Opportunity for Visionary Proposals in Venezuela

Senior Expert, Programs

1/14/2021

The parliamentary election in Venezuela in early December 2020 and the popular consultation organized by the opposition in response have losers on both sides: those in the government and those in the opposition who sought to increase their power and displace the rival party, whom they view solely as an enemy to be defeated. The government failed to obtain the legitimacy it sought. The majority in the National Assembly that the Socialist Party gained in the election does not give the government any more power than it had already been exercising, without counterweights, through the National Constituent Assembly. The regime’s isolation from the international community will continue, and its only chance at attaining relief from sanctions and alleviating the Venezuelan people’s suffering is for it negotiate.

Similarly, the strategy of those in the opposition who insist on the regime’s absolute illegitimacy to claim the interim government for the opposition also failed. In relying principally on recognition by foreign governments for its legitimacy, it has neglected to connect with and represent the people of Venezuela. The recent decision by the European Union not to recognize the interim government, while still pledging to actively work with the opposition to bring about a democratic transition, has left the opposition without crucial support. Despite the evolving context, radical members of the opposition obstinately continued down a path that proved to be unworkable. Some of them pursued insurrectionist tactics, which created a false of hope among many Venezuelans and subsequently led to their disillusionment. 

In Venezuela, there is now an absence of representative democracy and a vacuum of public trust in politicians. However, this situation presents an opportunity for other actors and other approaches, so far disparaged by hardliners on both sides. Civil society organizations, which have earned credibility through their dedicated work addressing the humanitarian crisis and defending human rights, can seize this opportunity. There are indications that they are doing so, by making forward-looking proposals. This is particularly true for human rights defenders, humanitarian workers, and labor and indigenous organizations, whose proximity to Venezuelans from different social backgrounds and regions gives them more legitimacy and a better understanding of the country. Their diverse proposals, which they are still articulating, offer hope for a transition that could be more than simply a change in those who hold political power.

Transitional justice can significantly contribute to the development of a democratic transition in Venezuela. A country where all Venezuelans can live together must first examine its past. It is not possible to think about the future without understanding how the country came to such polarization and cruelty, or without healing the wounds inflicted on so many, addressing the root causes, and holding those responsible accountable. How should Venezuelan society rise to this challenge? To answer this question, it is worth examining the experiences of other societies that have faced similar, though never identical, challenges.

Theoretical discussions aside, there are many approaches to transitional justice, not all of them accurate or advisable. Some approaches emphasize the term “justice,” understood only as criminal justice. They focus on the need for retribution and criminal prosecution, as exemplary instruments to restore the rule of law and punish all those responsible. Other approaches stress the term “transitional,” understood as forgiveness, amnesties, and pacification. Sometimes, the concept of transitional justice is misconstrued somehow as a transaction that allows for impunity. There is also a risk of reducing it to simply the creation of mechanisms that, once implemented, will solve all the country’s problems.

In my experience, it is more useful to understand transitional justice as a process to respond to human rights violations and their consequences and address their causes; this process in turn reduces polarization contributes to a future peace. In line with the state’s obligation to protect and uphold human rights, transitional justice helps a society reckon with past violations, learn lessons from them, and ensure they are not repeated.  

A second but crucial element of a transitional justice approach is that it should consider the massive and systematic nature of human rights violations. Traditional accountability mechanisms based on case-by-case investigations cannot adequately address large-scale, systematic abuses, both in terms of criminal prosecution and reparation. These violations require understanding their deeper causes, the social and political dynamics that allowed them to happen, and their widespread and lasting effects.

Finding shared narratives can help explain how and why these crimes occurred. Comprehensive policies must also be implemented that both deal with the violations as a whole and pay special attention to those that are more serious or that have greater present and future impact. In countries where large proportions of the population have been victims, it is necessary to carefully consider those victims who have been most affected and ensure that they are heard and receive redress. These considerations might help answer questions such as what truth do we need, what kind of justice should we pursue, what role should criminal justice play to ensure that these violations are not repeated, what types of violations require material reparation, what other forms of redress are possible and necessary, and, finally, what lessons should we learn and what measures should we implement to prevent a new cycle of violence and exclusion.

In Venezuela today, it is also essential to ask an additional question: What is discussing transitional justice relevant, when the conditions and timing for a regime change remain unclear? It is true that the social and political context, the strength of the country’s institutions, and the distribution of power are factors that define a transitional justice strategy. That said, there are two important reasons to discuss transitional justice now, reasons why several civil society actors are doing so already.

First, as two Venezuelans I deeply respect have said, the process of a transition to democracy begins when the predominant dynamics in a society are questioned and the changes required to overcome the crisis are examined. These tasks do not have to be deferred until a new government, whether transitional or permanent, has assumed power.

Second, it can help build bridges. Determining how to deal with the past and learning lessons from it can help lay the foundations for a future where everyone belongs. Such efforts could reassure those who support the regime that a negotiated transition will not involve arbitrary mass purges or revenge. It could also appease those who may mistrust a multiparty democracy and change of power because of the exclusion they experienced prior to 1999, by including their grievances among the lessons to be considered. And it makes it clear to those who have suffered human rights violations, either in the past or more recently, that these abuses will be acknowledged, addressed, and never repeated again.

For these reasons, discussing a transitional justice process today could help bring Venezuelans across the political spectrum, who often only perceive one another as adversaries, closer together. It contributes to a climate favorable to negotiation, one that is not based on denials of wrongdoing. It can lead to a common ground for those divided by justified mistrust and resentment. In short, it can help build a Venezuela where everyone has a place.


PHOTO: A man waves the Venezuelan flag in the town of Mucuchíes, in the State of Mérida, Venezuela. (Henry Moncrieff Zabaleta)