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Venezuela’s Long Road to Democracy

Cody Searl | Latin America Fellow

Image: Ronal Labrador on Unsplash

“People don’t pay attention to politics”

These might seem like surprising words from 29‑year‑old Maria Eugenia Aray, a mother of three living in Guatire near the capital Caracas. Since Nicolas Maduro became president in 2013, 7 million Venezuelans have fled their country. Of those who remain, three‑quarters are now living in extreme poverty. You would be forgiven for expecting strong, widespread opposition to the dictatorial regime.

Back in 2019, Venezuelans hoped for a political solution to their country’s problems. Legislators who opposed Maduro declared an interim government, a move that received strong international backing in the form of US-led maximum pressure sanctions. However, this alternate government had no real plan to oust Maduro, and the opposition quickly succumbed to fragmentation and infighting. Ordinary Venezuelans lost interest, re‑focusing their attention to the task of daily survival. As Venezuela analyst Phil Gunson points out, without a viable political alternative, immiseration is more likely to produce passive acquiescence than popular mobilisation.

For these reasons, the opposition’s recent change of strategy is a positive sign. In December last year, it voted to dissolve its interim government, with eyes now focused on competing in 2024 general elections. It faces an uphill battle, not least because Maduro controls every branch of power in the country, the Electoral Commission, and the media. However, Venezuela is not yet a lost cause. If the opposition can convince the government to hold a somewhat competitive election, unite behind a single contender, and re‑connect with its base, it may begin restoring faith in the political process.

Mexico City negotiations

The first step will be to schedule elections for 2024. Renewed negotiations between the government and opposition to set a date are underway in Mexico City, where both sides have agreed to discuss Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis; human and political rights; rebuilding the economy, including sanctions relief; and restoring democratic governance. However, talks have been repeatedly delayed by disagreements on the terms, most recently on a deal that would allow USD$3 billion of frozen overseas Venezuelan funds to be distributed as humanitarian aid.

The opposition will also need guarantees that elections will be credible. No one expects a level political playing field, but without assurances that opposition parties can campaign without fear of violence or imprisonment, and transparency around matters like vote‑counting, many Venezuelans will simply refuse to participate.

Foreign influence

Maduro will be loath to concede on issues of electoral integrity. But with the right strategy, international pressure could bring him to the table. Maduro craves sanctions relief—including access to international credit and the return of foreign investment, particularly in the oil industry. Without it, he has no hope of improving Venezuela’s ruined economy. This makes governing the country very difficult and risks the ire of military and political elites that keep him in power.

Recognising Maduro’s desperate need for international recognition, Washington has now concluded that incentives—in the form of progressive sanctions relief—are the best hope for progress in Venezuela. Biden allowed Chevron to resume limited oil sales from Venezuela, has sent envoys to Caracas, and conducted prisoner exchanges. The State Department says that further sanctions relief will only come in exchange for meaningful progress in Mexico City negotiations.

Latin America’s left-leaning presidents may hold even more influence. A cascade of recently elected governments—including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico—have altered the regional dynamics for the Maduro regime. These governments may prove more accommodating (Colombia, in particular, has begun to re-engage with Venezuela). But they also, to varying degrees, believe in democratic governance and stand to benefit from a stable and prosperous Venezuela. They can advocate for government concessions in the Venezuelan stalemate absent allegations of yanquí imperialism.

Venezuela’s (dis)united opposition

Regardless of what happens in Mexico City, Venezuela’s opposition still has a lot of work to do. For years, it has been weakened by a lack of funds, the exile or imprisonment of leaders, and deep divisions over strategy (such as whether to compete in elections at all). As a result, Maduro is polling higher than any of his would‑be 2024 competitors.

However, the opposition may be more united now than it has been for a long time. There is broad strategic agreement for next year’s election, and it has announced primaries for 22 October this year. If the Opposition can unite behind a single candidate—a big if—it has a good chance of reaching Venezuelans that have long given up on a political solution.

Political games, human consequences

Critics argue that the chances of a democratic transition of power in 2024 is low, and re‑engaging with Maduro will only strengthen his hand. Yet, the fact remains that after four years of maximum pressure sanctions, Maduro’s grip on society is stronger than ever. If the opposition plays its cards right, 2024 elections could provide an opportunity to re‑connect with the Venezuelan people, develop communication platforms, allow new leaders to emerge, and perhaps create a democratic opening that can be exploited in the future. This will require playing the political long game.

Finally, we cannot forget that this political contest has a very human face. While politicians argue over electoral reform, record numbers of Venezuelans are braving the perilous Darién Gap between Central and South America, desperate to find a better life. Venezuelans who choose not to flee—like Maria Eugenia Aray—continue the daily struggle to survive.

As both sides prepare for renewed negotiations in Mexico City, the final goal must ultimately be to ease the suffering of the Venezuelan people.

Cody Searl is the Latina America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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