Maduro, The Sequel: Can Venezuelan Democracy Be Saved?

In Caracas on Jan. 10
In Caracas on Jan. 10
Arlene B. Tickner


BOGOTÁ — The Lima Group, a multilateral body of 14 American countries focused on resolving the institutional and democratic standoff in Venezuela, has declared Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's new term in office illegitimate, taking the firmest position so far on his conduct as ruler of Venezuela. But the group needs the support of more regional actors.

Venezuela's democratic, humanitarian, social and economic crisis is begging for urgent attention, but its complexity has also produced a dead-end for now.

The recent refusal of Lima Group members (except for Mexico under the socialist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador) to recognize Maduro's reelection, and their threat to review diplomatic ties with his government among other measures, represent an unprecedentedly tough regional posture vis-a-vis Venezuela. The Chavista or Bolivarian regime has in turn been preparing for international isolation since the fraudulent elections of May 20, 2018. So far 47 governments have refused to recognize the election results and withdrawn their ambassadors and diplomats from Caracas.

Maduro enjoys the surprising support of 20% of Venezuelans.

Cuban advisors have been key in managing the regime's image abroad, depicting it as a victim under siege from "Yankee imperialism", and in keeping control of growing domestic chaos. At the same time, support from Russia and China have given Maduro some financial leverage despite a dramatic fall in oil production and selective sanctions imposed by the U.S., Canada, the European Union, Switzerland and Panama. Maduro also enjoys the backing of the armed forces and security services, and the surprising support of 20% of Venezuelans. This context and the opposition's inability to unite under the same banner have led some to consider foreign intervention or a coup as the only ways out of the impasse, though both options would be not only politically deplorable but they could also make the situation much worse.

It seems there is only one possible path, namely to seek suitable conditions for talks and use intelligent diplomacy to restore democracy and the rule of law. The idea of "smart power," which U.S. academic Joseph Nye described as a mix of hard (coercive), and soft (persuasive) power, has been in use for some years now in international relations. Venezuela precisely needs a mix of hard and soft policies for regional and international measures to be constructive.

Maduro in Caracas on Jan. 11 — Photo: Avn/Xinhua/ZUMA

A recent report by the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S. rights think-tank, offers some clues as it advocates proportional doses of pressure and dialogue. While it is crucial not to recognize the regime as legitimate, cutting diplomatic ties would impede communication. And while economic sanctions must remain in place, they cannot worsen the conditions of ordinary Venezuelans and there should be a willingness to lift them in certain conditions. The more the debate on Venezuela becomes international the better it will be. But for obvious reasons, the U.S. must remain on the margins while Russia and China require assurances their debts will be repaid in any transition scenario.

In addition to taking the debate to the United Nations (and not just the Organization of American States), there must be support for the efforts of credible intermediaries like Mexico, Uruguay, the Dominican Republic and the European Union. From the "smart diplomacy" perspective, and beyond the specific strategies required by the delicate relations between Colombia and Venezuela, the Colombian President's two cardinal errors so far have been to try (in vain) to bring about a collective severing of diplomatic ties, and to harmonize positions on Venezuela with those of Washington.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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