should have never been made to spend a second behind bars. The Venezuelan authorities must now build on this positive step and release all imprisoned activists and political leaders whose only ‘crime’ was to disagree with the government.”

As long as Maduro controls Venezuela’s court system, it seems unlikely the government will agree to a recall election. Therefore the opposition may be better served focusing on ensuring that the government provides the resources and support services needed by so many Venezuelans. With the support of outside groups, they should demand that the government provide these services. If it fails or refuses, anti-government groups will be in a better position to demand political change. They have shown a willingness to reconcile, now it is the government’s turn. Presently, this is the best chance for the country’s recovery.



Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”