By Juan Andrés Misle
You were the director of the Carter Center’s Americas Program during key periods in Venezuela’s electoral history. As mentioned, you not only helped monitor elections for well over a decade in Venezuela, but you also helped mediate the ensuing crises that pinned the opposition against the Chávez government between 2002 and 2004. What is something you think a lot of observers don’t get from your insider perspective during those years? And what were some important takeaways from your role as an international mediator in Venezuela?
J.M.: It was a tough situation because it was trying to solve a political conflict that had not turned violent, but many people and analysts were concerned about the potential for violence. So we were trying to help the country and help both sides to come to some kind of understanding about the demands and the grievances that each side held that could both avoid a violent conflict but also protect its democracy.
What we learned was that the polarization was already so deep that both sides in the political conflict essentially wanted to eliminate the other — it seemed — rather than seek an accommodation of some form of coexistence.
That made it really difficult. So each of the parts of the conflict as they emerged whether it was major protests or the petroleum strike, or eventually the recall referendum, people from the outside were seeing it more as a normal election to measure strength of either side and to help to resolve the question of who should lead the country for the next three years, the remainder of Hugo Chávez’ term at that point. Whereas inside the country the opposition and the government were both seeing it as very high stakes election that would determine a definitive winner and loser that could essentially eliminate the power, the role and the influence of the other.
That made it really difficult to come to a position where both sides could consider mutual guarantees and different forms to reassure the continued rights and existence as political entities after that referendum, depending on who won.
I think that lesson is very important for today as well in trying to look at what might be a means of resolving this conflict when both sides see it as such an existential threat and an existential conflict that it’s hard to imagine a situation of being out of power — in either direction. That makes it very difficult to find an accomodation and agreement for moving forward.
A lot of outside observers, particularly those with a more sympathetic view towards the Venezuelan government, consistently point out former president Jimmy Carter’s comments years ago that “Venezuela had the best election process in the world.” Does the Carter Center continue to hold this view? Or has anything changed that might have caused President Carter and his team at the Carter Center to reconsider these statements?
J.M.: That’s been quoted quite extensively, particularly by the government because it supports their point of view. But that quote was taken completely out of context. It was a response to a question about the Mexican elections and about U.S. elections and controversies in those two countries. What he was talking about were the voting machines and comparing it with the United States, where in many states — including my own state of Georgia — we vote on similar touch-screen machines but there is no paper printout and so people can’t verify their vote.
So he was talking about the quality of the voting machines, audits, and the controls in which the political opposition had been participating in most of the elections until recently. That’s what he was referring to.
On the other hand, the Carter Center in missions that I’ve led and wrote extensive reports about documenting the very unlevel playing field and unfair conditions of the electoral process. Particularly the campaign, the finance, the access to the media, intimidation.. All of these kinds of things we had been very critical about.
Now in the last two years I think we’ve seen an even further deterioration of the electoral system in Venezuela as the CNE (National Electoral Council) has become very very clearly partisan and doing the bidding of the government: calling elections without proper time periods, changing the rules, and even engaging in what looks like actual fraud in terms of changing vote counts for the first time.
Looking first at the Constituent Assembly election in July of 2017 when they apparently magnified the numbers of the turnout, and then after that in the state of Bolívar where it looks like they changed the actual numbers of some of the voting stations that were done manually.
It certainly has deteriorated to the point now that I can understand why many people have very little confidence in the CNE as a body and in the process.
Let’s fast forward now to the latest round of talks actively promoted by former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Rodriguez Zapatero. Are there any differences between the dialogue processes during your tenure at the Carter Center and those with the Unasur and Zapatero attempts at conflict resolution?
J.M.: Yes. Back in 2002 there was a consensus among the international community: the United Nations, the OAS and the member states of the OAS that democracy needed to be protected and that there should be some kind of negotiated resolution to the conflict then. After that, the OAS became split and paralyzed, polarized really, similar to the polarization inside of Venezuela. So the region became polarized, and the OAS then became ineffective as an potential mediator, and other organizations like Unasur and CELAC came on to scene where there was not the same kind of broad international consensus about the role of the collective defense of democracy for the region.
Both sides in any conflict it’s natural that they look for outside allies, international allies, but when the international community is itself split, then that makes it easy to find outside allies to kind of bolster your own position and resist the need to make concessions and make compromises to try to reach an agreement.
This last round in late 2017 – early 2018 in the Dominican Republic, showed an improvement in the possibilities because the two sides, the Maduro government and the MUD agreed on a set of countries that could serve as the friends and observers of this dialogue.
That was helpful, and that was similar to what we had back in 2002. And then the president of the Dominican Republic seemed to do a pretty good job of getting the confidence of both sides there. But prime minister Zapatero then lost the confidence of the opposition in the final proposals that he made to try to persuade them to join in. From what I can see, the early proposal in December made by the five friend countries seemed like a pretty reasonable proposal, and in fact was done by the countries that were both chosen by the government and by the opposition, so I was sorry that didn’t come to a resolution.
What line should be drawn between economic and political negotiations? Can one be done without the other? Because it seems that dialogue efforts by Rodriguez Zapatero consistently demanded that the opposition abandon any path to legitimate political aspirations in exchange for economic policy changes that never fully materialize. Do you find this to be conducive to any substantial breakthrough? Or is there something missing?
J.M.: The situation is complex in that now the country is now in a much more dire situation economically and socially than it was if you compare it with the 2002 period. But the 2002 period also had really severe disruptions with the coup attempt and the greater balance of forces in the sense of the government controlling some institutions but not all like they do today. The opposition controlled still a lot of institutions including half of the Supreme Court and most of the private media and a large part of the economy. The private sector was still pretty strong. That’s another major difference between then and today.
Today because of the need to urgently address the economic situation and the social situation — with the refugees and the medical crisis as well — that’s been difficult for the dialogues to figure out how to address that along with the demands for political change. Whether economic change can be carried out without political change is another question.
I think it’s possible that a dialogue can result in an agreement on immediate urgent changes to economic policy and allowing in aid and helping the refugees and helping the medical crisis, and then moving to the political. But I also understand that many people feel like the political is urgent and that there must be a regime change. So I think we’ve seen a conflict between those two positions that has also made it difficult to get an agreement.
Do you think then that it’ll take something like a social meltdown caused by hyperinflation to fully address the economic and political deficits present in Venezuela? What else is really needed to convince Maduro to capitulate?
J.M.: Let me talk about the bad news first in terms of another precedent that people often mention when talking about Venezuela, but that is in fact, Zimbabwe, which did have hyperinflation up into the billions percent. Even worse than Venezuela is facing today. The same government survived that, resolved it by dollarizing the economy and continued to survive up until last year using repression, using co-optation of opponents, at one point a negotiated power-sharing but it was really a co-optation of the opponents.
Even such a dire economic situation such as billions of percent of hyperinflation did not cause the downfall of that government. So that’s the bad news for those who are expecting that a social falling-off-the-abyss will lead to a change in the political regime.
On the other hand, the international pressure from the sanctions I think has been tightening the noose around the economy and around the maneuverability of the government. The Chinese government has helped them out recently with a little bit more financial possibilities and other loans and a little bit of investment. Every time that happens that can add on to the ability of the government to survive a little bit longer. But overall the trend is certainly going downhill in terms of the maneuverability economically unless they begin to make some major changes.
So there is that pressure that can bring about some kind of willingness to negotiate some kind of change.
On the other hand, in this situation, as we started out talking, the stakes are very high for this government to think about leaving power, and the retribution that they would face: the possibility of either extradition to the United States to face justice for those who have been accused of crimes by the United States, or facing justice within Venezuela. The very real possibility of that happening to many of the high-level government and military officials certainly gives them an incentive to dig in and stay in power, unless they were to receive some kind of signals or reassurances that there could be some alternatives to that.
That’s why I and others have talked about this concept of transitional justice, which is often needed in a situation like this, either moving from an authoritarian regime — and I do count Venezuela as an authoritarian regime, today — or moving from civil conflicts. These are transitory forms of justice to allow that kind of transition. It’s not impunity, it’s conditional sentencing, usually, that requires some kind of reparations by the perpetrators of human rights abuses, or high corruption, violence, or crimes. Reparations is part of it, acknowledgement of responsibility, giving truth and information about what’s happened and what’s happened to the victims.
Under transitional justice, in certain conditions, sentencing might be reduced or alternative kinds of sentencing might be proposed for some very specified situations that could help move towards a negotiated solution.
There also seems to be an interesting social conjuncture at play here. Many regular Venezuelans see these negotiations as a massive exchange of non-binding favors by competing elites that translate to a negligible impact in people’s livelihoods, and by extension, distancing the political leadership from the grassroots and the pedagogy needed to orient a mass movement. What can be done to mitigate this distancing? How can grassroots movements take control of their demands without having them co opted by technocratic elites ready to negotiate their demands away?
J.M.: I think right now is the moment in Venezuela for a grassroots movement for the civil society and social movements to organize, to mobilize, to take action, to make proposals. The political actors have become exhausted — the people in general have become exhausted from this situation, obviously — but the political actors, particularly in the opposition, I think have kind of exhausted the form that they have been following in their coalition in the MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable) because of disagreements over the proper strategy, disagreements over leadership, and now we’re seeing Acción Democrática is withdrawing. Even on the Chavista side, either those who have already broken with Maduro or those continued supporters who are concerned about the direction of the country and their own situations.
I think it’s the time for the people to be organizing and try to reach out as much as possible to get as broad a coalition as possible of people who simply are saying “we need to survive, there has to be a change, the political leadership has not represented us, and we demand a change” particularly to the government because obviously they have the biggest responsibility for the welfare or the people, but also to the opposition side.
In your view, what is the minimum amount of electoral conditions you think Venezuelans should accept during an election process in Venezuela as things stand right now?
J.M.: The minimal amount now is simply to go back even to the situation in 2015 for the National Assembly elections, when the political parties participated in the entire process, in the audits, the controls, when the timelines were followed properly, when there’s a chance to actually register to vote.
Over the years of monitoring elections in many countries, and when there is suspicion of an electoral authority, what really matters is not where they came from or what their partisanship was, but how they behave. The problem now with this election authority is that they have demonstrated so much partisanship that it’s nearly impossible for them to regain sufficient trust, so it will have to be changed and there will need to be international observation to provide sufficient level of confidence to move forward.
Another thing is the disqualification of candidates has to change because a minimal condition is that people have to be able to run.
Those are minimal conditions for acceptable election processes. I’ve also argued that under an authoritarian regimes with elections — what’s often called a competitive authoritarian regime — when the playing field is not leveled, when the advantage of the government is extreme, that it is still worth participating, even to demonstrate the level of manipulation or unfairness of an election and to be able to document that. And because, sometimes, authoritarians lose elections, and they’re surprised about it. If they get overconfident, they can lose. So I have argued that it’s worth participating, even in unfair conditions.
What is your view on the hard-line opposition’s proposal to demand Maduro’s resignation? The hardliners in the Soy Venezuela alliance think that so long as Maduro is in power, no changes, be them economic or political, can be done. They see a government sustained by a currency exchange regime that allow corrupt officials to amass great power and resources, and are perhaps better able than anyone else to engage as black marketeers in the trafficking underworld. Don’t they have a point in recognizing that the permanence of Maduro in power is contingent on continuing these policies that deeply hurt the population, and that a more frontal confrontation with the government is the only way to eventually achieve true government accountability?
J.M.: Certainly the government seems very much compromised in terms of having already protected and engaged in criminal activity, that organized crime is very high in Venezuela. Whether there are actors who can blackmail the president himself, or whether he is simply having to allow the criminal activity to continue in order to preserve his own position in power, either way, certainly the government is compromised.
That doesn’t mean that he couldn’t decide to make some changed in the economic policy, so you’re asking is he stuck? Is he caged in by the people who are benefiting from the corruption of the current regime such that he couldn’t make any changes and lessen that ability to gain from that corruption?
Yes, that may be true, but he can make some changes to lessen the suffering of the people. That may be what should be the first step in terms of pressure from both inside and outside the country, to make those minimal changes just to relieve the suffering of people, which gets worse every single day.
I don’t think that anyone should expect that there can be no change until Maduro is gone, because there can be change now. But it’s going to take continual pressure, and I agree with those who say it can’t come just from the outside. And I know that Venezuelans are tired and exhausted, sick and hungry, but there’s a real temptation for Venezuelans to wait for a savior of some sort, for something to happen, whether that’s a military coup or a military invasion, or something. It’s got to take pressure from the inside as well, it can’t be solved just from the outside.
That’s kind of my final thing, which is difficult to say because I know it’s very difficult to organize, it’s difficult to spend time figuring out how to organize politically when you can’t even eat or feed your children. It’s extremely difficult.
Originally recorded on July 9, 2018
Jennifer McCoy teaches political science at Georgia State University and is the former director of the Carter Center’s Americas program. At the Carter Center, Dr. McCoy oversaw elections in Venezuela from 1998 to 2015. Her latest book co-authored by Francisco Diez is International Mediation in Venezuela. You can follow her on Twitter @jlynnmccoy
Juan Andrés Misle is a DC-based independent writer, researcher, and social & human rights advocate. He is Director of Latin American Affairs at Latino Giant.
Music by Simón Díaz & Trilobites