The lull in the street battles that raged across many of Venezuela’s cities this spring belies the violent civil conflict still threatening the country. From February to June, dozens of people died, hundreds were wounded and several thousand more were detained during conflict between protesters and government security forces.
Repression, exhaustion and disorganization have quieted protesters for the moment, but they will certainly return given the government’s failure to address the causes of the country's polarization. With its vast oil reserves — by some measures the world’s largest — and its complex network of regional relations, Venezuela’s meltdown would be a disaster not only for its people but for the entire hemisphere.
Hugo Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, has largely clung to his controversial policies, worsening the country's multifaceted economic, social and governance crises. Recent opinion polls show that President Maduro is losing popular support, some reporting a 15-point drop since the April 2013 election. Most cite the deteriorating economy, but unrelenting criminal violence and corruption have also affected his standing.
Venezuela may have the world’s highest inflation rate, and real wages are declining. Shortages of vital goods, including food, medicine and spare parts for cars and machinery, have reached unprecedented levels. Its main cities are some of the most violent in the world, with Caracas listed by the United Nations as having the second-worst homicide rate worldwide. Public services — including electricity, water, transport, education and health — are dire and getting worse. The government has — so far — offered little to address this state of affairs.
Popular discontent is compounded by a parallel deterioration in the quality of Venezuelan democracy. The institutions that should serve as safety valves for popular anger — the justice system, the electoral authority and even the media — are dominated by the government. Anti-government dissent is branded as treason.
The opposition is torn between engaging via the ballot-box (despite its distrust of the institutions) or taking direct action on the streets. Neither of these approaches has won over that crucial part of the population that wants change but fears a return to the situation in the 1990s before Hugo Chávez came to power.
The level of distrust between government and opposition is so high that they won’t be able to resolve their differences without outside assistance.
The good news is that, on paper at least, they agree that the current (1999) constitution contains the required framework for any settlement — a set of mandated neutral institutions to conduct elections, enforce the law and rule on legal disputes. But it is precisely those institutions that the Chávez and Maduro governments have come to dominate. With almost all — from the electoral council to Supreme Court — up for renewal, the appointments process offers a road back to restoring their constitutionally mandated neutrality, and perhaps a way out of Venezuela's crisis.
The bad news is that the government has refused to relinquish control over that process.
This is why it is vital that the international community overcome its reluctance to turn the struggling dialogue process, initiated in May by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Vatican, perhaps with experienced U.N. help, into a serious conflict resolution mediation.
International mediators need to have a virtually permanent presence in Caracas to persuade both sides to overcome their internal divisions and offer immediate time-bound proposals for replacing the current members of the electoral council and other independent agencies with qualified and respected individuals and then monitor compliance.
Ending detentions and the judicial constraints on released detainees, and disarming armed groups on the government side and renewed public commitment to the constitution on the part of the opposition would contribute to establishing a framework of trust that has been sorely lacking.
Without these actions, there is great likelihood is that violence will break out again, the quality of Venezuelan democracy will deteriorate still further and regional instability will grow.
Mark Schneider is senior vice president and special adviser on Latin America for the International Crisis Group, which just released a report, “Venezuela: Dangerous Inertia.”