Written by Henry Ziemer
It is all too easy to view modern international crises as unprecedented or unexpected outbreaks. Or, if an effort is made to trace the historical causes of a hot-button news item, the narrative which emerges tends to be limited in scope and tailored to fit a prefabricated storyline. For this reason, the panel of experts who convened last Friday to discuss the still-unfolding crisis in Venezuela brought a refreshing new perspective on the history of that country, and why the country has fallen into such dire straits in the past few years.
Moderator Blair Nelsen began by correcting the tendency of commentators to almost uniformly begin their narratives of Venezuela’s current woes with the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez. The torch was then passed to Dr. Christopher Sabatini who provided a comprehensive walkthrough of the long, slow decline of democracy in Venezuela. While the sheer number of instances was at times intimidating from a newcomer’s perspective, they nevertheless painted a nuanced portrait of how complicated the decline of democracy truly was for Venezuela. From Chavez’s disdain for the country’s “moribund constitution” which he expressed even as he took office under that very document, to the decision of opposition parties not to participate in the 2005 parliamentary elections, to the protests which broke out following the 2017 referendum, it is difficult to identify a single turning point. This contextualized much of the subsequent discussion, which depicted events in Venezuela today, namely the decision of Juan Guaidó and the National Assembly to declare the Maduro government illegitimate, as evolutions, not unprecedented shifts. Against this backdrop, three key points stood out from the discussion that followed.
With respect to recent events, and in particular Guaidó’s claim to be the legitimate representative of the Venezuelan people, Joshua Braver offered a particularly useful analysis of their legal dimensions. Of particular import is Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution which allows the President of the National Assembly to assume the position of head of state if the President is unable to fulfill the functions of their position. Guaidó and his supporters legitimized their declaration largely under Article 233, claiming that Maduro’s breach of trust with the Venezuelan people meant that he can no longer adequately carry out his duties. This interpretation, Braver argued, fails to hold water under any serious legal scrutiny. The article explicitly states that only physical or mental disability, a decision by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, abandonment of office or a popular vote can compel the President to leave. As authoritarian and condemnable as Maduro’s policies may be, Article 233 does not offer a clear pathway to transfer power to the assembly. Nevertheless, its invocation by Guaidó allows him and his party to cover themselves in the trappings of a legal process, a maneuver which has already seen success, the European Union statement which declared Maduro persona non grata even cited it as a cause for their decision. However, more striking than the mere legal debates, was the broader question of democracy, historical memory and the role of the people which was elaborated on by the third panelist, Alejandro Velasco.
Professor Velasco focused on historical memory, or rather the absence of one, in the Venezuelan public sphere. To him, the tendency to operate under narrow time horizons extended not only to global media coverage of Venezuela, but permeated Venezuelan society itself. In a similar fashion to the country’s oil-dominated economy which thrives when prices are high and plunges when they dip, memory of the failures of past democratic experiments is by and large lacking. During watershed moments where the rare opportunity to rework democratic institutions presents itself, the solution, without consultation of history, has been almost uniformly one of greater popular empowerment. This has manifested in another controversial article of the Venezuelan constitution, Article 347 which squarely places the power of the state with the people, providing the Venezuelan citizens with the authority to draft a new constitution should they demand it. But the lesson which has not yet been learned, is that no matter how participatory a constitution may be, in a country lacking proper mechanisms for accountability or checks and balances, these plebiscitary provisions often are the first to go in the establishment of an autocracy. A case in point can be seen in the 2017 referendum held less than two years ago wherein Maduro managed to hold on to power amid a fiercely divided country through a mix of illegal and legitimate tools. Even worse, when confronted with the failure of popular movements to cause the government to budge, opposition politicians often turn to the military as their preferred instrument of reform. Such is the case today, especially among mid-rank officers who feel closer to Guaidó’s coalition than the Maduro regime. While effective at enacting regime change, military coups are unquestionably toxic for democracies, yet the same unfortunate cycle appears to be repeating itself even today.
Ultimately, none of the panelists had any predictions for the outcome of the current crisis. Even with an expert understanding of the historical and political context of contemporary events, the mechanisms at play remain the purview of an elite few politicians and generals as well as with the imperceptible will of the people in the streets. Who will triumph in the ongoing power struggle between Maduro and Guaidó cannot be said, nor is one or the other the only probably option as other candidates muster in the background. Yet however Venezuela moves forward, only the creation of durable, and truly accountable institutions appears to offer any hope for a way out of these cyclical power struggles and a solution to the humanitarian crisis these have provoked.