Symposium: Challenging Autocracy: Opposition Re-Unification under Guaidó’s Leadership


Maryhen Jiménez Morales

University of Oxford

In Venezuela, there has been a two-decade long effort of all opposition forces to defeat Chavismo, which rose to power with Hugo Chávez’s election as Venezuela’s President in 1998. Ever since, the opposition has tried through different means and strategies to successfully challenge the incumbent – first Chávez and, since 2013, his successor Nicolás Maduro. Yet, we have not yet seen an official change in the executive office. Moreover, this possibility now seems remote, since Maduro’s regime has openly refused to hold free and fair elections and, instead, decided to cling to power via fraudulent elections in May 2018.

How can the opposition best challenge autocrats in power? Previous scholarship has shown that coordination among opposition parties is an essential ingredient in the struggle for democratization. However, we do not always observe oppositions uniting around one leader. Whilst the Venezuelan opposition has been traditionally fragmented amongst several opposition leaders and political parties, this has changed with Juan Guaidó’s leadership in the National Assembly and his decision to become interim President of Venezuela as of January 23rd 2019. Guaidó is a 35-year-old Member of Parliament from the opposition party Voluntad Popular. Before explaining why ideologically distant opposition parties, such as Acción Democrática, Primero Justicia and Un Nuevo Tiempo, are supporting fresh-faced leadership from a different party, it is first essential to understand the particular constraints and ongoing repression the opposition has been facing under Chavismo.

An Increasingly Authoritarian Political Context

Since the very beginning, Hugo Chávez moved to control and co-opt otherwise democratic institutions to create the basis for an ever growing authoritarian regime. Let us recall that the Venezuelan Constitution of 1999 enlarged the powers of the Executive and banned public financing for political parties, setting a precedent for hyper-presidentialism. [RS1] The 2009 constitutional amendment that allowed indefinite re-election is a further sign of democratic backsliding. The process of co-optation, however, happened on virtually all levels. The judiciary and the military experiences significant purges in 2004 and 2002 respectively and never again worked as an independent organ. In fact, both institutions today are fundamental in sustaining Maduro’s autocratic rule, in spite of decreasing popular support and national and international legitimacy. Furthermore, the electoral authority, CNE, has been a biased agency since early on and has allowed for systematic electoral irregularities, which in the long run have only served to regulate an uneven playing field, in which the opposition has virtually no chance of winning. For example, the CNE has been biased in the enforcement of electoral laws and has often conducted outright violations, such as consenting unlimited airtime to incumbents, while restricting the opposition from it. This body has also allowed polling centers to stay open past scheduled hours and has also arbitrarily banned candidates from running or observers from watching electoral processes, among many other irregularities.

Figure 1 Decline in Institutional Independence and Freedoms in Venezuela 1980-2017.  Rating: 4 = Always; 0; Source: V-Dem

Figure 1 Decline in Institutional Independence and Freedoms in Venezuela 1980-2017.

Rating: 4 = Always; 0; Source: V-Dem

Venezuela’s parliament has also been attacked since day one. The 1999 constitution eliminated the Senate, a crucial veto player, by creating a unicameral National Assembly. After the opposition boycotted the 2005 election, the National Assembly, began to act increasingly so under the Executive’s mandate. For instance, while the PSUV, the incumbent’s party, had the majority in the National Assembly, it granted both Chávez and Maduro the right to rule by decree several times. It also passed laws that restricted the space for free and fair contestation, such as 2005 penal-code reform expanded the desacato (insult) law, the Law for the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination (2010) or the Law of Partial Reform of the Law of Political Parties, Meetings and Protests (2011). Venezuela, under Chávez and Maduro, has also experienced systematic violations of freedom of speech. With a hegemonic communicational strategy, consented by the National Assembly and the CNE, both autocrats harassed private media and independent journalists and/or pushed many into self-censorship, while exposing the population to government-controlled propaganda.

Contention against Autocracy

As authoritarian rule was advancing in Venezuela, the opposition was forced to change its strategies to challenge the incumbent. While first attempts such as the general strike or the coup d’état in 2002 only played into Chávez’s hands and radicalised the regime’s repressive strategies towards the opposition, later attempts that focused on electoral politics and pacific protests have allowed opposition parties to regain voter’s trust and grow electorally. For example, already in 2006, all relevant opposition parties supported the candidacy of Manuel Rosales to challenge Chávez, as they knew that only by aggregating vote share and resources they would be able to reduce the gap. The logic of collective rewards began to trump individual party rewards so much so that over 30 opposition parties decided to formally create a joint umbrella organisation, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), that would be the center of opposition decision making between 2008 and 2015. Under the MUD, the opposition ran successful campaigns such as the 2010 National Assembly elections, where it obtained the majority of the votes, the 2012 and 2013 presidential elections and the 2015 National Assembly elections. In spite of internal challenges, disagreements and high levels of harassment and persecution, the MUD designed and planned collective campaigns that mirrored its commitment to achieve political change together, through electoral and constitutional means.

Because repression, both legal and physical, however, increased over time and particularly under Maduro’s rule, the opportunities to effectively contest incumbents at the polls dropped and consequently the incentives to invest in a collective strategy diminished. The opposition experienced a series of fragmentation as parties began to have divergent views as to how to dislodge Maduro. While some believed that Maduro could be challenged at the polls, others considered that change could only occur through protests and international pressure. Particularly as Maduro’s government moved to dismantle the National Assembly won by the opposition on December 6th 2015, and installed a de facto parallel legislature (Asamblea Nacional Constituyente), the opposition began to fragment again. Different views and struggles between soft and hardliners within the MUD about how to dislodge Maduro, began to destroy previous coordination efforts. Even more so, after the brutal repression and shut downs of protests throughout 2016 and 2017, and the systematic persecution and incarceration of opposition activists and politicians, the opposition split even further. The incentives to maintain the coalition largely disappeared because, while some members of the opposition were convinced that transition may not solely occur with an electoral strategy, other opposition parties seemed to be interested in cohabitation with the regime, impeding a broad opposition coalition. In the midst of this crisis, a new alliance between political parties and civil society emerged in 2018, the Frente Amplio Venezuela Libre, once again signaling the existing disagreements within the former MUD.

Yet after many hundred deaths and the increased political persecution, incarceration, disqualification or forced exile of important opposition politicians such as, Leopoldo López, Antonio Ledezma, Maria Corina Machado, Julio Borges, Carlos Vecchio or David Smolansky, the so-called G4, which includes Acción Democrática, Un Nuevo Tiempo, Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular, returned to the idea of cooperating again in order to trigger democratization.

Role of Guaidó’s Leadership as a Unifying Factor

Three factors are essential in explaining why Juan Guaidó has been able to reunite the opposition more recently.

Firstly, previous coordination efforts and agreements within the opposition facilitated Guaidó assuming the presidency of the National Assembly. After winning the election in 2015, the most voted parties within the MUD decided that each party would preside the Assembly one year each, starting by Acción Democática, who handed over to Primero Justicia, Un Nuevo Tiempo, and now Voluntad Popular. Given this arrangement the young leader could generate articulate all parties from within the institutional setting.

Secondly, due to increased forced exile, opposition leaders have cooperated on an international level. Coordination has been happening in the US, Europe and Latin America. Exiled opposition leaders have not only tried to come together to find a solution to the political crisis but have also globally campaigned for the international community to take action, such as targeted sanctions or the rejection of Maduro as a legitimate president. Without this external pressure, Guaidó would probably not have managed to galvanize all relevant opposition parties.

And lastly, what has also helped to bring not only opposition elites but also Venezuelans around Guaidó is his personal style and discourse, which seems so far to be inclusive, even beyond traditional opposition groups (see essay by Gamboa in this symposium). For example, Juan Guaidó under his interim presidency has sought to include as many social movements, unions, former Chavistas, and defected incumbents as possible, signalling cooperation rather than confrontation. Furthermore, Guaidó is not the typical Caracas-born-and-raised upper-middle class Venezuelan politician; he is a fresh face, who until a few months ago was relatively unknown to the public and the international community. But he appears to have an institutional flair like no other opposition figure. His speeches are about human rights, rule of law, restoring institutional powers in a peaceful manner and this far shies away from messianic promises, self-promotion or party politics. In contrast, in his public appearances, he always highlights the importance of national unity and is almost always surrounded by a cross-partisan group of politicians putting his visions into practice.

In sum, opposition re-unification in Venezuela is the result of a two-decade long struggle for political change, which at times has been erroneous and at other times successful in brining political elites and the citizenry together. The combination of previous national coordination processes with international efforts of cooperation and a new and young leadership explain why the opposition has united to restore democracy in Venezuela.

Maryhen Jiménez Morales is a PhD Candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford.

Suggested Citation: Maryen Jiménez Morales, ‘Challenging Autocracy: Opposition Re-Unification under Guaidó’s Leadership’ IACL-AIDC Blog (1 May 2019)