Venezuelan Divides: Mind the Gap

On Tuesday, April 1, the New York Times published a rare opinion piece by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. In it, Maduro lays out his view of the two-month old protests that have left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. He also makes a plea to the United States Congress, which is currently pondering sanctions, not to punish his regime. Yet as the international community continues to tip-toe toward engagement, a bit more clarity is called for.

Venezuela is currently more polarized than at any time in its recent history. The divide between the regime and the opposition is deeper than ever. What do the two sides believe? Can they find common ground on anything? If they cannot, is dialogue even possible? The Maduro piece, with its outline of the government's main points, offers a good starting point for parsing these questions.

Maduro begins by saying Venezuelans are proud of the democracy they have built. He should have qualified that: Chavistas are proud of the democracy they have built. They, indeed, believe their government is democratic, more so than the preceding ones.

The opposition, in turn, believes democracy has been severely degraded during the chavista era, and many are now openly calling Maduro a dictator. While the government is proud of its high-tech electoral system, the opposition thinks it is grossly unfair: Numerous irregularities are routinely reported, but they are seldom investigated.

Both positions are therefore irreconcilable. Either Venezuela has a strong democracy or it does not. A recent opinion poll by local pollster IVAD suggests that a majority of Venezuelans (55 percent) share the opposition's view on democracy in the country. The government claims to believe that the right to protest is legitimate, but the opposition, currently under siege in the streets of Venezuela's main cities, strongly disputes that.

There is no common ground when it comes to the media landscape either. The opposition believes the media is under pressure and heavily censored. The government disputes this by saying the media market is "thriving," pointing to private ownership of media outlets. The opposition claim that the private media are actually controlled by government figureheads is dismissed by the government. The irony is that, even as Maduro takes to a foreign newspaper to get his message out, Venezuela's independent newspapers are running out of newsprint because the government refuses to allow them to import it. In fact, the same day Maduro was praising Venezuela's democracy, a donation of newsprint from Colombian newspapers was being held up at the border.

The government claims that Chávez significantly lowered poverty, and the data supports this. The opposition either brushes this away as an accounting gimmick, or points out that poverty reduction is simply the result of a commodities boom, and that it will go away once the boom is over. They usually point to the fact that, while people may have more disposable income, Venezuela is not a middle-class country, with many of the country's "former poor" just a small slip in the oil price away from poverty once more.

When it comes to crime, both sides recognize the seriousness of the problem. But while Maduro calls the problem "intractable," the opposition points to serious failings in the country's police and judicial system as the root cause. Ever since the protests began, little to nothing has been said about a problem that continues unabated. And while both sides acknowledge the economic difficulties the country faces, the government insists that this is the result of an "economic war" being waged by the opposition in cahoots with private business, and that its responsibility is little to none.

Finally, the government believes the protests are part of a coup, led by "terrorists" and "fascists" financially supported by the United States. The opposition insists the protests are peaceful. They clearly want to end the Maduro government, but in the government's eyes, asking for the president's resignation is unconstitutional and tantamount to a violent coup. The two sides can't even agree on how the recent deaths linked to the protests came about. (The photo above shows protesters holding paper tombstones during an anti-Maduro demonstration.)

Whether it is any of these issues or others -- the influence of Cuba, for example, or the role of private property -- there is little common ground to speak of between the two sides.

In order for Venezuela to be viable, dialogue needs to happen. But with the two sides' positions so diametrically opposed to each other, there is little hope that a solution can be found.

Judging by recent electoral outcomes, the two sides in this struggle are of roughly equal size. But their outlooks are so radically different that it sometimes seems as if they live in different countries altogether.

As the international community tries to separate truth from fiction and play a constructive role in trying to foster dialogue, they would be well served in keeping their expectations low. Judging by where the two sides stand, dialogue has never seemed less possible.

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



Let's Face It: Democracy in Burma Is Not Inevitable

Political scientist Jay Ulfelder recently posted an interesting analysis of one of my recent articles on Foreign Policy. I generally make a point not to respond to criticism of my work unless there's a chance for meaningful dialogue. This is definitely one of those chances.

In his post, Ulfelder argues that it's premature to say that the current political transition in Burma is "on the wrong track" unless we've figured out precisely what the nature of that transition is. He cites O'Donnell and Schmitter's classic distinction between "liberalization" and "democratization." Ulfelder believes that what's happening in Burma more readily fits the liberalization template, and he correspondingly cautions against imposing a wishful democratization narrative on a reality that doesn't bear the weight of such an assumption.

I think that the difference between us has more to do with the focus of analysis rather than substance. While Ulfelder insists on the importance of drawing a conceptual and analytical distinction between liberalization, which "involves the expansion of freedoms from arbitrary acts of the state and others," and democratization, which "entails the expansion of popular consultation and accountability," I've found myself scrutinizing a possible relationship between liberalization and democratization, noting that democracy is one of many possible destinations as a society sets off on the journey away from an authoritarian regime.

I do not at all dispute the important contribution that O'Donnell and Schmitter have made to the transition literature. It's worth noting that I've sometimes characterized Burma's transition as a liberalization process in some of my previous posts for FP. At one point, back when the new government took power in 2011, I even described the process under way as a "regime-led and supply-side-driven political transition." My recent field research in Burma has even convinced me that the junta initially wasn't even aiming at liberalization when it made its decision to open up the political system in the aftermath of mass protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007. In fact, it appears that the original plan merely foresaw removing the military from direct political control and placing power fully in the hands of the military-backed party while allowing the military to maintain its veto-wielding power. Liberalization took off only six months after the transition began. The liberalization process that has taken place since then can be characterized, in my view, as an accident, an unanticipated outcome deriving from the complex interactions of rival claimants to the throne. One can even speak, I believe, of the paradox of "liberalization without liberals."

Since I first returned to Burma in late 2012 after 15 years in exile, however, I've experienced so many new on-the-ground realities that I've found myself compelled to shift the focus of my analysis. I've moved away from trying to define the nature of the transition (i.e., liberalization versus democratization) to analyzing its possible direction. Although doing my best to avoid political science jargon, what I've tried to argue consistently in my articles is that we really do need to take a closer look at the relationship between liberalization and democratization. The empirical evidence that I've observed in Burma's recent political and economic development strongly supports the conclusion that there is no linear or teleological process from liberalization to democratization.

Liberalization can end in multiple regime types, each characterized by different adjectives. The initial liberalization process often leads to what Fareed Zakaria termed "illiberal democracy" (i.e., a diminished subtype of democracy), as in many Latin American countries in the early 2000s, to "oligarchy" in Russia, or to electoral authoritarianism in Malaysia and Cambodia (i.e., an enhanced subtype of authoritarianism). The question is whether liberalization will reinforce the military's dominant role in Burma, leading to one of the regime types mentioned above, or whether it will inevitably lead to democratization. I have to confess that I'm quite skeptical about the likelihood of the latter scenario.

In domestic politics, the ruling elites still resort to coercion, but they prefer containment and co-optation: two carrots, even three or four, and then a stick, if necessary. This has been the case, for example, with the Sino-Burmese mining project in Central Burma and recent land rights protests in Yangon. The continuing ethnic conflicts in northeastern Burma, the anti-Muslim riots, and the brutal killings of Rohingya are other obvious examples of how the state is still willing to use coercion to enforce its discriminatory policies. (In the photo above, police provide security as census takers survey a village near Sittwe.)

Meanwhile, the new Burmese government and the military, unlike Than Shwe's junta, are more sensitive to international donors and investors for many reasons. So the costs that the international community (the "West") can impose on the government and the army are relatively and unprecedentedly high. The government is more sensitive and responsive (at least symbolically) to the international players, who have strong incentives to view Burma's reforms as a success story amid the chaotic failures of pro-democracy movements in the Middle East and the rest of the world. So the West rewards the government and the military to keep it on "right track," lifting sanctions against the military's business cronies.

Generally speaking, Western policymakers and observers dealing with Burma tend to speak in terms of "wait and see" or "give them a chance," "some progress is better than nothing" or "don't exert too much pressure." Meanwhile, the Burmese people continue to experience an overwhelming sense of their own powerlessness. This is an irony of the current hybrid regime in Burma: In some respects we see a high level of popular participation, yet many people still feel that they're really lacking any sense of genuine political efficacy.

In my reports, I'm trying to offer readers more empirical facts from the ground and analyze them in the light of possible trajectories ahead. I'm increasingly convinced that the process of political opening in Burma is heading towards a particular brand of hybrid regime. In short, it's high time for us to call a spade a spade: We need to get over the hopeful talk of "democratization" in Burma and recognize that the country is, in fact, undergoing a liberalization process that doesn't necessarily lead toward liberal democracy.

As I see it, there are three basic groups that have three fundamentally different views: In the view of the authoritarians (the Chinese and old regime hardliners), the predatory state under the old dictator served their interests well, so they long for yesterday. The liberalizers (including both Burma's current business cronies and Burma's friends in the West) welcome the space afforded by liberalization, so they live for today. Then there are the ordinary people of the country, who desperately yearn for more find that their path forward is still blocked. So the people of Burma feel that tomorrow does not belong to them.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

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