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 Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.



Democracy Lab Weekly Brief, May 12, 2014

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Peter Pomerantsev argues that Putin is reinventing warfare for the 21st century.

Christian Caryl comments on how the current turmoil in Ukraine has changed the way post-Soviet states mark the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany. Josh Cohen looks at the reasons behind the current alliance between Jews and Ukrainians -- despite the sometimes grim mutual history of the two peoples.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele debunks the widespread conviction that all of Congo's problems can be blamed on former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez interviews a member of the Venezuelan National Guard on the regime's favored weapon of suppression: tear gas.

Mohamed Eljarh explains the complex story behind Libya's attempt to appoint a new prime minister.

And Miriam Lanskoy sounds the alarm on a Russian amendment to strengthen anti-NGO laws.

Special note: On May 19, the Legatum Institute launches Democracy Works, an initiative exploring lessons in democracy from the Global South, in Washington, DC.

And now for this week's recommended reads:

At Foreign Policy, Lauren Wolfe confronts the prevalent violence against women and girls -- and why the world pays it no attention.

Writing for the New York Times, Dirk Vandewalle and Nicholas Jahr examine how dysfunctional electoral politics is preventing political progress in Libya -- despite the fact that most Libyans agree on potentially divisive issues. (In the photo above, former Qaddafi regime officials sit behind bars during their trial in Tripoli on Sunday.)

Human Rights Watch investigates how Venezuela's security forces abused citizens' freedoms of assembly and expression during the recent protests.

Nyein Nyein reports for the Irrawaddy on the Buddhist backlash against NGOs that have opposed a bill banning interfaith marriage.

At the Monkey Cage, Aaron Y. Zelin explores how global jihadi organizations such as Ansar al-Sharia act as social movements and organizers of dissent.

Also at the Monkey Cage, Kristin Smith Diwan discusses how a feud within Kuwait's royal family threatens the monarchy's stability.

Karina Piser assesses Tunisia's debate on whether to exclude the ex-dictator's partners from participation in the new, democratic government.

And Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty's Golnaz Esfandiari tells the story of a man who is defying Iranian censors by posting his new novel, chapter by chapter, on Facebook.