Georgetown University

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.

5 Comments

  1. Doran Johnson

    May 2, 2019 at 6:33 pm

    Hello Colton,
    I learned a lot while reading your post. It is so important to recognize that the path to democracy for Venezuela is not a 1 step process, but will be a slow and lengthy process requiring many steps. You lay out some of these different steps in a very organized and easy to comprehend way, making sure to emphasize that no matter who gains power in Venezuela, much more must still be done. I was very surprised to read how much corruption was present in Venezuela’s government. Venezuela is one of many examples that proves how messy and difficult the road from dictatorship to democracy can be, and I enjoyed reading your take on the matter.

  2. Justin Saint-Loubert-Bie

    May 3, 2019 at 4:30 pm

    I think your post does an excellent job of distilling the principal threats facing Venezuelan democratic reconstruction projects, while also providing a very interesting and plausible roadmap for future development. I agree that pro-democratic reforms as well as economic reforms must take place in tandem. However, I also want to point out that the single best thing for Venezuelan democracy may be to diversify their economy and move away from oil.

    Countries that get most of their wealth from oil are much more likely to be repressive, because it is easier for people in power to accumulate vast sums of wealth without relying much on their citizens. This in turn allows them to invest in repression without risking their personal finances. (Not to mention the fact that many pro-democratic countries tend to turn a blind eye towards abuses if there is a potential to profit from oil riches.)

    Transitioning to a more diverse economy would hopefully decrease this dynamic and make the wealth of the powerful dependent on the people, decreasing the chances of repression and allowing for a more solid democracy. A more diverse economy might also hopefully decrease economic inequality, which is another excellent way to preserve democracy.

    Despite the importance of making a shift in the economy, I do want to reiterate that I completely agree with you in your assessment of the importance of political factors, and your excellent enumeration of steps to be taken. I fervently hope your prescriptions become reality.

  3. David Ardila

    May 7, 2019 at 4:16 pm

    Great post! I think a lot of people in Venezuela really underestimate how painful the transition process will be. The level to which the current regime has taken over every single democratic institution and weaponized them makes a peaceful transition difficult to imagine. Even if Guaido or someone else manages to depose Maduro, Venezuela has been looted and the institutions have been corrupted to the point that many of these institutions would act strategically to sabotage the plans of the new administration and force a return to the Chavez years. The process of reclaiming the democratic institutions from Maduro loyalists is at the same time a very sensitive topic, because doing it through the ordinary process would take an incredibly long time and resources, and in the meantime the people who supported Maduro will continue to sabotage the new administration’s efforts to restore democratic ideals. I personally do not see a quick and painless transition of power being possible at all.

  4. Warren Epstein

    May 7, 2019 at 11:52 pm

    I think your post effectively lays out the reason why comparative politics scholars believe that democratic transitions are so important to study; because getting them right is difficult. As you pointed out, the Chavez-Maduro regime largely got Venezula where it is today on account of the popularity of his (or some of his policies). There in lies the interesting phenomena associated with executive-aggrandizing democratic backsliding. The executives tend to get their power electorally usually with the help of referenda. However, that does not stop them from eventually leading their countries into a personalist dictator which scholars consider to be the worst (policy wise) and most entrenched. Likewise, Maduro as a leader now of what has become a personalist regime true to comparative regime theory as a personalist leader has the strongest incentives to remain in power and refuse to surrender power to Guaido. However, as you correctly pointed out, Venezuelan democracy will only start to recover once Guaido hopefully before the situation gets any worse.

  5. Ronen Schatsky

    May 8, 2019 at 10:39 am

    Thank you for spelling out some of the concrete actions Venezuela must take not only to transition back to a democracy, but to become more prosperous. Your analysis is making a heavy assumption, however, which is that we can trust Juan Guaido to actually act to transition Venezuela back into a democracy. Sure, he’s playing the standard-bearer of democracy right now, but we must always be skeptical of whoever comes to power after a regime change. It would be too easy for him to indefinitely delay the promised elections while he consolidates his own hold on power. Thus, we cannot seriously consider how to implement the various reforms you propose unless we can somehow guarantee forbearance on Guaido’s part. How can Venezuelans, as well as Guaido’s international supporters (the US, for one thing) hold him accountable for stewarding a democratic transition?
    In the longer term, even if Guaido takes power, manages it responsibly, and strengthens Venezuela’s independent institutions in the way you propose, what can Venezuela do to prevent another populist Chavez from coming along and undermining the newly restored democratic system? We cannot assume that no one as charismatic or bent on power as Chavez was will come along. As you yourself said, he won with democratic support at first. This uncomfortable truth calls into question your point that fixing Venezuela’s government would be akin to realigning “Venezuela’s government with the will of its people.” The will of its people may very well be another authoritarian in the not-too-distant future–however they may come to regret it. We must be pessimistic about the ability of the ‘people’s will’ on its own to keep out power-hungry dictators, and think about what other structural changes are necessary in the electoral process.

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