(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Two decades after Bolivarian caudillo Hugo Chavez remade Venezuelan politics in his own autocratic image, the country’s opposition finds itself in a familiar place: splintered and at each other’s throats.
National Assembly leader Juan Guaido, hailed by foes of the Chavista regime and more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, has stumbled. His enviable 63% approval rating upon taking the oath as interim president in January 2019 has tanked (25.5% in May).
Guaido’s mentor, firebrand Leopoldo Lopez, is a refugee in the Spanish diplomatic residence. Many other fellow apostates are in exile, incarcerated or compromised. President Nicolas Maduro has amnestied dozens of jailed opposition stalwarts, apparently on the condition they participate in the Dec. 6 legislative elections, so thwarting Guaido’s call for an electoral boycott.
If all that weren’t divisive enough, along comes rival opposition standard bearer and former presidential contender Henrique Capriles Radonski, who admitted to holding conversations with the Maduro government, criticized calls by Guaido’s faction to abstain from the congressional race, and without naming Guaido, dismissed his purported attempts at “government by internet.” Yet Capriles’s impolitic outburst may be just the jolt Venezuela’s dizzied democratic-minded champions need.
Guaido is not wrong to be wary. While he and his band of rebels had the international community’s ear, Maduro had the guys with the guns. Maduro stacked the Venezuelan courts and regulatory agencies and created a constituent assembly to big-foot the opposition-controlled legislature. By jailing and then selectively amnestying political opponents, he showed that he can cherry pick his electoral rivals. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to see that the December elections are the government’s to lose.
Still, walking away from an impossible-looking race is not necessarily smart politics. Abstaining is exactly what Maduro wants the opposition to do. Their en bloc no-show not only would leave his besieged government a free hand but also allow him to claim the ostensibly ethical high ground of having obeyed the constitutionally mandated electoral calendar. A coalition of opposition parties did just that in parliamentary elections in 2005, gifting then-President Chavez with unfettered control over the National Assembly. They demurred again in 2018 after the Chavista-friendly electoral tribunal banned several opposition front-runners from the race, allowing Maduro to romp to reelection.
Such serial vote rigging, understandably, has embittered opposition hardliners. It also led to the remarkable wave of street protests last year that put Maduro on the defensive and lifted Guaido to the international stage. Yet that wave seems now to have crashed.
Young, articulate and politically adroit, Guaido once looked like the country’s best hope to galvanize the regime’s feuding foes and force a clapped out leader from office. Oil production — the country’s lifeline — was collapsing. Venezuelans who could get out did so, creating an international refugee crisis comparable to Syria’s, while those who stayed faced scarcity and hunger.
With disarray at home and the U.S. and other western governments imposing harsh sanctions, Maduro would surely buckle or flee, so clearing the way for a transition to democratic rule. Such convictions fueled magical political thinking and adventures, such as the abortive military insurrection in April 2019 and this year’s bungled military raid by Keystone mercenaries who claimed to have Guaido’s blessing.
Now all that looks like a fever dream. “If there is one common thread in the last 20 years of opposition to Chavismo, it’s the difference between the politics of short-term solutions and those banking on the long term,” said Alejandro Velasco, a Venezuelan history professor who teaches at New York University. “Either you concentrate on trying to push out the autocratic leader now, or you build a movement, organize politically and mobilize popular support to reach your goal down the road, eventually. If you’re a short termer and Maduro stays in power, then by your own logic you’ve failed.”
While participating in a gamed election might seem a fool’s errand, it does not necessarily mean playing the useful idiot. The argument for fielding challengers to the Chavista machine is not the prospect of immediate victory much less regime change, but the opportunity to engage frustrated and disenfranchised voters around a compelling political goal. Better still if the race unfolds to an international audience, which the opposition’s obstinate shadow diplomacy has enraptured.
That diplomacy and political spadework are something that Guaido once got and to which Capriles appears to be committed. “Capriles understands that a growing portion of Venezuela’s opposition is interested in a pragmatic outcome and a negotiated path forward, rather than an all or nothing approach or the fantasy of military intervention,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The literature on political transition is clear: Participating often yields better results than abstaining.”
Against withering odds, Capriles twice ran for president, losing once to the iconic Chavez in 2012 and narrowly to Maduro the next year, after Chavez died of cancer. Yet Maduro’s winning margin in 2013 was so thin and the balloting so ridden with charges of fraud that the opposition took heart and thence to the streets.
Despite even more scandalous electoral fixing in 2015, Maduro’s fractious challengers drew close and captured the first parliamentary majority under Chavismo, building street cred that led to Guaido’s rise.
If Guaido’s flagging fortunes today mean anything, it’s not that Maduro has won and there’s no sense in challenging him under his own rules. It’s that Venezuela’s democrats can use the election to speak to the public, build their brand and make their case to the wider world. And since even authoritarians crave legitimacy, Maduro tellingly has broken a 14-year Chavista taboo by inviting international monitors — European Union officials among them — to observe the balloting.
That’s an opportunity the EU should seize, notwithstanding the predictable pushback from Washington. Their account is one outcome that a Bolivarian autocrat can’t rig.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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