I start with a quote:
“The evil that one endures patiently because it seems inevitable becomes unbearable the moment its elimination becomes conceivable”
Alexis de Tocqueville
and the title of a book by Jorge Luis Borges: “The garden of bifurcation paths” from which I simply borrow the analogy of what the title conveys.
Predicting what will happen in 2016 in Venezuela is a guessing game that requires understanding all of the possible varieties of bifurcations that are possible in the decision making process of both what the Government will do and what the opposition will do. And guessing at all of the possible variations and possibilities is simply an impossible guessing game.
However, if we go back to the quote above from Tocqueville, one can simplify the guessing game to its conclusion: At this point in time, the inevitability of Chavismo in the future of Venezuelan politics and Government is no longer a given. A crack was opened in the Government’s dam and the people now realize that it is very easy to open new cracks that will simply bring the dam down. And the stubbornness or blindness exhibited so far by the Maduro administration only helps in accelerating its demise. As Tocqueville says, the ill has diminished with the victory on December 6th. by the opposition, but the sensitivity to it has increased. And I would add that it will increase dramatically, if the Government fails to act on the economy.
And yes, the most likely outcome is Maduro’s departure, the question is whether he will bring down Chavismo with him, or whether Chavismo will sacrifice him for the benefit of the Bolivarian revolution. The longer Maduro and his closest advisers insist in radicalization and confrontation, the higher the probability that in the end his administration will crumble and he will bring down Chavismo with him.
But the path is not trivial.
But let’s start at the beginning: Chávez died, the Government did hold elections and recognized the victory of the opposition with a qualified majority.
That is an already explosive combination when you add to it that the Venezuelan oil basket is below US$ 30 per barrel for the first time since 2004.
But the first three thoughts are more important: Chavismo is where it is because Chavez died, decided to anoint Maduro, not the brightest light bulb in the Chavismo universe (with small caps), and for reasons that have not been made explicit, accepted to hold the Parliamentary elections and its defeat. Whatever these reasons were, and given that the poll numbers were clear, the three facts above have a very important significance: Within Chavismo, the moderates imposed their views over the radicals on the results and unless the radicals decide to get rid of the moderates (which may be hard to do now, as well as the worst thing they could do) there is no turning back and the new National Assembly will take over on Jan. 5th., even if there are attempts to bar the entrance of the new Deputies to the Assembly building.
Between now and then we will continue to hear about null or blank votes, but given that the Chavista controlled Electoral Board established the rules, that Chavismo won where these votes were largest and that that is not a cause for contesting an election, there is little that can be done. Ironically, the whole Electoral Board has been on vacation since Dec. 12th. and will not go back to work until Jan. 3d. Contesting the results because of too many null votes could backfire for Chavismo, given that the opposition could also benefit in the process in different circuits.
Thus, Chavismo will focus for now on illegally naming the twelve Supreme Court Justices that are currently vacant. Illegally, because the Supreme Court Law establishes the periods and conditions for the pre-selection of the Justices and under no condition can naming them be a topic of “urgency” which is all you should consider during extraordinary sessions. Furthermore, a team of lawyers is legally challenging each of the nominations, which will create another violation of the law if it is not considered and blocks their nomination. If Chavismo bypasses all these, the legal case for removing these Justices becomes even more solid.
Meanwhile, it is clear that there is strong dissent within Chavismo. Maduro had promised to change the Cabinet, said the military will go back to their military posts, but neither has yet to happen. If the “moderates” win, watch the military stay in the Cabinet. So far, lengthy days of discussions have yielded no truce, but the radicals are not winning.
The opposition has not shown a lot of unity either. It would have been very positive for the opposition to say who would be the President of the incoming Assembly by now. Given that there are supposedly two candidates (none my favorites for different reasons) it would have been nice to have made the announcement by now. If every step going forward is going to take this long to be decided, one has reasons to worry.
So, between now and Jan. 5th. there will be few major happenings, as Venezuela is already going on vacation. I certainly hope opposition leaders will stay working this year, rather than give all of the space to Chavismo to instill fear on those that voted against it.
And thus we get to Jan. 5th.
The first question is what will happen during the installation of the National Assembly. While many expect the worst, the signal that Chavismo will send if it does not allow the new Deputies to take their seats is too negative. Given that the moderates seem to be gaining the upper hand (elections, recognition of win) it seems today as if there may be isolated incidents of violence, but the Assembly will begin functioning on that day.
This alone will give the opposition a bigger voice, larger visibility and presence in the media. It is not only a matter of having ANTV to broadcast the message, but by allowing all media (including Chavista media) into the Assembly meetings, they will have a much larger placement in media.
The opposition should be forceful but conciliatory, giving the message at every step that it will legislate for all. But it should clarify at every opportunity that economic policy is still in the hands of the Government. But unity and peace should be at the center of its message, including asking the Government to talk.
At this point, the bifurcations are determined by what the opposition will do. In particular, these four important paths have to be determined in order of priority:
-The Amnesty Bill
-Removing the new Justices if the Government is set in its path of naming them before Jan. 4th.
-Choosing between a recall referendum or a Constitutional Amendment to change the Presidential term.
-How can the Assembly influence economic decision making going forward?
-How to go about controlling and obtaining information from the Government.
The first two issues lead to immediate confrontation if Chavismo decides to confront them head on. My feeling is that the Amnesty Bill will be the first item on the new Assembly agenda. Maduro has threatened not to obey it, but it is a Constitutional prerogative (Art. 174, numeral 5) that the Assembly can issue such a Bill. In fact, the Constitution even bars such a Bill (Art. 74) from being considered as a referendum. Were the Judicial system to refuse to free those granted amnesty, they would have been kidnapped by Maduro, and everyone involved in the process could be suspended and censored.
And here is where the Constitutional clashes begin. In order to suspend anyone the “Moral Cuncil” has to approve it, but some of the same people involved in the decision to free the prisoners are in that Council. Moreover, the Government could send the Bill to the Supreme Court, the same Supreme Court whose members, particularly those in the Constitutional Hall, will be questioned in their legality by the Assembly. And who can resolve this case, since the new Justices would not be able to decide on their own case and have to recuse themselves?
There seems to be no way out of this logjam, if Maduro decides to confront.
Another decision is whether to attempt to recall Maduro or not. As I noted in previous posts, if the Dic. 6th. election had been a recall vote, the opposition would have barely won by 139,000 votes. (It needs to obtain at least the number of votes Maduro obtained in 2013). But it may not be the same for someone to vote for opposition Deputies as a protest, than to vote against Maduro being removed from office. Many may be reluctant to do so, they wanted to send a message to Maduro, but not necessarily remove him. And it was close.
A less confrontational path may be to propose a Constitutional Amendment, which also requires a referendum, changing the Presidential term to four years with only one reelection. (currently six years and indefinite reelection) In this manner, you are not saying Maduro has to go, but rather, Maduro’s completion of Chávez’ term ends in Oct. 2016 and he will have to run fto get reelected. This may be a much more attractive way for disgruntled Chavistas: Maduro has a few months to improve things and if he doesn’t, he will not be reelected.
While it is not the job of the National Assembly, the economic is foremost in people’s minds, as scarcity is the norm of the day in Venezuela. In fact, people say that lines are disappearing, simply because there is nothing to buy. But economic policy is the domain of the Executive branch, so what can the National Assembly do?
The Assembly could revoke some Bills, like the Illicit Foreign Exchange Bill or the Price Control Bill. But solving economic problems requires looking at the overall scheme of things. Tinkering with a few Bills may simply have unexpected consequences in the order of things. In terms of Bills, the Assembly may use the threat of revoking or changing them as a way of getting the Government to negotiate.
The budget is one area where the Assembly does indeed have a say. The 2016 budget has already been approved, but it has been a tradition in Venezuela (since way before Chávez) that the budget Bill is irrelevant and numerous “additional credits” are approved during the year. If it is true that the Government plans to devalue soon, something I am skeptical about, to disburse the extra Bolívars generated by this devaluation will require approval by the National Assembly. Thus, the Government gains nothing by devaluing if it does not collaborate with the Assembly.
And without its approval, it will be hard for Government officials to spend money, because they are individually responsible in the face of the law, at a time of a changing political landscape, which implies that they could face corruption charges for spending money that had not been approved. And this would apply all along the line of expenditures from the National Treasurer, to the Ministers and below.
The Assembly can also ask more transparency from Ministers, requesting information and data. If a Minister does not comply with the request, he can be censored by three-fifths of the Assembly, which implies his removal from office. The same applies to the Vice-President (Art. 187, numeral 10 of the Constitution)
All of the above will evolve differently depending on the order in which it happens. The reason to be optimistic, is that as Toqueville said, the people endured Chavismo until it lost, now they will find it unbearable at every step. The reason to be pessimistic is that as a physicist, with published papers on chaos, I also know that too many bifurcations lead to chaos.
Hopefully, we will only have a few…