Leaderless in Venezuela

Leaderless in Venezuela

Venezuelans have been hitting the streets en masse since early February, protesting against the government’s inability to tackle the nation’s soaring inflation and crime. The protests have left dozens of people dead, and hundreds have been detained. Yet one of the curious things about this movement is that it is not the brainchild of the political opposition to President Nicolás Maduro. Quite the contrary, people are in the streets in spite of their leadership. Many of them have even given up on the established political opposition altogether.

Venezuela’s political opposition has been engaged in tenuous dialogue talks with the government since early April, at the behest of South American foreign ministers eager to see the crisis end. But after an auspicious start in which both parties aired their grievances honestly on live TV, the opposition umbrella group, Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), has announced that it will no longer participate — unless the government halts repression.

Since talks began, several people have died in protests. The latest cause for outrage came over the weekend, when the government’s security forces raided the "tent cities" students had set up in the front of several Caracas buildings as part of their peaceful protest. Hundreds of students were detained and taken to military installations.

However, it would be a mistake to interpret the MUD’s seemingly principled stance solely as a reaction to the government’s acts. By defending the students and other victims of political persecution, the MUD is trying to draw attention away from its own tarnished reputation.

Last week, the U.S. Senate held hearings regarding possible sanctions against chavista figureheads implicated in human rights abuses. This came on the heels of a thoroughly damaging report on "systematic" human rights abuses by Venezuelan security forces, published by Human Rights Watch.

One of the witnesses at the hearing was Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson. In her testimony, Jacobson let it fly that "members of the MUD" had specifically asked the U.S. government not to impose sanctions on individuals for fear that it would hurt the dialogue process. (She refrained from naming names, and sheepishly tried to recant later.)

The idea that the MUD leadership would be lobbying the U.S. government in favor of chavista figureheads caused an uproar in social media. MUD Secretary General Ramón Aveledo responded by saying that the leadership had not lobbied the U.S. government, but stopped short of calling Jacobson a liar, insinuating that perhaps others had done it without their knowledge. So far, they have not said they would investigate.

The thought of the MUD lobbying on behalf of the government confirmed the worst fears of the opposition population, a significant part of which has grown deeply distrustful of its leadership. One prominent blogger went so far as to thank Jacobson for "exposing … an unrepresentative, unelected leadership that does not speak for us." 

When the opposition agreed to talks with the government, many pointed out the fact that the students were not present at the talks. Some of the more vehement leaders of the opposition, such as the ousted legislator María Corina Machado or the jailed Leopoldo López, have also boycotted the talks. Their estrangement from the MUD has grown in recent months.

The MUD leadership, for its part, saw dialogue as an opportunity to grab hold of the debate and try to steer the course of political events. Many of them are career politicians, much older than the kids out in the streets, and it is safe to say they saw the unexpected protest movement as a threat to their goal of driving the agenda.

Meanwhile, the opposition’s losing presidential candidate last year, Henrique Capriles, has stayed away from the debate, focusing instead on his job as governor of Miranda state. With López in prison and Machado kicked out of parliament, the opposition is left with an unelected MUD leadership that many view as illegitimate and irrelevant, if not downright treasonous.

As this deep division inside the opposition consolidates, university students continue driving the protests — and suffering the consequences. Every day brings fresh news of detentions of students or NGO activists. The government machine seems intent on clamping down, and nobody in the opposition seems able to do anything about it.

It would be a mistake, though, to confuse the government’s strength with vision. Maduro has yet to articulate his plans for the country, and the crumbling economy leaves him with few options to set the agenda. Not surprisingly, his poll numbers are terrible. According to local pollster Datanálisis, less than 40 percent think he’s doing a good job, while a strong majority would support efforts to end his term soon.

In short, it’s not just the dialogue process that is stalled. The country’s entire political leadership is like a deer caught in the headlights, aimlessly following events, crowds, and economic indicators. The opposition is rudderless, and the government is unmovable.

This suggests the Venezuelan crisis is here to stay.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of < /i>Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.