World News

Can Venezuela Suddenly Transition to Democracy? Its People Hope So.

Venezuela morphed from democracy to dictatorship over the past 25 years. The people, rallying around María Corina Machado and the opposition, can vote for change in the July 28 presidential election. However, Nicolás Maduro’s corrupt government could undercut its opponent with sneaky tactics. Can Venezuela really transition to democracy?

Venezuela – several ballot boxes and flags – voting, election concept – 3D illustration © PX Media /

June 17, 2024 07:04 EDT

In the last 25 years, the possibility of a re-democratization in Venezuela has never come closer than it is now. Under the late Hugo Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro, the country transitioned from a full-blown democracy to a hybrid regime (or what some scholars dubbed “competitive authoritarianism”), to end up in a classic dictatorship. However, it is currently going through complex circumstances that have opened a certain possibility for a democratic comeback.

There have been other occasions where re-democratization came within reach. In 2002, the massive demonstrations and failed coup brought it closer, as well as the oil strike and recall referendum that followed. Then in 2013, Henrique Capriles Radonski lost the presidential election by a slim margin — allegedly, a number of irregularities caused this loss. Finally, in 2015, the government lost the National Assembly and the opposition coalition obtained a two-thirds majority, making it even more possible. All those cases brought opportunities for a transition.

But re-democratization was deterred by four main factors. The first was timing. In 2002-2003, the Bolivarian Revolution had momentum on its side, with a domestic followership majority and the beginning of the pink tide — Latin America’s turn to left-wing governments. In 2015, while internal support had dwindled, the government still had strong organization, authority and control of other levers of power (judiciary, executive). Moreover, the opposition squandered the political capital gained.

The second factor was oil. During the three prior moments, high oil rents were crucial to delivering social goods: primary health care, expansion of government jobs and a long list of subsidies. The third was internal cohesion. In the prior situations, internal cohesion and strength were solid despite the purges of high-level bureaucrats such as Jorge Giordani and Rafael Ramírez. The fourth was the opposition misreading the need to negotiate and come to a minimum understanding with the reality of Chavista forces — followers of Chávez and his ideology — on the ground. In all cases, there was little disposition on the part of the opposition to recognize the inevitable weight of Chavismo in the country’s political life despite the brutal power asymmetry between the two sides.

This time, however, the circumstances for re-democratization are stronger. There has been economic collapse. Chávez, the founder of his self-proclaimed “Socialism of the 21st Century,” died in 2013. His successor, Maduro, inherited a very sick economy. Despite having experienced the largest windfall of oil revenues in its history, the economy collapsed due to the destruction of the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA) oil company. Corruption ran amok, costing an estimated $68-350 trillion. Mismanagement of the economy and most state activities — like electricity and water provision, and widespread nationalizations — also contributed.

This all led to hyperinflation and a drastic drop in people’s access to food and medicine. This brought on a complex humanitarian crisis; most Venezuelans lost their normal livelihoods and started voting with their feet, abandoning the country in droves. Since around 2015, approximately 7 million additional Venezuelans have fled the country. Many have walked to neighboring countries like Colombia and Ecuador in freezing temperatures. Others have traveled the jungle and swampy region of the Darien between Colombia and Panama, before continuing their difficult trek to the United States Southern border.

Additionally, the nature of the regime has evolved from a hybrid regime to an open dictatorship. This fundmental change brought many terrible consequences: the persecution and banning of political opponents, the politicization of justice, repression of peaceful demonstrations, torture of political prisoners and even assassinations. These have all been strongly documented by United Nations agencies, and lately the intervention of the International Criminal Court. The latter ratified its decision to investigate the Venezuelan government for crimes against humanity.

Understandably, Chavismo as a political movement began shrinking, and its popular support is currently at its lowest. The latest purges, especially that of Tarek El Aissami (former Vice-President and CEO of PDVSA) rather than bringing greater coherence, have internally weakened the regime. It is also isolated in the international arena, with some of its primary allies in the region becoming critical of it or becoming weary of the regime’s political posturing.

Historical accidents can be costly

Venezuela’s dictatorship did not arise without a fight. In fact, ever since the new elite came to power, the opposition has tried almost every strategy to overturn it. They’ve used democratic means like normal elections and recall referenda, as well as mass mobilization, including military coup attempts.

The last attempt to unseat the Chavista government ended in resounding defeat. It involved a cumbersome combination of the appointment of an interim president supported by a wide international coalition, who would then isolate, pressure and sanction the government. However, the interim government collapsed and the coalition dispersed, leaving all democratic forces in disarray. All along the government and opposition have held conversations, but have failed to reach a working political agreement. Evidently, the government had little to gain from them.

A new situation began taking shape in October 2023, during a negotiation attempt on the Caribbean Island of Barbados. Maduro’s government had been holding separate conversations with the Venezuelan opposition and the US, seeking gains in two areas. On the one side, it aimed to reduce or even eliminate drastic personal and financial sanctions, with the latter mainly affecting the oil business. On the other, it sought to regain political legitimacy and international recognition, which fell off a cliff in the last decade. Maduro and his allies believed the time was ripe for presidential elections to take place. The opposition, divided into moderates and radicals, could participate under better conditions, but the government would still have the upper hand. No one could have anticipated that the odds would turn out so differently.

The main point agreed upon in Barbados was allowing the opposition to select their candidate with no disturbances. This led the US to lift a swathe of sanctions regarding oil production and distribution. Beginning in 2023, the main segment of the opposition, organized under the Platform of the Democratic Union (PUD), decided to run open primaries to select a presidential candidate; anyone identified with rejecting Maduro could participate.

The National Commission for the Primaries ultimately decided to hold them on October 22, 2023, independently of the National Electoral Council (CNE). When these were first announced, Venezuelan morale for political participation was so low that the government felt confident the primaries would fail spectacularly for the opposition.

Everyone was in for a surprise. At her first opportunity, María Corina Machado, once the most radical and right-wing oriented of opposition leaders, shot to the top of the preferences. This began a cycle of mass mobilizations that has electrified the country ever since. Some opposition leaders, like Manuel Rosales, the moderate governor of the state of Zulia who previously ran against Chávez in the 2006 presidential election, opted not to run. Others, like two-time presidential candidate Capriles, initially participated but later abandoned the race. When the primaries date arrived, Machado earned roughly 93% of the vote. She became the presidential nominee and the undisputed leader of the reinvigorated opposition overnight.

Despite claims that she would call for abstention when facing disqualification — which occurred soon after — Machado has shown resilience and clarity in garnering support to the cause of re-democratization. While becoming a beacon of real change, she slowly let go of the more radical postures without abandoning her central theme (“Until the End!”), showing high tact and maneuver capacity.

Problems seldom occur in isolation

Since Machado began leading the polls, things have gone awry for Miraflores — Venezuela’s presidential palace. Against all odds and many governmental maneuvers, the 2.4 million participants who voted in the primaries startled the governing coalition. To counter the impact, the government found the perfect excuse. Given a long-lasting dispute with neighboring Guyana over an important part of its territory, the government began a campaign rejecting any intervention by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). On December 3, 2023, it also organized a referendum to gain internal legitimacy, while mobilizing troops and building infrastructure on the Venezuelan side of the border. 

The classic ruse of creating an international conflict to garner support at home was unsuccessful. Not only did the referendum end up failing, pulling fewer than 1.5 million voters (results were never officially published), but the government became more internationally isolated than ever. Recently elected Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who was an unquestionable ally of Maduro, reacted against the Venezuelan claim. He even mobilized Brazilian troops to the northern border with the two neighboring countries. The US profited from the occasion to offer Guyana its support, conducting joint operations with its military shortly after.

Worse, even Cuba, Venezuela’s staunchest regional ally, urged caution. Information from confidential Cuban sources indicates that Venezuela’s international move was internally rejected and that those at the helm recommended Maduro keep it only as a rhetorical, contentious issue. Itamaraty, the Brazilian foreign service, pressed both Venezuela and Guyana to meet face-to-face in Brasília on January 25, 2024.

Internally, things have not gone according to plan, either. Once the government disqualified Machado from running, it moved all its pawns to ensure that the final configuration, especially regarding who could run, would grant Maduro a guaranteed victory. According to most opinion polls, Machado would beat Maduro 70% to 20%, and even a candidate chosen by her could beat him. So, when Machado chose as a surrogate Corina Yoris, a scholar who had participated as a member of the electoral commission for the primaries, the CNE blocked the online mechanism to prevent her from registering.

Only three candidates from the mainstream opposition were allowed to register. Governor Rosales stood as the only leader with a lower preference from the electorate than Maduro. Enrique Márquez, a former directive of the CNE, with a preference under 1%, was also allowed to run. Finally, Edmundo González Urrutia, a seasoned diplomat who had even served a few years under Chávez, ended up filling up the last slot. In the cumbersome Venezuelan electoral system, the latter played the role of caretaker of one of the three political parties duly registered, in case a different person was selected to run in his stead.

In the end, there was no consensus around Rosales — he was perceived to be a weak candidate by most organizations, not to mention the electorate at large. Instead of choosing an alternate candidate, the PUD unanimously agreed upon González Urrutia, a perfect stranger in Venezuela’s politics. To everyone’s shock, only a few days after being selected, González jumped to the top of the electorate’s preferences.

Shuffling around potential scenarios

Transitions from authoritarian to democratic regimes are tricky business. They tend to follow very original scripts. In Venezuela, the chances for a democratic opening are only beginning to bear fruit. They seem to begin with whatever happens on the election’s voting day: July 28.

Up to this point, Machado remains the main political force in the opposition. She and the PUD have continued campaigning with her at the helm, despite her not being a candidate. She instead calls constituents to vote for González Urrutia.

This odd circumstance responds to an odd election. Her displacements around the country have mobilized tens of thousands of diehard followers, whose cheers of support seem more akin to those of rockstar fans. But there is also organization behind the cheering. As Machado tours Venezuela, she stimulates the creation of local committees to support the coming activities on July 28, especially granting that the votes are duly processed despite government pressure.

With less than two months remaining before the final vote, the government is politically challenged. Electoral projections show no clear legal path for it to secure a win. It is also highly unlikely that Maduro will substantially increase his popularity among voters, which has created unease within the regime. However, there have been no conversations between the government and opposition to look ahead of election day. This is despite the fact that the Maduro-allied Colombian and Brazilian governments have formally suggested running a special referendum, which would provide full security for the losing party.

So, what could the Venezuelan government do to avoid handing its foes an electoral victory? There are several options:

It could disqualify González Urrutia’s candidacy or the participation of the party behind it. Until now, the regime has used the Electoral Court of the Supreme Justice Tribunal to arbitrarily intervene in political parties and subject them to the Executive’s domination, or to disqualify candidates. Despite prior disqualifications, there seems to have been strong international pressure in the case of the opposition’s candidate.

It could take drastic measures against opposition leaders to stifle their operations in the campaign’s final weeks. Machado could be accused of violating electoral laws by campaigning outside the legal time. Judging by what the government has done to her entourage — imprisoning several collaborators and forcing others to seek asylum — those actions might have been a dry run of a more drastic action against her.

It could manipulate as many as 2,000 polling centers stationed in isolated places or locations from which government organizations operate. This could amount to massive fraud to reduce the opposition candidate’s advantage. Alternatively, the government could manipulate the high number of people registered to vote but living abroad, producing fraud that way.

Finally, it could postpone the election due to a border incident with Guyana, likely related to oil exploitation in the disputed zone or any other reason. This would not eliminate the risk of losing the election, but it could buy the government time to find a new solution. It could as well use a combination of all of the above.

What if the opposition wins?

If the opposition wins this election, there will be a drastic change in current trends, opening the door for a potential transition out of dictatorial rule. For now, despite the apparent nervousness among the governing elite, there are no signs that it is willing to relinquish power.

Such stubbornness does not merely reflect the classic power addiction, or hubris, exacerbated in authoritarian regimes. It also involves the high exit costs for Maduro and his close allies were they to leave power. They would not only have to abandon access to myriad business deals and the privilege to impose their will on an entire country; they may face sanctions from the US and European countries. Even worse, some could risk prosecution from the International Criminal Court.

Losing the election would abruptly interrupt decades of them enjoying quasi-absolute power. At the same time, continuing in power is not devoid of costs. These include the responsibility to oversee an economically ravaged country; being isolated from those parts of the world where oil counts and being pressured to deliver to internal — legal and illegal — constituents, even if coffers are empty.

Regardless, there is a six-month gap between July 28 and Inauguration Day, which is scheduled for January 10, 2025. Even if González Urrutia is allowed to run and wins the election, there is a long period during which negotiations will take place as a matter of survival for both parties.

What could the rest of the year look like for Venezuela? Scenarios may vary depending on several factors. The vote totals obtained by González Urrutia and Maduro are crucial. If the difference between them is great, their respective leverage will vary. Naturally, this depends on the specific response by factions of the governing alliance, such as the military. On two prior occasions — when Chávez lost the referendum in 2007 and after the opposition legislative landslide occurred in 2015 — the military forced the acceptance of both results. Assuming that the difference between the two political camps is important but not too large, hard negotiations will probably begin over how to grant governance in a divided country.

It is still too early to assess how things might evolve. But regarding a potential negotiation, some positives and negatives are apparent. There are at least three noteworthy positives. First, there is a negotiating mechanism: the Barbados Agreement team. Though not without its faults, it has allowed for continued conversations. A clue in the agreement is its coordinator from the opposition, Gerardo Blyde, a constitutional lawyer who is highly respected in the government.

Second, there is the sheer complexity of the domination exercised by the Chavista elite. It controls more than just the Executive; its tentacles reach the judiciary, the high command of the armed forces, the National Assembly and most governors and mayors. There have been hints at the local level that Venezuela’s changing political mood is affecting the allegiance of public officials, judges, military officers etc. Allegedly, it is difficult for the regime’s higher echelons to retain strict control of how most people will act.

Third, the role played by each segment of power differs. The president and his entourage of high-command officers might be actively in favor of retaining power. Meanwhile, other organs like judges or justices in the Supreme Justice Tribunal, as well as myriad state institutions, are more akin to blackmail victims. For example, in May 2024, CNE President Elvis Amoroso rejected the European Commission’s decision to revoke sanctions imposed on directives of the Electoral Council. He argued that it was an attempt to buy his conscience. Information leaked soon after that the passports of the CNE directives were invalidated.

There are two negatives. First, all levels of government are mired in unprecedented degrees of corruption. The number of officials who have something to lose is probably massive. Second, if and when they abandon power, the likelihood of backlash and violence against them is also high. These factors seriously complicate negotiations. For these reasons, it makes sense why Colombian President Gustavo Petro suggested his aforementioned security referendum.

No matter what, we must wait for the final results on July 28, if the election does indeed take place on that date. One thing is clear: If the opposition wins and a transition to democracy begins taking place in Venezuela, it could affect the balance of authoritarianism vs democracy in the world. After all, Chávez’s election in 1998 represented the emergence of what later became the typical hybrid regime, copied and pasted in every continent. Can Venezuela really transition to democracy?

[Lee Thompson-Kolar edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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