The Road Ahead: Democratic Reconstruction in a Post-Transition Venezuela by Colton Wade
Under the world’s gaze, two individuals have spent the last three months engaged in a binary struggle for power in Venezuela—Juan Guaidó, the interim president, and Nicolás Maduro, the de facto leader. Countries across the world have taken sides, as have the Venezuelans who regularly take to the streets in protest. Many characterize the face-off as a dispute between democracy and dictatorship—and the country’s future is seen as hanging in the balance.
As important as the end result is, however, Venezuela’s democracy will require much more than a change in leadership to survive.
Rule by the Maduro regime has ravaged the country’s institutions. Extra-constitutional maneuvers have allowed Maduro to stack the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council with regime loyalists and sideline the democratically elected National Assembly with a Maduro-controlled alternative legislature. Regime pressure has also degraded the independence of the civil service and expanded political control over things like the provision of aid, social services, and even the Internet.
What’s more, just because the majority of Venezuelans no longer support Maduro’s dictatorial tactics and economic mismanagement does not mean their underlying support for Chavismo and the leftist, revolutionary ideology it stands for has faded. Indeed, until the fraudulent 2018 presidential election, Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez largely stayed in power as a result of legitimate elections in which they garnered a majority of public support.
No, the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy will not be finished in a day, assuming Guaidó ever does take power. To fully realign Venezuela’s government with the will of its people, the country will need to undergo deep institutional renewal. In particular, it will need to legitimize elections, strengthen courts and institutions, and fight incessant corruption.
Among the first steps in a democratic transition will necessarily be free and fair elections to decide who will run the country following the end of Guaidó’s interim tenure. While “free and fair” may sound simple enough, however, the fear and coercion that corroded the May 2018 contest will take work to overcome. Top start, the National Assembly will need to reorganize the National Electoral Council to remove those of its members who failed to oppose Maduro’s moves to ban opposition candidates, stuff ballots, coerce voters, violate campaign finance laws, and ban international observers. An impartial and empowered National Electoral Council will prove vital to ensuring the same abuses do not resurface.
More fundamentally, the interim government will need to ensure Venezuelans themselves feel safe going to the polls. They will need a reasonable guarantee that their votes will be credibly counted, and that they will not suffer physical violence like that perpetrated by paramilitary colectivo squads under Maduro’s direction.
Finally, the ballot box will only prove legitimate if the vote is inclusive—meaning it must be extended to the millions of Venezuelans currently living as refugees and migrants across the region, and it must allow votes for leftist parties. While the judicial system should strip political rights from Maduro and other top officials responsible for serious crimes, Maduro’s party, the United Socialist Party, should be allowed to field candidates. Anything less would risk falsely painting the democratic transition as an opposition-led power grab.
Once credible elections place new leaders in office, the Venezuelan people will need an effective justice system to hold them accountable. At the moment, Venezuela has two Supreme Courts—one occupied by Maduro-loyalists rubberstamping his decisions within the country, and another operating via Skype in forced exile, with justices in the United States, Colombia, Panama, and Chile. A new regime will need to rectify the divergent jurisprudence of these two bodies, both deciding who will sit on a unified supreme court and which court’s decisions will hold legal weight. Leaders will need to consider both what follows the letter of the law (as most of the de facto court’s justices were appointed extra-constitutionally), but also what respects the national will, on the left as well as the right.
Throughout every level of the justice system, extra steps must be taken to guarantee judicial independence, from both political interference and threats violence. A change of leadership at the national level may indeed signal to judges that they are once again free to decide cases without fear of retribution, but many will likely hesitate to do so until they see evidence of this freedom themselves. Until a new norm of judicial independence develops, increased security and legal protections can fill the gap, such as a law anonymizing judicial decisions via a committee observed in a variety of other countries. State and local officials, in particular, will need to ensure the safety and impartiality of judges within their districts.
Two other institutions in critical need of reform will be the civil service and the military. Both must be politically neutral in order to serve their respective functions—providing government services and defense—but have been weeded for ideological purity, leaving them with low capacity and an unhealthy political bent. Higher-ups will likely need to be dismissed, including a sizeable portion of the thousands of generals that make Venezuela’s military one of the top-heaviest in the world, but working-level officials should be given the opportunity to stay, albeit with professional training on impartiality, higher pay, and new oversight mechanisms.
Finally, the new government will need to take forceful steps to root out the corruption that by all accounts has completely captured the state. Venezuela has fallen to a ranking of 168 out of 180 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and the unchecked revenues from its state oil company, PDVSA, have flooded coffers of officials throughout both the country and the region. First and foremost, the country’s prosecutor’s office will need to open an anti-corruption probe into PDVSA and other sources of illicit finance, and it will require funding, training, and political insulation to do so. Here, other countries across Latin American that have recently had success in prosecuting their own endemic corruption scandals, such as Brazil or Peru, can provide trainings in investigatory tactics and advice on necessary legal reforms. The media, which the Maduro regime has harshly censored, will also play a crucial role in identifying perpetrators and maintaining strong public pressure on leaders to act.
Guaidó and his team have articulated the beginnings of a reconstruction plan, dubbed Plan País, which emphasizes political, economic, and social reforms; as a central focus, however, it emphasizes reinvigorating the economy by guaranteeing economic rights and attracting foreign investment. While the economic piece of Venezuela’s recovery will prove crucial, the government must spend just as much energy restoring Venezuela’s democracy if that recovery is to last and benefit all Venezuelans. Private investors and international financial institutions must consider governance when extending loans to Venezuela, and must use their financial leverage to incentivize positive democratic growth going forward.
Venezuela’s future is still far from certain—indeed, another unsuccessful attempt by Guaidó to take power from the Maduro regime on April 29 demonstrates just how difficult the transition to democratic rule is likely to be. If and when Venezuela’s drama comes to a conclusion, however, neither the country’s leaders nor the international community can rest easy. There will remain much work to be done.
Photo by Diego Urdaneta, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.