Venezuelan opposition is losing control while Maduro is being isolated: An interview with Prof. Julia Buxton

This interview with Prof. Julia Buxton from Central European University has been published on Turkish newspaper Karar on 01.08.2017

First of all, could you please briefly tell us about the gradually escalating crisis in Venezuela after Hugo Chavez’s death?

Venezuela was moving into a difficult situation before Chavez’s death in 2013 and this was due to three things; dependence on oil export revenues to fund government programs and intervention in the economy (oil exports are 94% of total national export revenues), and linked to this falling oil prices. Secondly there was too much dependence on the figure of Chavez — as the key ideologue of the revolution but also the glue that held the different factions of the ruling PSUV together. Finally there was an accumulation of policy challenges that Chavez had inherited when elected in 1999 but which his administration never addressed or made worse — crime, violence and corruption. The opposition MUD alliance was also growing in strength and electoral appeal. When Maduro took power he failed to address the growing accumulation of problems as the economic situation became perilous. He has also relied too heavily on the military in his government — in turn alienating the civilian and grassroots party base. Maduro has also faced a more hostile regional environment as many of Chavez’s former allies in ie Brazil and Argentina lost power.

National constituent assembly election is past now. Government celebrates high voter turnout, which it says 8 millions or 40 per cent of registered voters, while the opposition claims it was just about 2 millions. In your recent comment for BBC, you called this election “the biggest miscalculation of Maduro’s presidency in any case”. How do you evaluate sunday elections now?

Unfortunately the voting figures for Sunday cannot be seen as reliable as basic checks and balances to prevent fraud and multiple voting were not in place. We wait now to see if the new constituent assembly will determine if it has higher power than the legislature — the National Assembly which is dominated by the opposition MUD. Maduro convened the constituent assembly elections after last year fudging a referendum on his own position and after he delayed state governor elections. These elections and not the assembly should have been the priority for the simple reason that opposition support does need to be acknowledged and provided with a peaceful and legitimate outlet. Changes to the constitution should have been part of the platform for the 2018 presidential election, not a mechanism for mobilisation and change as Maduro comes to the end of his term. Convening the elections against international opinion and the advice of many critical friends opens up the possibility of international isolation, and it has alienated moderate Chavistas while closing the space for negotiation. Finally, priority should have been given to economic policy change — the economic situation is the primary concern for ordinary Venezuelans.

US threatened Venezuelan government with sanctions after the election. On the other hand, Venezuelan opposition calls US help for a regime change. Given US history of organizing or supporting coups in Latin America and around the world (including Turkey) in the Cold War era, how far do you think Washington push for a regime change in Venezuela?

Washington has been pushing for regime change since Chavez was elected and both Democrat and Republican administrations have pursued wholly counter productive measures that have served only to strengthen the anti imperialist rhetoric of Chavez and now Maduro. The Trump administration is using sanctions against individual Venezuelan officials — a hapless strategy that serves only to minimise willingness to dissent and binds regime officials more closely together. We wait now to see if economic sanctions will follow — if they do this will hurt ordinary Venezuelans. The US has been pro active in supporting and funding the opposition and I expect to see them step up efforts to enable the opposition to take power. Such a course of intervention and interference will set Venezuela on a course for deepening conflict — regime change will not bring a swift and smooth transition to democracy.

Venezuelan opposition seems to escalating violence as time passes by. Home made mortars, IEDs, assassination of government supporters, calling for armed insurgency etc. Are they organized enough and have public support to wage an insurgency against government? Is the country heading to a civil war?

The opposition is losing control of an increasingly violent street movement. The problem is the opposition is fragmented and currently more radical right wing elements are in the driving seat. The majority of Venezuelans do not support violence but sadly the use of violence is becoming increasingly legitimised in opposition statements and by external support for the protests. I do not expect the opposition to mobilise directly and strategically for war — this will lose them international support — but they will continue to resist dialogue and negotiation — in sum, becoming a contributing factor in the escalation to conflict

Could you describe a best and a worst case scenario for the future of Venezuela?

The best scenario is an inclusive dialogue and negotiations — not just discussions among elite male politicians but wider civil society. This needs strong and focused international support as enabled peace in Colombia and many other countries around the world that have experienced civil conflict. There should be agreement on key official positions that provide all parties with confidence in the judicial and electoral process. There also needs to be an agreed transition program that includes amnesties and commitment to basic social programs. Without this we will remain locked in a zero sum game. The worst case scenario is a violent civil conflict that spreads into neighbouring Colombia and draws militia, militaries and criminal groups into a war for power and illicit wealth and in which the victims — as ever — will be civilians.