Symposium: The Venezuelan Opposition’s (Surprising) Rise from the Ashes


Laura Gamboa-Gutiérrez

Utah State University

On 23 January 2019, National Assembly (AN) member of the Venezuelan legislature (‘National Assembly’), Juan Guaidó, shortly after his designation as President of the legislature, announced he was stepping in as Venezuela´s interim president. The statement took journalists, scholars and the general public interested in Venezuela by surprise. Not only was Guaidó an obscure figure in Venezuelan politics, but, until then, the opposition had been dormant for a long time. Fragmented and saddled with internal conflicts, notwithstanding Venezuela’s dire situation, it had been unable to frame a path to push for democracy. Guaido’s announcement changed that, setting in motion a chain of events that persist today as Venezuela’s political crisis unfolds.

Opposing Chavismo:  A Winding Road

The opposition to Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) has a long history of strategic mistakes. During the early years of Chávez’s government, it used extra-institutional strategies in order to oust the president. A military coup in April 2002, an indefinite strike in 2002-2003, and an electoral boycott in 2005 delegitimized the opposition inside and outside the country and gave Chávez the information and democratic cover he needed to purge the armed forces, pack the petroleum company with loyalists, control congress, and, eventually, coopt courts and oversight agencies. In 2006 what had been a mighty opposition was left with little to no resources to fight an increasingly authoritarian government, willing to push its transition towards ‘21st Century Socialism’ by way of broad institutional reforms, controversial economic policies and a hardened political discourse.  

Starting in 2006, the Venezuelan opposition changed gears.  In 2007, the political opposition was revitalized with a vibrant student movement that sought to counter controversial political measures – such as the closure of the TV station Radio Caracas Television – and Chávez’s subsequent failure to pass constitutional reform and provide legal grounds to his reform package.  In 2008, the opposition built an electoral coalition – Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) — to fight the government at the voting booth. Between 2008 and 2015 the MUD contested local and national elections. Notwithstanding unfair electoral contests in Venezuela (see Urosa Maggi’s upcoming piece in this symposium), back then the system afforded the opposition a marginal, but useful opportunity to win. Slowly but steadily, the strategy paid off.  Via the MUD, anti-Chavistas were able to win back and/or keep some local and state city mayor offices and governorships; attain a significant number of seats in the National Assembly (47% in 2010); and increase its presidential vote share from 36% in 2006 to 44% in 2012 (against Hugo Chávez), and to a whopping 49% in 2013 against Chávez’s anointed successor, Nicolás Maduro (Venezuela’s current President).

In 2015, despite an uneven electoral playing field, the opposition won a qualified majority in congress (112 out of 167 seats). Chávez’s death in 2013, economic and security crises, and the opposition´s electoral strategy had made it impossible for Chavismo to stay in power via unfair elections. Faced with the choice of losing office in upcoming electoral contests, or deepening its authoritarianism, the government chose the latter.

The Government’s Response to an Emboldened Opposition

Between 2016 and 2017, Nicolás Maduro resorted to tactics that Chavismo had so far avoided. Refusing to accept the legitimacy of the opposition controlled National Assembly (AN), in 2016, it used the Supreme Court to circumvent the legislature, cancelled a recall referendum, and postponed regional elections. A year later Chavismo used ballot stuffing to elect a regime-controlled Constitutional Assembly that allowed the government to effectively sideline the legislature, purge the government from dissenters, put opposition leaders on trial, and control the electoral calendar. The regional elections held on December 2017 (10 months late) and the presidential elections held on May 2018 (5 months early) where marred with irregularities and fraud: besides overt vote buying, the government threatened voters, banned opposition parties, and engaged in ballot stuffing.

In competitive authoritarian regimes, oppositions are torn between participating in elections and lending legitimacy to an essentially unfair process or abstaining to participate and forfeiting any (small) chance they might have to succeed. Nicolás Maduro´s tactics aggravated that dilemma. They increased the gap between those who advocated for extra-institutional strategies (i.e. pressure from the streets) and those (fewer) who believed that by abstaining the opposition was surrendering important hard-won institutional spaces.

The radical factions believed that partaking in elections was gullible. Even more so after Maduro had used “negotiations” in 2016 and 2017 to stall. The more moderate factions believed that street protests in them of themselves were equally ineffective, especially given the government’s willingness to repress. Between 2015 and 2016 cases of torture increased by 1683%, cases of illegal house searches increased by 2691%, and cases of threats and harassment increased by 1652%. As long as the Armed Forces supported the president, it was unlikely that street pressure in it of itself would force Maduro to resign.

The worsening of the country’s humanitarian crisis, the lack of results (after the 2015 elections or the 2016 and 2017 street demonstrations) and the infighting increased despair and distrust for opposition leaders. In the Spring 2018, 69% of Venezuelans said they were angry, disillusioned, anguished, despaired and scared. Both Maduro’s and the MUD´s approval ratings had dropped below 30%. 70% of Venezuelans were dissatisfied with the opposition coalition. The massive loss in regional elections in December 2018 and Maduro’s insistence to take the presidential oath even though his election was not recognized, reinforced the feeling that these were not “transition times in Venezuela.”  The new year started without great expectations of change, much less of bold opposition actions that could counter the regime’s consolidation of authoritarian rule.

The Opposition’s Comeback:  Juan Guaidó’s Leadership

Juan Guaidó’s coming into scene changed the opposition’s stance and overall narrative.  It allowed the it to push back for the first time since the 2017 protests. Why has this (new) effort been so consequential in Venezuelan politics? 

From the get go Guaidó had several characteristics playing for him. First, he was unknown. Unlike other leaders like Henrique Capriles, María Corina Machado, and Leopoldo López he had no baggage. He had not been part of the early opposition to Hugo Chávez, nor had he been visible in the latest’s attempts to democratize Venezuela. Second, Guaidó was part of one of the more radical parties in the opposition coalition – Voluntad Popular — whose leader Leopoldo López remains in jail.  Yet, he had not visibly advocated for radical strategies. His affiliation made him ideal to the more radical factions; his temperament made him palatable to moderate opposition leaders. Third, Guaidó has a humble background. Leaders like Machado, López and Capriles are part of the pre-Chávez Venezuelan economic and political elites, and perceived by a large numbers of Venezuelans as politicians affiliated with the old guard. Guaidó is not. He is more likely to connect with Chavistas non-Maduristas than his predecessors.

Guaidó (and those who advise him) have also played their cards carefully. Transitions are very uncertain. To successfully transition to democracy, the Venezuelan opposition needs to mobilize enough to increase the costs for Maduro to stay in power, but not too much that it will be too risky for him to step down. In other words, those who oppose Maduro need to a) increase international and domestic pressure for the government to call for free and fair elections, while b) being open to transitional arrangements that could protect those in power from retribution. All of this while keeping the opposition coalition—the radicals who want government officials to pay full price for their crimes, and more moderates who are more likely to accept an agreement—on board.

So far, the opposition has struck a perfect balance. It leveraged the National Assembly to deny legitimacy to Maduro’s second term and position Guaidó as interim president, while signaling openness towards transitional justice. Without breaking the constitution, the opposition was able to get ahead of the government while gaining international and domestic support. As early as January 15, the legislature signed a decree that offered amnesty to low and medium ranked members of the armed forces who withdrew their support to Maduro. In February, Guaidó introduced a bill that would grant amnesty to civilians or military personnel who help defend the constitution.

The interim president has also cautiously leveraged the opposition strength in the streets. Weary of the exhaustion that has shattered mobilizations in the past, since January, he has called for intermittent demonstrations with specific objectives: swearing him as interim president, demand the government to allow the entrance of humanitarian aid, support him while trying to come back to the country, and protesting the blackout that left 70% of Venezuela without energy for more than four days. The manifestations have served their purpose. They have signaled widespread support for Guaidó and the opposition and kept the base energized, without generating exhaustion and/or despair.

Finally, Guaidó has worked in tandem with the international community. He has mustered the support of, yes, bellicose and ideologically aligned neighbors like Colombia, Brazil, and the United States, but also more moderate and more cautious partners like the European Union or Canada. Careful not discard any option, Guaidó has not given in to the calls to invoke Article 187, which would allow an international intervention in the country, but would likely be seen as illegitimate both domestically and abroad.

As with any other transition, it is unclear if this new push will lead to a democracy or deeper authoritarianism. Everything is up for grabs. Despite the renewed energy, the opposition has not been able to break the governing coalition. The government, however, has not been able to split or demobilize the opposition either. Attempts to imprison Guaidó and his aides have been met with enough international criticism to force the government to backdown, and attempts to foster infighting have been met with Guaidó’s political skill. For the first time since 2015, it seems that a transition to democracy in Venezuela has a real shot.

Laura Gamboa-Gutiérrez is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Utah State University.

 Suggested Citation: Laura Gamboa-Gutiérrez, ‘The Venezuelan Opposition’s (Surprising) Rise from the Ashes’ IACL-AIDC (1 May 2019)