Transitions

The Venezuelan Opposition's Near-Impossible Task

On Nov. 26, Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles traveled to Maracay, a large city about 60 miles west of Caracas, to campaign for the local candidate for mayor. What should have been a routine stop turned to violence as Capriles' bus was ambushed with Molotov cocktails by a pro-government motorcycle gang. The stage where he was to speak was set on fire.

In spite of it all, Capriles was unfazed. "If something were to happen to me," he cryptically told his supporters, "you know what to do!"

The incident underscores the inherent difficulties in opposing a government like President Nicolás Maduro's. In a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, where every state institution is under the thumb of the government, and where pressures on independent media are mounting by the day, opposing chavismo is not for the faint of heart. (In the photo above, Capriles speaks to his supporters at an opposition rally in Caracas on Nov. 23.)

Opposition figureheads are pressured on several fronts. Earlier this year, the front runner for mayor of Maracay was expelled from the National Assembly on dubious grounds. He was also barred from running for political office, leaving the city's opposition movement rudderless. Last Saturday, Capriles' tour manager was detained and then freed. The candidate for mayor of Valencia, Venezuela's third-largest city, is being charged with corruption less than two weeks before the vote. Opposition lawmakers have been physically assaulted on several occasions.

A few weeks ago, Caracas awoke to find hundreds of posters splashed across the city depicting severely distorted pictures of Capriles and two other important leaders of the opposition -- blaming them for all of the country's economic ills, and labeling them a "trilogy of evil" (sic). Just yesterday, a candidate for a local council was murdered in a drive-by shooting incident in the western town of Mene Grande.

The opposition is also finding it difficult to get their message across. After being bought by pro-government businessmen, the all-news cable station Globovisión, once a bastion of the opposition, has effectively barred Capriles from its airwaves. In response, Capriles has been forced to launch his own, web-based TV channel, Capriles.tv, but its reach is limited given how Venezuela lags in Internet penetration.

With TV and radio under control, the government is going after other media. A few days ago, the chief prosecutor pressed charges against El Universal, one of Venezuela's main newspapers, alleging it had printed violent images on its cover. The government is also going after Tal Cual, an opposition-minded tabloid led by the iconic journalist and politician Teodoro Petkoff. The government has even targeted Twitter, asking them to block the accounts of people who talk about the black market exchange rate, and questioning the suspension of pro-government accounts.

The other challenge facing the opposition is funding. It is common knowledge that the Venezuelan government uses public funds for political campaigns to support government candidates or to bribe opposition politicians, as one chavista lawmaker has recently admitted doing. On the flip side, businessmen who finance the opposition are finding their activities increasingly scrutinized. Just a few days ago, the home of a prominent opposition banker was invaded by a pro-government group.

But with Venezuela's public finances in dire shape, the government is now attacking private businesses for political purposes. After Maduro ordered his citizens to raid several appliance stores, people flocked to buy cheap TV sets and air conditioners, and some looting occurred. Unsurprisingly, the government appears to have gotten a bump in popularity thanks to this move. Maduro has now turned his sights on the Central Bank's statistics department, suggesting that inflation next month should be negative thanks to his policies.

Elections themselves are also a challenge. Aside from the usual obstacles -- numerous voting irregularities were alleged in last April's Presidential election, and were never thoroughly resolved -- the chavista government now has to worry about local elections. In response to this perceived threat, Maduro has declared the date of the elections a "day of loyalty and love for Hugo Chávez," with celebrations and political rallies expected to take place all across the country.

In spite of all these problems, widespread political violence is not a major factor... yet. But as Venezuela confronts this ominous prospect, many analysts are alarmed. After all, it only takes a lit match to ignite the proverbial tinderbox.

Venezuela's opposition operates in a toxic political environment, where normal rules of campaigning must be thrown out the window. The opposition in a normal country would typically be focused on getting its message out, and on the voters' concerns.

Instead, Venezuela's opposition has to focus on making it to the next day safely.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, co-editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Transitions

Libya's Oil Ultimatum

Times are getting even tougher for Libyans. The security situation continues to deteriorate. Civilians are taking on the armed militias that are largely blamed for the security vacuum in the country, leading to bloodbaths in the streets. The country also continues to face a looming threat to its financial security as armed militias blockade oil terminals to underline their demands for greater regional autonomy.

The second problem is focused on the eastern region of Cyrenaica ("Barqa" in Arabic), where so-called "federalists" have been pushing for considerable powers to be devolved from Tripoli to local governments. The central government is understandably reluctant to resolve the issue by using force against the federalist militias that are blocking the oil terminals, fearing that this could spark civil unrest. The Tripoli authorities have also failed to rally local support for a confrontation with the militias there.

On Nov. 11, the Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan issued an ultimatum to the militias that have been blockading oil terminals and fields for more than three months. The Barqa Political Office, the self-proclaimed governing body of Barqa, was quick to mock Zeidan's ultimatum, observing that the prime minister does not even have the force to protect himself from abduction by the armed militias that control the capital and hold the government ransom. As a gesture of defiance, the Barqa government also announced the formation of its own oil and gas corporation, the Libyan Oil and Gas Corporation. The Barqa government appointed Saleh al-Mesmari (a veteran of the oil industry in Libya and former president of the Arabian Gulf Oil Company) as the company's head.

The deadline for the ultimatum passed on Nov. 21, yet the prime minister appeared to have no real plan of action to address the issue. Zeidan then held a meeting with local elders and tribal leaders and asked for their help in finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis. As long as the government continues to rule out the use of force, the only realistic option remaining is to craft a solution that relies on the help of local notables. Moreover, a long-term solution will require negotiations leading to a comprehensive political deal, which in turn would require compromises from all parties involved. But so far the central government has little to show for its efforts in this direction.

The federalist's self-proclaimed government, led by Ibrahim Jathran, seems to have succeeded where the central government has failed. Jathran has actively engaged with key local players and tribes to clarify the federalist position and present their argument for blockading the oil terminals. Such efforts could explain why local people have remained so apathetic toward the militias that are blockading the oil terminals. If the central government wants to win local support for reopening the terminals, it has to seriously reengage with local communities and counter the arguments presented by the federalists.

In the meantime, the federalists are taking some practical steps to market and sell the oil on its own. As legal justification for this effort, the Barqans are citing the pre-Qaddafi constitution and the subsequent oil-sharing arrangement between the central and regional governments during that era. The head of the recently appointed Barqa regional government, Abdraba al-Barrasi, announced the installation of new metering systems at different oil terminals under their control. The oil export metering systems were damaged during the war, but the successive post-revolutionary governments failed to install new ones, prompting widespread speculation about corruption in the marketing and sale of Libya's oil. Jathran and his government have effectively capitalized on the government's lack of transparency in this respect.

Al-Barrasi promised to reopen the oil terminals and start exporting oil by the end of this month. It is hard to see how the federalists can actually fulfil such a promise, however. Oil traders and buyers would be taking a huge risk by choosing to deal with the Barqa government -- an entity that Tripoli describes as "illegal and illegitimate," and to which it denies any form of recognition. The government in Tripoli has also vowed to intercept any vessels attempting to dock at the oil terminals without permission from the National Oil Corporation in Tripoli.

The oil crisis in Libya is reportedly costing Libya $140 million in oil and gas revenues each day. Government officials estimate the total loss since the militias started targeting oil wells and terminals at more than $7 billion. This is likely to result in a deep deficit in the next budget, and the government is already feeling pressure to dip into its reserves to cover its spending plans for this year.

Looking ahead, Libya has two options to deal with the continuing problems in the oil sector. The first option is the use of force. This could result in serious damage to the gas and oil infrastructure as well as disturbing the precarious social piece in the East, including the possibility of serious civil unrest. The second option is a peaceful resolution achieved with the backing of local communities and local notables that would require compromises from the parties involved. This could result in a much-needed agreement to end the current standoff. What is clear is that the current situation is no longer sustainable.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images