Venezuelan Referenda: Disease or Cure?
Once every six years, Venezuelans from Maracaibo in the west to Ciudad Guayana in the east will wake at daybreak, donning red, yellow, and blue apparel and painting their faces to match. Lawn chairs, beach umbrellas, and coolers are brought onto the concrete sidewalks, where families camp along the food carts. Throughout the day, trucks weave through throngs of people, honking and blasting songs like Willie Colón’s “Mentira Fresca.”
This is not a holiday, but Election Day in Venezuela, a time for the Venezuelan people to celebrate their right to vote.
Apart from the usual tasks of electing leaders, there was something new at stake for Venezuela’s electorate this year. This spring, Venezuela’s opposition called for a national referendum vote over whether President Nicolas Maduro should be recalled from office. While the referendum enjoyed widespread popular and international support, a pro-Maduro court unilaterally suspended the referendum process this October, casting a dark shadow over the nation’s political prospects.
In the wake of the court’s decision, many are questioning whether referenda can secure radical change. Can mere votes affect a government plagued by cronyism and corruption, and if not, where do we go from here?
As Election Day festivities took place throughout their foregone homeland, 83-year-old Hermelina Canelón, and her son Ricardo Cannelloni neared the end of their 16-hour bus ride from their home in South Florida to New Orleans. In previous election years, Canelón and Cannelloni had voted in Venezuelan elections through Miami’s consulate. But in 2012, then-President Hugo Chavez had closed the Miami consulate in a deliberate attempt to prevent the area’s 20,000 Venezuelan ex-patriots from voting, knowing well that such ex-pats largely favor the opposition. So this time around, mother and son had to find a way to make it to the next closest consulate, 900 miles away in the city of New Orleans.
Like many of their neighbors, Canelón and Cannelloni couldn’t afford the journey until a group of Venezuelan nonprofits announced they would provide free buses from South Florida to the Cresent City on Election Day. Thanks to the efforts of organizations like Voto Donde Sea and the Venevox Foundation, Canelón and Cannelloni earned a free bus ride to Louisiana, and one that accommodated Canelón’s wheelchair to boot.
When they arrived at the New Orleans voting center, mother and son happened upon a familiar scene. New Orleans’ Bourbon Street was packed as buses flooded in from all over and eager voters rushed into the mile-long line that wrapped around the block. Families wearing yellow, blue, and red baseball hats paraded along the avenues, singing and chanting “Hay un camino,” Spanish for “There’s a way.” Others shouted back from the balcony of Krazy Korner, a nearby bar adorned with Venezuelan state flags. Bars like Krazy Korner and Preservation Hall were packed until the late hours of the night, serving their patrons Johnny Walker Black Label scotch, a Venezuelan favorite.
As Canelón and Cannelloni made their way through the crowd, they were surrounded by people who, like them, had fought and made sacrifices to cast their ballot on this day.
Antoinette Siem had spent her birthday on a bus and separated from her husband who had returned to Venezuela to vote.
“My husband had to vote in Venezuela because unfortunately he’s not registered in Miami,” she said. “The Miami consulate was closed when he went. And I am here. And we are pleased. It’s not easy but for the freedom of Venezuela it’s worth it.”
Like Seim, the mother of Stephanie Blas-Lizarazo ’19 mother had traveled from Florida to adjacent Louisiana that morning. While Ms. Blas-Lizarazo had won her free bus ticket through a raffle, many of her neighbors were not so lucky. The waitlist for Venevox’s lottery was over 1,600-names long, a sign of widespread disenfranchisement that heralded the electoral crisis to come.
In April 2016, Venezuela’s opposition initiated the first phase of their constitution’s multi-step procedure to recall a president by national vote. The opposition’s goal was to oust President Maduro, whose corrupt regime they blame for the nation’s economic crisis. By June, the opposition claimed to have collected the 1% of voter signatures necessary to unlock the second phase of the presidential recall process, during which the opposition must collect signatures from 20% of the electorate in each of Venezuela’s 23 states.
The government and its opposition, however, clashed over the conditions of this phase with the government attempting to restrict voter opportunity. Although the opposition requested 20,000 voting machines to register and verify signatures, the government offered only 5,400. Similarly, when the opposition requested that polls be open all day, the government said polls were to open for no longer than 7 hours.
On October 20th, the National Electoral Council (CNE), a court friendly to the Maduro Administration, suspended the recall process on the dubious grounds of alleged voter fraud. Their decision sent shockwaves throughout both Venezuela and the international community at large.
Soon after the CNE decision was announced, the Organization of American States (OAS) issued a statement describing its twelve member countries as “profoundly worried by the decision.” OAS’s Secretary General Luis Almagro said that “only dictators deny their citizens their rights, ignore the legislature, and have political prisoners.” Western media outlets from The Economist to the New York Times similarly accused the ruling United Social Party of Venezuela (PSUV) of misconduct that betrayed Maduro’s authoritarian tendencies.
Simultaneously, protests erupted nationwide. In Caracas, the wives of jailed opposition leaders led a massive march which called for the reinstatement of the referendum before its 2017 deadline. If the vote takes place before January 10th, 2017, Maduro may be removed from office and a fresh round of elections will commence. If not, PSUV Vice-President Arisóbulo Isturiz will replace Maduro for the remaining two years of his term.
In the midst of such anti-government agitations, pro-Maduro forces stormed the opposition-led legislature, known as the National Assembly, on October 23rd. They chanted “Congress Will Fall!,” interrupting a day of diatribes against the president. The National Assembly condemned the act as a coup orchestrated by the Maduro regime.
“The fact that lawmakers elected by 7.5 million people were silenced by 300 thugs sums up the situation better than any speech could,” opposition spokesman Jesus Torrealba, said.
Historian Alejandro Valesco told The Politic that as his country braces for further turbulence, the collective gaze remains transfixed on the nation’s present and immediate future.
“I lay blame for the current crisis with [Venezuelan’s] inability to grapple with their history,” Valesco said. “In the present moment, you find a lot of people making fast and loose references to the past. The opposition will tell you that the last 17 years have been a wash, nothing is to be learned, and all we need is power…In reality, their history leaves in its wake an endless cascade of errors that are clearly visible to the naked eye.”
Valesco pointed to 2004, when the Venezuelan people voted by national referendum to keep President Hugo Chavez in power by a margin of 16 points. In the wake of the decision, both pro Chavez and opposition groups accused the opposing side of fraud and coercion. While such allegations remain unconfirmed by watchdog groups, they worked to deepen political cleavages nonetheless.
Disillusioned by what they perceived to be a rigged loss, the radical flank of the opposition called for a boycott on the 2005 legislative elections. To vote, or so they argued, was to legitimize the government in power.
It’s not hard to understand why this strategy proved an egregious error.
Pro-Chavez candidates dominated the 2005 election cycle, securing a majority in the National Assembly. Brookings Institute fellow Harold Trinkunas told The Politic that with the legislature on his side, Chavez was able to pack both the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council with party loyalists. Today, this judicial-executive alliance has disarmed the opposition-led legislature and silenced their calls for a recall referendum on Maduro’s presidency.
But even if this year’s referendum had been realized, Valesco is doubtful that the fractured opposition could have successfully united to affect positive change.
“Because parties [in Venezuela] have been forced to align either with the government or the opposition…parties with deep ideological differences…coexist very uneasily within this one coalition,” Valesco said. “When differences are masked in favor of highlighting one unique similarity, there’s a problem because it doesn’t allow for any kind of strategic planning or change.”
As Valesco aptly notes, the opposition is comprised of parties with ill-assorted ideologies – some are Marxist-Leninists while others sit to the center-right. So even if the opposition had succeeded to oust Maduro via referendum, it seems unrealistic they would fully unite behind an opposition leader such as centrist Henrique Capriles.
To prevent partisan infighting, the opposition has decided to water-down its individual party platforms. Unfortunately, it seems that this stopgap solution has backfired. The artificially unified opposition is utterly unable to agree on a coherent program for national revival.
Despite the myopia lamented by academics like Valesco, many Venezuelans indeed recognize that while the anti-chavista opposition has tapped into widespread popular discontent, it has no viable agenda of its own, apart from ousting the ruling Socialist Party.
In a poll conducted this July, 52% of Venezuelans agreed that the “opposition has no plan for the nation,” and 67% believed “the opposition has votes because of the discontent in the country but does not have popular backing,” in part because it is “very divided.”
Today, Blas-Lizarazo continues to be proud of her mom for her determination to cast her vote despite the obstacles she faced. That being said, she holds deep mistrust for the ability of a divided opposition to secure radical change.
“There hasn’t been one leader of the opposition movement since [Leopold] Lopez turned himself in,” she said. “Of course people are protesting, but it is very scattered. There is no union.”
Even if the opposition consolidated their programs and established a leadership hierarchy, it is unlikely that a referendum would oust the ruling government, she furthered.
“The government is so powerful and so corrupt, there was bound to be a way for [the government] to put an end to the referendum,” she said. The only way to counter such corruption is for “people to become more aware of the situation internationally. The more that people have an idea of what’s going on, the more likely they will be to take action.”
With their 2017 deadline on the horizon, Venezuela’s opposition is growing increasingly divided between those who continue to trust the referenda process and those like Blas-Lizarazo whose optimism is waning. While the international community at large hopes for the opposition’s victory in whatever form it shall take, the failure of referenda process, at the very least, could provide an opportunity to question the referendum as the tool for political change.
For years, Venezuelans have hailed referenda as a well-guided system that both caters to the nation’s voting culture and encourages participatory democracy. When examined at a distance, however, it seems that Venezuela’s referenda have worked to polarize Venezuela’s electorate, rendering the opposition homogenized and divided. The opposition’s platforms are diluted, its base fractured, and plausible leadership elusive. When the clock runs out, those who pledge allegiance to the opposition will have to confront these ugly realities. Then and only then, may referenda be understood as a cause rather than a cure to Venezuela’s political woes.