There Is Still a Way Out of Venezuela’s Stalemate

Both sides should heed the lessons of negotiated transitions in Chile and South Africa to forge a peaceful path to democracy.

Supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó gather in Caracas Feb. 12. (Edilzon Gamez/Getty Images)
Supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó gather in Caracas Feb. 12. (Edilzon Gamez/Getty Images)

Venezuela’s political crisis is in a tenuous stalemate. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó sought to bring a quick end to President Nicolás Maduro’s rule several weeks ago by declaring himself Venezuela’s legitimate president and trying to persuade the military to topple him. Maduro dug in. So far, it appears, the military remains so deeply entrenched in the economy and profits so handsomely from support of Maduro that it has cast its lot with him.

Now both the Venezuelan government and the popular opposition are engaged in a dangerous game of brinkmanship. Guaidó is trying to back the military into deciding whether to topple Maduro or take uncomfortable and unsavory positions—like blocking international aid and even firing on peaceful protesters—as it has in recent days, tarnishing its reputation with civilians. And Maduro is trying to tar the opposition as ineffective stooges of a foreign plot to dislodge him, in an effort to endure despite the economy dropping into free fall.

The actions on both sides carry deep risks. If the opposition wins, it will inherit an economy in shambles and a divided society, complicating its ability to build a stable democracy. If Maduro wins, he will further tighten his grip on power and strangle the possibility of a transition for the foreseeable future.

Amid the chaos, the window for the most effective solution to Venezuela’s crisis—a negotiated political transition—is closing. But recent reports have surfaced that elements of the opposition are trying to craft just such a deal by reaching out to ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) officials and military generals. In a recent interview, Edgar Zambrano, the vice president of the National Assembly, argued that the opposition was not seeking political revenge and that, “This transition requires a big national agreement between the country’s political forces.”

Lessons from other transitions to democracy around the world can shed light on how such an agreement could be forged in Venezuela. The best shot for democracy is for the mainstream opposition to bring along the moderate elements of the Chavismo movement while leaving out Maduro in a way that will be stable while also delivering enough justice to satisfy the population as a whole.

First, Venezuela’s notoriously divided opposition must stay united while also sidelining its most extreme elements, who advocate regime change by any means necessary followed by the severe prosecution of the PSUV. Many citizens have suffered from hunger, persecution, and declining living standards under Maduro and have every reason to want to destroy Chavismo and prosecute its leading figures and allies.

If the opposition takes power, it will have to quickly deliver on popular demands like greater political freedom and an improved economy while carefully tempering the most extreme demands for justice. When the opposition legislator Stalin González recently made the case that “Chavismo is not just Maduro,” the popular pushback on social media was strong and swift. Many people feel that the regime has to be punished for its misdeeds, if not in revenge at least in the service of justice.

But the threat of punishment itself might prevent a transition from taking place. Only when mainstream elements of the regime believe that they can survive beyond Maduro will they be willing to strike a deal.

Although the Venezuelan opposition has no Nelson Mandela, its current leadership should heed Mandela’s example. When Mandela went from being a political prisoner to the president of post-apartheid South Africa over the course of four years, he taught that democracy requires patience: “Just as we told the people what we would do, I felt we must also tell them what we could not do,” Mandela said. “Many people felt life would change overnight after a free and democratic election, but that would be far from the case. … You must have patience.”

Second, the military has to be persuaded to support the transition and either topple Maduro or force him to capitulate. To do so, amnesty protections are not enough. Since former President Hugo Chávez took power, the Venezuelan military has become deeply involved in a wide range of profitable economic activities. Chávez effectively gave the military control of Venezuela’s crown jewel: the state-run oil company, PDVSA. While falling oil prices and a lack of investment have sapped PDVSA of its vitality, it remains the country’s biggest source of revenue. The military also presides over imports and exports, holds contracts for public housing projects, and has mining and oil services concessions. It also reportedly controls lucrative drug trafficking routes and money laundering operations.

To encourage the military to support a transition, the opposition needs to guarantee it legal and direct sources of revenue. The most obvious option is to deliver it a share of PDVSA revenue. This should be coupled with autonomy over their chain of command, at least for five to 10 years, and an important position in defending Venezuela’s borders and port-based economic activity.

While this appears unsavory, it is commonplace in negotiated democratic transitions. Consider Chile’s transition to democracy in 1989. As part of the deal, the top military brass were given constitutionally protected amnesties, direct positions in the Chilean Senate, a majority position on the National Security Council, constitutional oversight, and 10 percent of the country’s copper revenues delivered directly to the military’s budget—an enormous sum given Chile’s mineral-reliant economy.

Third, key elements of the ruling PSUV have to be convinced that the status quo is unsustainable and that they could compete and even win political office in a democratic system. The PSUV still has a strong organizational base around the country. Together with its predecessor, the Fifth Republic Movement, it has long organized civilian groups and won offices at the mayoral, gubernatorial, and national levels in elections that were largely free and fair through the 2000s, and competitive but biased ever since. And many of its core principles—national ownership of major resources, social and economic equality, and popular participation in governance—remain widely popular. This puts it in a comparatively strong position relative to a party like the ruling National Party that handed over power to end apartheid in South Africa.

But the party has also presided over an unparalleled decline in the Venezuelan economy and is riddled with corruption and patronage. Furthermore, key officials have been linked to serious drug trafficking charges and other illicit activities.

The tricky task will be to bring along officials who are important enough to maintain the PSUV intact while cleaving off the most unsavory elements, Maduro included. Ideally, figures like Diosdado Cabello who operate the political rather than the repressive or illicit arms of the PSUV could make a deal with the opposition while sidelining the Maduro faction.

Fourth, the opposition and moderate PSUV elements have to agree upon a transitional government with power-sharing elements following national elections. Given the PSUV’s recent record under Maduro, it will expect to be steamrolled if national elections are held. It may therefore fear being permanently politically buried. To alleviate these fears, it needs a chance to help rehabilitate its reputation by taking a part in the governance of recovery.

South Africa is a useful model here. The first five years of democracy in South Africa after the end of apartheid were governed by a transitional power-sharing agreement in which the newly empowered African National Congress agreed that the outgoing apartheid National Party would be part of the government despite a lack of popular support—the party only won 20 percent of the vote in the 1994 elections. Cabinets were to make consensus decisions over major policies. This helped to stabilize South Africa’s fragile new democracy by incorporating its most likely potential spoilers.

Finally, the opposition needs to appeal to citizens as a whole to play a bigger role in the country’s future. While the opposition needs to be cautious and inclusive in the short term, democracy can only succeed in the long run if it comes to truly represent the will of the Venezuelan people. This means revisiting core elements of the transition deal years in the future.

Swiftly revising the terms of a negotiated deal threaten the possibility of a backlash by the PSUV and military. But if everyone expects that the rules of the game will be different in 10 or 15 years, they can begin to change their behavior accordingly.

A negotiated transition in Venezuela with all of these elements can still be achieved. Rather than rattle its saber by implicitly threatening the use of force, the United States should work behind the scenes along with other governments from the region and multilateral organizations such as the Lima Group to help craft a negotiated transition.

But as the crisis over international aid delivery over the weekend demonstrates, the threats to such a deal are numerous. For one, Maduro knows that if such a deal is made, he may be cut out of it. He therefore has incentives to force the military to crack down on civilians so that the military would be more likely to be punished if there is a democratic transition, encouraging it to stiffly oppose such a transition in the first place.

His calculus could shift if he were given the option of a golden parachute, whereby he could leave the country without facing major punishment. There is at least one political patron of Venezuela who would likely be glad to have him if the alternative to a negotiated transition is an eventual outright opposition victory: Russia.

Michael Albertus is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is author, most recently, of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.