How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On August 4, two drones exploded in midair during a speech by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, in what the government alleges was a foiled assassination attempt. Although most opposition forces disavowed the attack, the government used it as an excuse to further clamp down on dissent, ordering 34 arrests, including that of Juan Requesens, a member of Congress. Disturbing videos circulated last week suggest that the government forcibly drugged and humiliated the lawmaker to try to get him to confess to participating in the plot.
To many, Maduro’s assault on democratic freedoms and systematic violation of human rights mean that there is no choice but to use force to try to drive him from power. But violent confrontation between the opposition and a government that is more than willing to abuse its monopoly on force is exactly what Maduro wants.
Instead, Venezuela’s democratic opposition should resist Maduro by exploiting his greatest weakness: his lack of popular support. Opinion surveys consistently show that nearly four-fifths of Venezuelans disapprove of the way that Maduro is running the country and would like him to leave the presidency. Democratic change for Venezuela will require using all the possible avenues—however limited they may be—of democratic engagement to contest the regime. Abandoning any of these avenues, as mainstream opposition forces did when they boycotted presidential elections earlier this year, could be a fatal mistake. The opposition cannot afford to repeat the error of sitting out an electoral contest in the upcoming referendum on a new constitution that could spell the end of Venezuelan democratic institutions.
Democratic change for Venezuela will require using all the possible avenues of democratic engagement to contest the regime.
I do not dispute that extreme measures can be ethically justified when confronting a violent and oppressive regime. But from a strategic perspective, violence is rarely if ever an effective way to combat a dictatorship. Democratic movements will have more success using electoral politics and peaceful protest to weaken the hold of power of an already unpopular regime.
Lake Valencia in Northern Venezuela is home to what is likely the region’s worst environmental disaster. Poorly designed water management systems have caused rising water levels, forcing 12,000 families to lose their homes; the rest live in towns that are continuously inundated when sewer systems overflow during rainy season. Residents suffer from endemic skin diseases and respiratory infections and complain that a constant stench permeates the floors and walls of their homes, no matter how often they wash them. Many of the families could have resettled if the government had complied with a 2007 Supreme Court decision to compensate and relocate residents. Instead of seeking a structural solution, the government built an overpriced containment wall that is continuously spilled over.
Maduro’s response to the Lake Valencia disaster is just one example of his disregard for Venezuelan people. I visited Lake Valencia as policy director for the presidential campaign of Henri Falcón, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Maduro in the May 20 elections. In that position, I coordinated a team of specialists whose mission was to create a road map for Venezuela to escape Maduro’s disastrous socialist experiment and begin to construct a modern inclusive democracy and rebuild the country’s democratic institutions. Our work included visiting communities around the country and discussing people’s problems, in order to identify concrete solutions that we could implement as soon as there was a change in government. The results and recommendations are summarized in a report titled “The Great Transformation.”
But on election day, more than half of voters—and almost two-thirds of potential anti-government voters—stayed home, permitting Maduro to coast to another six-year term. A post-election survey found that 62 percent of opposition and non-aligned voters—but only 10 percent of pro-government voters—abstained in the election. When they voted, opposition and non-aligned voters, who make up 78 percent of the electorate, were three times more likely to vote for Falcón than for Maduro. Therefore, had turnout rates been the same across different political groups, Falcón would have won the election.
Yet most opposition and non-aligned voters stayed home after Venezuela’s mainstream opposition parties called for an electoral boycott. Supporters of the boycott argued that participating in the elections was tantamount to legitimizing them. The argument made little sense—did Chileans legitimize Pinochet’s dictatorship by voting to oust him in the 1988 plebiscite? In politics, however, sometimes noise speaks louder than logic. As a result, a president who has destroyed the country’s economy and is reviled by three-quarters of the electorate effortlessly renewed his lease on power when most of the people who oppose him decided to stay home.
Most opposition and non-aligned voters stayed home after Venezuela’s mainstream opposition parties called for an electoral boycott.
Regrettably, some of the harshest attacks on Falcón during the campaign came from leaders who shared the objective of driving Maduro from office. Some of them claimed that Falcón was running to legitimize Maduro and that there was a secret pact to be appointed vice-president after the elections. The claims were proved false. Falcón did not recognize the election results and asked the Supreme Court to nullify them, but the accusations understandably sowed doubt in the minds of many voters. Venezuelans are frustrated by the opposition’s failure to achieve change and outraged at the way our country has been destroyed.
To be fair, Venezuelans had many good reasons not to vote. From the outset, the process did not meet the basic standards of a free and fair election. Large opposition parties, such as Voluntad Popular, were banned, and some key leaders, such as Leopoldo López and Henrique Capriles, were jailed by sham courts or barred from running. The government’s blatant abuse of public resources—for example, by forcing state employees to attend government rallies or threatening to withdraw access to social programs to those who failed to vote—and the clear bias of electoral authorities made for an unlevel playing field.
Yet the boycott was misguided. Many authoritarian leaders, from Augusto Pinochet in Chile to Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, have been driven from power after losing an election. When dictatorships call elections to shore up their legitimacy, the electorate can use them to break the regime’s hold on power.
Academic literature extensively documents the futility of electoral boycotts. A 2010 study by Matthew Frankel of the Brookings Institution looked at 171 cases of boycotts and found that only four percent result in positive outcomes. Boycotts do not increase the probability of regime change, but they do cause the boycotting movements to lose control of key spaces of power, thus eroding their capacity to contest the government’s control.
Venezuela needs a cool-headed opposition leadership capable of explaining to voters that the wisest choice is to contest Maduro where he is weakest, in the arena of popular support. Importantly, Venezuelans should not trust external forces to enact change. In the absence of domestic pressure, the international community has only a limited willingness and capacity to enact measures that significantly affect the probability of the regime staying in power.
The United States and key actors of the international community bear responsibility for leading the mainstream opposition leadership down the boycott route. When U.S. President Donald Trump irresponsibly spoke last August about a “military option” for Venezuela, he fed unrealistic hopes of U.S. troops coming in to remove Maduro, which weakened the resolve of the opposition to contest the government internally. Political leaders and intellectuals began actively calling for an international military intervention. But an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans reject the idea of a military intervention in Venezuela, and regional leaders have clearly expressed that any military action would not count with international support.
Trump’s hawkish approach contrasts strongly with the more sensible, tempered approaches of recent U.S. administrations to elections under authoritarian rule. For example, during her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001, Madeleine Albright promoted “electoral revolutions”—democratic transitions sparked by the electoral defeat of authoritarian leaders. Ahead of the 2000 presidential elections in Serbia, public and private groups from the United States such as USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy spent $40 million on pro-democracy programs, including the training of more than 5,000 opposition party activists and 10,000 election monitors. Hundreds of Serbian civic organizations received Western funding to build citizens’ awareness of the possibility of democratic change. The result was the victory of opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica, with Milosevic’s desperate attempt to rig the elections leading to his downfall.
International pressure will not drive Maduro from power, and violent confrontation will simply give him an excuse to ramp up repression. Electoral participation is the only strategy that has allowed the opposition to produce setbacks to Chavismo in the past, such as defeating Chávez’s attempt to rewrite the constitution in 2007 and gaining control of the National Assembly in 2015.
Maduro’s Constitutional Convention is currently writing a new constitution that will very likely do away with many of the democratic guarantees embodied by the 1999 charter, including the right to elect the president directly through a secret ballot. Venezuelans will have to vote to ratify the new constitution as soon as it is approved by the Convention, which could be a matter of weeks. The country’s democratic opposition must take this opportunity to stop Maduro from stripping away some of Venezuelans’ most fundamental rights.
The coming constitutional referendum is an opportunity for Venezuela’s divided opposition to coalesce around the objective of stopping Maduro from expanding his powers. Defending the 1999 Constitution has the potential to become the rallying point around which a broad coalition of political forces, ranging from conservative groups to dissident Chavistas, can form.
Defeating Maduro’s new constitution would also reaffirm the status of the opposition-controlled National Assembly as the only valid legislative power in Venezuela. The government will almost surely try to create a new legislative branch in the new constitution and as a result try to dissolve the current assembly. If the new constitution passes, the only branch of government currently controlled by the opposition would be lost.
Victory in this referendum could galvanize society, showing that a united front of Venezuelans can put effective limits on the government. In the past, defeat at the ballot box, even in non-presidential elections, has often contributed to the unraveling of authoritarian regimes. Pinochet, for example, did not have to immediately relinquish his power after losing his bid to extend his time in office in the country’s 1988 plebiscite, but the defeat ultimately made his hold on power untenable.
The United States and the international community have an important role to play. Key international stakeholders must show their commitment to a peaceful and democratic transition in Venezuela. They could begin with a multilateral initiative to form an electoral observation mission with a full mandate from the United Nations Security Council to oversee the upcoming vote. The Secretary General turned down a request for an observation mission earlier this year because it did not have the full support of the country’s opposition, part of which was boycotting the electoral event.
Of course, an opposition victory in the coming referendum might not necessarily lead to Maduro’s ousting. In that case, the leadership of the country’s democratic opposition must remain focused on the long-term objectives of consolidating and regaining strength to effectively contest the government’s hold on power. It also needs to remember that regime change is an important objective of political organization under an authoritarian government, but it is not the only one. Politics is about improving people’s lives, and often the most effective way to do that is through local and national mobilization aimed at limiting the government’s abuse of power.
Perhaps the most telling moment during the drone incident was when, for a few seconds, state television showed hundreds of soldiers fleeing in panic after they heard an explosion. The image encapsulated the vulnerability of a government whose power is based on domination. The best way for Venezuelans to contest that power is to reject Maduro through their votes. If the military was ready to cave in after a drone explosion, what will it do when confronted with 12 million opposition votes? It is certainly worth a try.