Venezuela’s Political Crisis: Can Regional Actors Help?
by Andreas E. Feldmann, Federico Merke, Oliver Stuenkel
November 30, 2015
In the run-up to the hotly contested parliamentary elections in Venezuela scheduled for December 6, the country is facing a toxic mix of political instability, economic uncertainty, and violence. In October, President Nicolás Maduro suggested in a televised interview that in the unlikely event the ruling party were to lose, it would seek to govern “with the people” in order to defend Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. This veiled threat to refuse to comply with electoral results makes it clear that Venezuelan democracy is facing its most severe challenge since the late Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999.
A number of important South American governments claim that defending democracy in the region is a priority of their foreign policy. In addition, democracy protection is a stated goal of various regional organizations, including the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Given this professed interest, it is natural to ask what these governments and organizations have done to address the crisis unfolding in Venezuela. What methods or mechanisms have they employed, and how effective have they been? More broadly, what do the actions of these governments and organizations reveal about their core interests? Venezuela’s political and economic weight, as well as its once-proud standing as one of South America’s longest-lasting democracies, makes it likely that the crisis will have profound consequences for the future of human rights and democracy on the continent. It will be a litmus test for both national policies and regional mechanisms that are supposed to strengthen democratic rules and norms by exerting pressure on wrongdoers and serving as effective mediators in moments of political conflict.
An Intensifying Crisis
Political polarization and consequent tensions and conflicts regarding Venezuela’s political direction grew in the years after Hugo Chávez’s election. They spiked in 2002, when a group of businessmen and military leaders staged a short-lived coup d’état—Chávez returned to power within forty-eight hours. Some international actors (in the form of the “Friends of Venezuela”: Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and the United States, among others) tried to establish a dialogue between the government and the opposition in the aftermath of the coup. But the polarization has continued, peaking again in 2014, when large-scale antigovernment demonstrations shook the country. More than 30 protesters died during the clashes, and more than 1,500 were detained.
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Photo credit: EFE Agency