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  Number 453 | Abril 2019
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Latin America

How does a country escape a gradual dictatorship?

The solution to Venezuela’s political-economic-humanitarian crisis after the Maduro regime’s progressive repression of democracy has become extremely difficult and complicated. And the solution to Nicaragua’s own multifaceted crisis, also involving transitioning from a dictatorship to democracy, is turning out to be similarly arduous and complex. How does a country get out from under a dictatorship? Although there is no manual explaining how it can be done, this author offers important lessons learned from other experiences.

Sergio Bitar

It would be rash for anyone on the outside to claim to have the answer about what to do in Venezuela’s case, with its specific features, even applying lessons learned from Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders, the book Abraham F. Lowenthal and I edited three years ago. The country has a unique history, the processes it has experienced are very complex and the current uncertainty is disconcerting. That makes it all the more useful to compare its situation with other countries that have undergone successful transitions and try to extract lessons to outline a guiding strategy.

What can successful
transitions teach us?


Transitions from dictatorship to democracy have two general characteristics: they are prolonged and they are negotiated, explicitly or implicitly agreeing to a pact. The negotiation or pact needs to be backed up by a solid, mobilized and combative democratic force. Without that force, there can be no serious negotiation. Moreover, all these transitions have their ups and downs and unanticipated events. In his analysis of the uncertainties in the Brazilian transition, Fernando Henrique Cardoso commented that “just when things seem inevitable, the unexpected arises.”There is no manual. Not all countries have the same characteristics nor do they all evolve between dictatorship and democracy the same way. But some common features can be deduced from the study with Abraham Lowenthal. The following are 10 lessons that apply.

1. Fight the government and expand the base of support. The leaders in successful transitions act simultaneously in two directions. First, they combat the authoritarian government by confronting the repression, denouncing the human rights violations and mobilizing the citizenry. At the same time, they exploit every opportunity to move forward, even if only partially, to gain position. In general, they discard maximalist options. The circle increasingly tightens and new possibilities continue to open.

2. Project a positive vision of the future. In all cases, people accumulate increasing indignation and criticism of the existing situation: unemployment, hunger, lack of hope, repression… Nonetheless, while denouncing the shortages, it is indispensable to offer an attractive, optimistic proposal for the future. People’s fear is an obstacle that needs to be defeated.

3. Promote convergence with other opposing forces and create coalitions. One common characteristic of successful leaderships is the effort to find common ground among the different sectors to shape a political and social majority that can underpin a viable and acceptable program for all. This task has been done in different ways in each case, depending on the leadership skills.

4. Create and protect arenas for dialogue. The experiences of South Africa and Poland are illustrative. Meetings, even secret ones, were held to learn the other side’s perspectives, concerns, fears and propositions. Common ground was explored to generate some confidence. Without these arenas it’s difficult to make progress. The viewpoints aired in the media often end up making positions more rigid with extreme positions dominating on both sides. Talking to each other is essential, even in the middle of confrontation between the opposition and the government.

5. Have a Constitution that guarantees democratic rights. In the majority of transitions to democracy the Constitution has been changed to incorporate and guarantee political and social rights, ensuring free elections, the balance of powers, the independence of the judicial branch, the subordination of the armed forces and other aspects that protect coexistence and underpin the social pact. This doesn’t seem to be prioritized in the Venezuelan case, as the Constitution has been proclaimed by all and defended by the opposition.

6. Fully subordinate the military to civil authority. In some cases, the new democratic government had to remain permanently alert to the risk of an incursion by armed forces groups whose aim is to return to the previous situation of military predominance. Two cases are particularly interesting: the coup attempt in Spain by Civil Guards led by Antonio Tejero after Felipe González took office; and the coup attempt in the Philippines by General Fidel Ramos, President Corazón Aquino’s minister of defense. Military intervention has decreased in more recent years given global repudiation and instruments such as the International Criminal Court, which sanctions crimes against humanity.

An intelligence body that can provide information to the new democratic governments is sought in all transitions.

7. Push for a transitional justice that investigates human rights violations and corruption. The countries studied dealt with this in diverse ways. In Chile, a Truth and Justice Commission was created and the crimes were passed to the justice system, with progress made in many trials and the sentencing of human rights violators. South Africa created an authority with a similar name, but it only requested that those accused publicly recognize the truth as a form of reparation to the victims rather than trying them. In Poland, in an agreement between union leader Lech Walesa and then-President General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the newly appointed prime minister defined what was called the “thick line” policy: he would act firmly from that time forward, but without reviewing past cases.

In other countries, such as Spain and Brazil, amnesty laws were enacted.
A decision on this issue is very delicate, and each country has to reconcile two essential objectives: guaranteeing justice and alleviating the grief of the victims
on the one side; and reducing the risk of a setback on the other.

8. Buttress the political parties or create new ones. Dictatorships and authoritarian governments attempt to destroy all political parties, or at least their adversaries. In successful transitions, the lones and have avoided fragmentation by grouping the parties into coalitions. Where that task wasn’t fruitful, the democratic advances were either slow or didn’t happen. An example is Egypt, in which the lack of a democratic tradition resulted in institutions that seemed like parties, but had very little social and territorial base. The majority of those organizations’ leaders thought the fall of Mubarak would give them the chance to be President. As the only organized force was the Muslim Brotherhood, it won the elections, while the secular and liberal adversaries failed to reach an agreement. In little time the democratic drive was frustrated and a militarism was imposed that may last for many years.

9. Promote an economic policy that pulls the country out of its crisis, poverty and inflation, if possible even before the return to democracy. Although this aspect is under-analyzed, transitions to democracy unquestionably involve an interaction between politics and economics. In Spain this led to the Moncloa Pacts, aimed at stabilizing the economy to generate the right conditions to develop the initial phase of democracy. In the Indonesian case, the Asian financial crisis forced President Suharto to resign after 30 years in office. He was succeeded by his Vice President, who was intelligent enough to develop a policy of freeing political prisoners, permitting the establishment and exercise of political parties and eliminating barriers to the freedom of expression.

Frequently transition governments that precede a democratic election play an important role in reducing the magnitude of the crisis, paving the way for the elected government to move forward.

10. Be able to count on international support. International support is effective insofar as there is a domestic opposition that defines the strategy and establishes the forms of external support. All leaders consulted in our study rejected unconsulted foreign interference. In the present day, international support is easier to coordinate. The majority of dictatorships that ended some decades ago fell during the Cold War, when there was less domestic room for maneuver. International support is effective when it is added to a strategy in which the democratic forces aim to achieve a nonviolent way out.

How other dictators have left power: the Philippines, Chile, Brazil, Spain…
The experiences of transition have grown out of the different ways in which the dictator or authoritarian government departed.

In the case of the Philippines, dictator Ferdinand Marcos found himself weakened and beleaguered, so he called for early elections and declared himself the winner, but was accused of fraud. The pressure in the streets in favor of opposition candidate Corazón Aquino became unsustainable for Marcos.

The Church and business groups also supported the change and divisions emerged in the national armed forces. When police chief General Fidel Ramos broke with Marcos and took refuge in a building, Aquino’s backers protected him after Marcos ordered his arrest. Incapable of sustaining himself in power, Marcos was removed from his presidential palace in a US Air Force helicopter and whisked out of the country into exile. Corazón Aquino then assumed office and named General Ramos as her minister of defense, despite his having headed the police during the dictatorship.

In Chile, the democratic opposition had no other choice than to try to win
a plebiscite contemplated in the Constitution but prepared by General Pinochet. That same Constitution established that if the dictator lost the plebiscite, he would remain eight years as commander-in-chief of the Army.
Both those things happened.

In the cases of Brazil and Spain, forces emerged from among the dictatorship’s supporters that were capable of opening up. In Brazil the dictatorship closed off the possibility of direct elections and the opposition had to agree to an indirect election supporting two moderate opposition figures: Tancredo Neves
and José Sarney. In the end, Sarney assumed the presidency after the premature death of Neves. After Francisco Franco’s death in Spain, Adolfo Suárez, who was supported by the king, achieved institutional modifications that made it possible to hold an election following talks with opposition sectors.

…Indonesia, Poland
and South Africa


In the Indonesia case, Suharto’s resignation resulted in him being replaced by Vice President Habibi, who over the course of two years instituted reforms that guaranteed the opposition free elections.

Poland is an interesting case in that it was the first democratic opening to occur before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The 1988 accords permitted the first election, thanks to the Solidarity movement, support from Pope John Paul II and Gorbachov’s flexibility. The European Union played an essential role in guiding the transition, which culminated with the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland. South Africa is the most compelling case. President De Klerk held talks with Mandela even while he was still in prison, and with Mbeki and other leaders who were outside the country.

Venezuela’s unique features


The Venezuela case has an aggravating factor that did not exist in those other cases: the levels of corruption and possible connections with paramilitary groups (ELN) and criminal groups linked to drug trafficking. This reality would induce the Maduro government’s control groups to cling desperately to power out of fear of losing everything and ending up officially prosecuted. For that reason it is essential to design actions to isolate these groups from power.

Nearly all transitions share common features, but some of Venezuela’s are unique and particular. In the first place, the State holds nearly total economic power, leaving very little room for other sectors at the national level to operate with certain autonomy. It is also difficult to find a country that depends so heavily on a single product—oil—in both its exports and its fiscal income, with everything ending up in the State’s coffers.

Second, Venezuela is the only known case of such a colossal economic failure There is no precedent for such a wealthy country ending up with a population that is starving, lacks medicines, is forced to emigrate and is suffering indignity, while also beset by corruption and insecurity.

And third, Venezuelan is not a classic transition from dictatorship to democracy. It is rather a progressive regression from democracy to a dictatorship. Some compare it to the processes in Turkey, Hungary or Poland, hybrid cases in which elections are sometimes held while the democratic institutions are being undermined or else they achieve the separation of powers but repress and control the media.

Possible scenarios for Venezuela


Based on international experiences, four scenarios could be conceived for Venezuela:
1. Resistance by the dictator or authoritarian ruler. Maduro is banking on remaining until 2025. He is attempting some institutional adjustments, including trying to hold regional or other elections with or without opposition participation. The situation is continuing to worsen and the idea is that resignation, exhaustion, depression and hunger can keep the population divided and weak, in the hope only that the constitutional deadlines will be respected. A variant of this scenario is to move toward a situation similar to Cuba’s: political control with an economic-social life that offers no nope and a society that is lethargic. This scenario has very little probability of success.

2. Change at the core of the government’s forces. In this scenario, the armed forces, backed by a group of United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) leaders and other supporters of the original Chávez project, lean toward President Maduro’s resignation and his replacement by a new authority who heads up a transitional government. Numerous factors could boost this solution: the deep and worsening economic crisis, increasing international sanctions, an active opposition with the citizenry in the streets and the discrediting of Chavismo.

Some favor correcting the course before the social damage to Chávez’s legacy becomes devastating and unrecoverable and the social support evaporates even more. The new government would call for elections, attempt some political reforms for credible elections and promote certain economic measures to cushion the fall. Something similar happened in Indonesia when Suharto resigned after 30 years of dictatorship and in the middle of the Asian economic crisis. He was succeeded by Vice President Habibi, who launched some important reforms and held elections, in which he didn’t run as a candidate. Another case occurred in Peru during the interim government of President Paniagua, which avoided an institutional rupture with the fall of Fujimori as Paniagua established acceptable conditions for the election won by Toledo.

3. The government becomes paralyzed. The crisis escapes the control of the government, which is pressured into abandoning power, resulting in a constitutional succession. The new interim head of State constitutes a transitional government that calls for elections and attempts to govern and straighten out the country, emphasizing public order. This scenario, which implies no conversation with those displaced, could lead to an uncontrollable situation if those displaced turn to violence and there is no cohesion between that transitional administration and the armed forces and police.

4. A transition agreed to between a sector of the government and a sector of the opposition, headed by someone acceptable to both. This scenario has some possibility of success if the political capacity exists for dialogue between the two sectors even in the middle of an all-out struggle, but becomes more difficult if there is no such understanding that permits certain guarantees for those leaving power. Pacted transitions include those of Spain, Brazil and South Africa after intense political and social struggles.On a personal level, will Maduro resist, sacrifice himself, escape to Cuba or find somewhere else to go where he will be protected? What is his personality?

Venezuela’s new
reality after January 23


After January 23, 2019, three new realities created a new situation in Venezuela. The first was a change in the correlation of forces between the opposition and the government in which for the first time an opposing power was created with enough strength to challenge the Maduro government. The second was the emergence of Juan Guaidó, a serious and quality leader with a modern style and democratic spirit. And the third was the generation of opposition unity and major international backing for forcing Maduro out and initiating a transition government culminating in free elections.

Rethinking the three scenarios
in the wake of Guaidó’s move


After what happened with Juan Guaidó, who proclaimed himself the interim President based on the Constitution after declaring Maduro an illegitimate usurper, the four scenarios above can be rejigged into one option of hunkering down in the trenches, and two of transition.

1. Hunkering down: In this scenario the forces in conflict remain bogged down for longer and the country becomes progressively more paralyzed. The economic measures and the isolation increasingly asphyxiate the government.
In addition to the domestic unity, the international actors will apply more pressure at the same time as create spaces for dialogue and negotiation.

In this scenario the US “all or nothing” posture is ineffective. It doesn’t divide the military, isn’t viable and even complicates the government that could succeed the current one. The Trump administration’s politicaf logic is simply to get Maduro out, without caring what comes after this one. The impatience of some could unleash a scenario with dangerous consequences. Neither the European Union nor the Lima Group accepts the sending of troops. Managing this situation would require coordinated action by the European Union and the Latin American countries, supporting the Venezuelan opposition. Since the differences could surface later, it is crucial to maintain cohesion and keep alternative plans in mind.

2. Replacing Maduro with other figures from his coalition. This Indonesia-style scenario is based on replacing Maduro with a new Vice President who heads up a transition, giving guarantees of an election and also that Chavismo’s hardcore partisans won’t be persecuted. This solution would present the opposition with a dilemma it would have to try to deal with without creating any split between those who want abrupt changes and those willing to accept a transition initiated by the existing regime, albeit with a new face.

3. Maduro’s departure without a replacement: One possibility is that the person indicated by the Constitution, in this case Guaidó, the National Assembly president, assumes the presidency of a transition government. The other is that the government collapses and Maduro simply leaves, resulting in Guaidó immediately assuming power. In this second case, the new President would have to decide whether to call on sectors of Chavismo and thus create a broader government to underpin the transition, or support himself only with the current opposition forces. The opposition could divide over this issue if it lacks enough unified criteria. And all three of these scenarios obviously depend on what the military does.

The military question


Transitions that reached an explicit or implicit agreement ensuring governability for whoever is elected afterward have been successful. This assumes agreeing to a plan that commits both sectors to a precise program of emergency measures. The question of public order in the middle of a large-scale social and economic crisis requires neutralizing any group that tries to employ violence, which in turn assumes the backing of the military and police forces.

Tthis past February 23 [when the US humanitarian aid shipments Guaidó attempted to bring in were prevented from crossing the bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, there were violent clashes between Guaidó supporters and the Venezuelan security forces. Guaidó called on the military to desert, but without the massive response he hoped for. This] revealed ignorance of military behavior by those who designed the operation.

It is necessary to learn the factors that determine military behavior. Multiple hypotheses have been suggested for the failure of the call for massive desertion: fierce defense of Chávez’s legacy and principles, control of a small group of generals by Cuban intelligence service agents, corruption, fear of losing power by those with interests, and insufficient discontent with the scarcity and suffering of their families.

The military question is decisive to conducting a transition to normality. The lesson from other experiences is to know how to distinguish between the institution, which is permanent, and deviation by some of its members (corruption or human rights violations) that must be sanctioned.

Moreover it is essential, even in adverse conditions, to protect a spirit that encourages coexistence, reduces hate, diminishes polarization and lays out a common task ahead for all of Venezuelan society. Whatever the peaceful solution may be, it is essential for the transitional government to aim at three objectives: first, urgent changes that ensure free elections (National Electoral Council, Supreme Court, voter rolls, access to the media); second, economic and social measures, humanitarian aid and international financial support for initiating recovery; and third, public order and domestic peace.

Latin America’s
support for Chavism


Latin America’s opinion of Chávez’s project has been varying over time into two clearly distinguishable periods: Chávez’s own rule (1999-2013) and Maduro’s (2013-2019). In both, the process had a downhill evaluation cycle as living standards worsened and knowledge of the crisis was propagated abroad more rapidly.

This drop in popularity can be seen in the public opinion polls conducted by Latinobarómetro. Already in 2015, Venezuela was showing the greatest insecurity in Latin America. The same was true for corruption: the perception of the failure of the struggle against this scourge grew between 2015 and 2017. The democratic regression and economic disaster were only perceived in all their magnitude once the deterioration had become substantial, not before.

The results of the elections and the high oil prices exempted Chávez from paying the price of his political failures and international disparagement. Only toward the end of his mandate did concern begin to grow in Latin American countries. Imports began to drop in 2013 as a consequence of the fall of oil exports, the fall in national production and the reduction of foreign credits.

Why was awareness about
Venezuela scant and delayed?


It has been with the Maduro government that Latin Americans have become aware of the domestic deterioration, the grave failure of the Chavista model and the humanitarian crisis. More than the political-institutional disputes, it has been emigrants’ stories about the poverty, the lines, the lack of food and medicines, and above all the criminality that have lit red lights in various Latin American countries.

Venezuela’s experience raises the obligatory question of why there has been such scant and delayed attention. Several factors played a part: the information was insufficient, ideology sedated many and the political debate was so polarized that it left many gray areas. It was the massive immigration of Venezuelans to neighboring and other countries seeking work and peace and telling what they had been through that raised awareness.

With respect to the last two of the above factors, at least three things explain the initially ambiguous view of Chávez’s project. First, the late President strummed the anti-imperialist chord, which still reverberates in Latin America, even if less vibrantly. Second, his Latin Americanist attitude had definite appeal as did his generous support for less developed countries, especially in Central America and the Caribbean. And third, his social policy, the missions and Cuban doctors in the poor barrios were applauded. These actions and his discourse were the living embodiment of the utopian visions of certain social and political groups in Latin America. And his premature death has left the collective memory of him untarnished.

Yet another factor that helped slow the Latin American reaction was the attitude of some governments. These included Argentina with the Kirchners, Brazil with the Workers Party, and the countries of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of America (ALBA): Ecuador with Rafael Correa, Nicaragua with Daniel Ortega, Bolivia with Evo Morales and of course Cuba. The holding of regular elections also favored Chávez and later Maduro, even when conditions were becoming more delicate. The opposition victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections gave the government a new round of legitimacy, showing that democracy was functioning. At that moment, the division of the opposition was presented as an argument to contain the criticisms and inhibit international pressures.

Despite everything, many Latin American sectors intuit that Chavism is still a sentiment/way of thinking that is rooted in part of Venezuelan society. Parallels are frequently drawn between Chavism and Peronism in Argentina. For this reason, many analysts conclude that Chavism must be recognized and accommodated as a political force in Venezuela’s democratic future.

Maduro isn’t of the left


Rejection of the Chávez-Maduro experience has been growing in Latin America in recent years, culminating with today’s extended and crushing critique. Electoral campaigns in other countries in the region are using, and will continue to use, so-called “21st-century socialism” to vilify political sectors who propose social reforms. This happened in the 2017 Chilean campaign, in which the center-left candidate’s proposal was ridiculed as “Chilezuela.” It was also used in Brazil the following year. And while it may seem inapropos, a Chinese businessman who immigrated to Europe due to his disagreement with President Xi’s economic policies drew parallels with Maduro’s when explaining why he considered them negative.

Letting the Chávez-Maduro experience be seen in the clothing of democratic socialism, social change and the struggle against the powerful groups is causing enormous damage in Latin American politics and feeding rightwing positions. This is what makes it so essential for responsible leftists to affirm that Maduro is NOT a leftist ruler. Someone indifferent to and disparaging of the suffering of his people, who promotes corruption and violance, and destroys democratic institutions and culture cannot be defined as leftist.

What is to be done?


The Inter-American Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States was conceived to confront dictatorships and assure democratic advances. But its text was not envisioned for democratic regressions such as Venezuela’s, which are gradual, diffuse and veiled. Such models require other mechanisms to anticipate their advances and contain their damage. It is indispensable to deal early with regimes that foster a regression to authoritarianism and to establish ongoing indices that measure the quality of democracy in our countries. It is essential to sound the alarms in time and hammer out new collective measures to contain and sanction regimes that break with the rule of law. Are today’s measures enough?

Sergio Bitar is a Chilean politician who was a minister under Salvador Allende, Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet. This is the text of his presentation to the Latin American seminar “Search for political alternatives to the Venezuelan crisis” organized by the Conference of Jesuit Provincials of Latin America and the Caribbean (March 3-6, 2019). Edited by envío.

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