Can a Strong Message of Justice and Inclusion Lead to a Political Transition in Venezuela?


The political crisis in Venezuela has reached a breaking point. The upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for December 6 threaten to deprive the opposition of its institutional foothold, on which the legitimacy of its demand to establish an interim government rests. The government has managed to hold onto power by taking a hardline approach, refusing to engage in any serious negotiation, and insisting on holding the vote under conditions that observers inside Venezuela and the international community have repeatedly characterized as unsuitable for fair and impartial elections. The tactic, it seems, has largely worked. 

Meanwhile, the opposition has struggled to articulate and unify behind a coherent position, running the risk of heading into the elections divided. Its own hardliners still hang on to an unrealistic hope for an international intervention, adhering to a failed strategy of demanding a “popular consultation” and boycotting the elections. A political solution now depends on the government backpedaling from its recent statement, in which it refused to postpone the elections, and allowing the European Union (EU) and eventually the United Nations (UN) to observe them. The EU has declared that it would be unable set up a thorough observation process in the short time before December 6.

If at some point in the future sufficiently impartial elections can be held, they could lead to a negotiated transition. Such a transition would require the opposition to take a clear stance beyond calling for the removal of the president. This position should be inspired by positive notions of inclusion and participation, which could assuage fears among members of the government about retribution or losing power. It could also complement and strengthen the efforts of several civil society actors in Venezuela that are currently working to bring together different stakeholders and find common ground, despite the difficult environment for dialogue and building trust.

As an important component of this platform, the opposition could acknowledge the exclusionary policies of the Democratic Action (AD) and Social Christian (COPEI) Parties in the period before 1999. Specifically, the opposition could acknowledge the human rights violations committed during and after the 1989 caracazo riots, as well as the 1982 Cantaura, 1984 Tazón, 1986 Yumare, and 1988 El Amparo massacres, and the role that these policies played in them. Doing so could mark a decisive break with the past and the starting point of a new democratic era. It could also help bring Venezuelans who supported the Bolivarian Revolution to understand how the current government’s policies over the last 20 years have excluded people and led large-scale human rights abuses. In its recent first report, the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (FFM) found that the government systematically tortured opponents, summarily executed and killed civilians during social control or security operations, and committed other serious human rights violations. The abundant evidence for these crimes makes a national reckoning, alongside accountability and reform measures, necessary, if not unavoidable.

A truth-seeking process that examines past and ongoing abuses and injustices cannot be a unilateral or partisan endeavor. For such a process to be credible and broadly accepted in a polarized society, it must be inclusive and led by a diverse and representative group of people whom all political and social sectors can trust. Its scope should include not only human rights violations, but the social and economic exclusion that many communities experienced in the pre-revolutionary period and that paved the way for the present political crisis. By identifying wrongdoings and grievances and uncovering their root causes, the process may help Venezuelans from all sides understand each other’s fears and concerns—without justifying human rights violations—and find a way forward. If effective, it can also help achieve justice for victims, redefine the political system, and set the stage for a more equitable and just social and economic order.

Holding perpetrators to account requires formal criminal investigations and independent and fair trials. These efforts, however, must be distinguished from political persecution or vengeance. They should therefore focus on the most serious violations, the systematic crimes reported by the FFM, and dismantling criminal networks that could act as spoilers in a future democracy.

It is not too early to begin considering a transitional justice agenda for Venezuela. Already, several Venezuelan civil society organizations are discussing which human rights violations and historical injustices a truth-seeking process should prioritize. These deliberations could lead to an agreement among victims and civil society about what abuses need to be acknowledged and investigated. The opposition, in turn, could incorporate this agreement into its platform for a negotiated transition and its message of inclusion and hope. If fair and credible elections can be held, they will only be meaningful if there are clear assurances that the parties who lose the vote will not face political persecution or retribution and that they will have a place in a future democracy.

Anti-government protesters face off with riot police in the Altamira neighborhood in Caracas on February 15, 2014. (andresAzp/Flickr)