How to restore democracy in Venezuela

A conversation between Felipe González and José Ignacio Torreblanca on the situation in Venezuela and the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó’s claim to the presidency

José Ignacio Torreblanca (JI) – Why is it so urgent to act in Venezuela? What is the current situation there?

Felipe González (FG) – Maduro has managed to transform Venezuela into a failed state in record time, without even a war in between. A failed state in which institutions do not represent anything, where tyranny is arbitrary, and where he does whatever he wants with the Venezuelan constitution. He has destroyed the economy and the system of production, has provoked a biblical exodus, and has plunged 90 percent of Venezuelan people below the poverty line, and 67 percent below the extreme poverty line. Every day that Maduro maintains this situation, there will be miles of Venezuelan people fleeing from him.


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JI – There has been debate about the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó’s claim to the presidency. Why is he the acting president and why, in your opinion, is he a legitimate president?

FG – The only legitimate body that remains in Venezuela is the National Assembly; elected democratically on 6 December 2015 when the opposition won with a large majority, securing two-thirds of seats. The international community should base their agreement on that. Since that moment, there has been an evolutionary ‘self-coup’ that Maduro has been perfecting. The Venezuelan constitution specifies that the moment there is a power vacuum in the executive, it is the National Assembly that oversees filling it. This moment has arrived. I believe that the vacuum arose a long time ago, but there was a turning point: the elections that awarded Maduro the presidency on 20 May last year were not recognised by the international community because they were wrongly convened, the government did not have the right to convene them. It was an electoral farce. Thus, Maduro’s legitimacy no longer exists. In that power vacuum, the National Assembly represents the sovereignty of the people and has the constitutional obligation to fill the power vacuum by entrusting the presidency, under the title “acting president”, to the president of the assembly.

I am worried that the conflict escalates and becomes a global conflict     

JI – And once they have secured the broad recognition of the international community, including Spain, what should Guaidó and the assembly do?

FG – Here there is a clash between democratic legitimacy and de facto power that is typical of democratic transitions. On the one hand, there is a legitimate democratically elected power, and, on the other, there is a de facto power. We have evidence that the vast majority of the population favours legitimate power, but the de facto power has the brute force. Ninety percent of Venezuelans, by no means a small amount, want Maduro to go, including a group of the Chavistas. But Maduro has 90 percent of the weapons, both the regular ones in the hands of the armed forces and the irregular ones belonging to the so-called “collectives” who are paramilitary assassins.

JI – How can we get Maduro to peacefully relinquish the presidency and give power to the National Assembly? Should he leave? Should he be offered an amnesty?

FG – Not only has Maduro not given the power to the National Assembly, he has hollowed out its competences. In the period between the election of the Legislative Assembly on 6 December 2015, and the inauguration of the assembly on 5 January, the outgoing assembly, which had retained a third of the seats, changed the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court in such a way so as to have all the subsequent acts of the assembly annulled or declared unconstitutional. Maduro has not recognised the assembly and he is not going to give it power unless there is a negotiation for him to leave or through imposing an isolation which obliges him to leave, one that leads him to realise it is convenient for him and his partners to leave.

JI – So, who holds the key to power right now? Is it the international community, Maduro, the army, the Cubans, the streets, the opposition?

FG – There is a combination of factors, as in all situations of uncertainty. What you call “the streets”, plus the people who have fled or left the country – which is three million people and more continue to leave – they want Maduro to leave. That part is the mobilising force of democracy and legitimacy. In the face of that, what is there? There is the de facto power of Maduro, who is internally supported, at least formally, by the top ranks of the armed forces. Every day they detain more soldiers, middle military cadres, and commanders who are heads of important units, who are then in some cases tortured or imprisoned. As such, there is a decomposition of the armed forces. The air force and navy are more distant from the government, while the land army is more contained and the Bolivarian national police, which is the fourth branch of the army, has had issues. We can say that the top of the armed forces supports Maduro for the moment, but that it is decomposing underneath, and then there are these criminal paramilitaries armed with AK47s, with big weapons, who are the ones causing deaths and repression – those of recent days too, together with a special unit called the FAES. That is the state of play of the different forces at the domestic level. What remains for Maduro at the international level is what he had from the beginning: the support of Cuba (if not the orders from Cuba), which is really the one indirectly directing this. Russia acts as Putin usually acts: he does not threaten to send troops and planes, he sends them directly, as he did in Ukraine and other places. China is much more prudent, and now Turkey has decided to join in, for reasons that are easy to understand in each individual case. In Latin America there is a certain neutrality, similar to the old style of PRI in Mexico, although in truth, Ortega’s support is not very beneficial for Maduro at the moment. He has the support of Bolivia, though Evo Morales did say at one point, “we want to come along with you, but do not take us to the grave”.

The EU must have a serious sanctions policy

JI – Are you worried that disagreements or the re-enactment of a mini cold war between the United States and Russia will block the solution to the crisis?

FG – Yes, it does worry me. I am worried that the conflict, which is very serious for the Venezuelans and for the region, will escalate and become a global conflict. It worries me and that is why I think it is a mistake to take it to the Security Council, as they have just done, as though it were a global conflict. I am concerned that the position of the US – where the rejection of Maduro is the one point that the Democrats and the Republicans agree upon – will become, in the hands of Republicans like Trump or Bolton, a blunder that complicates a democratic solution instead of facilitating it. That worries me. Thus, there is a need to restore a regional dimension to the conflict and the EU should support that regional solution and establish some red lines.

JI – In the region, who will be the positive forces of change for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela?

FG – All the countries of the Lima group, in addition to Canada. They all have the same position; they do not recognise the legitimacy of Maduro, they recognise the legitimacy of the assembly, and subsequently, the legitimacy of the president of the assembly to take charge of the presidency and organise the transition. Guaidó has accurately described the process, in a manner that is extraordinarily lucid and very easy to understand. The usurpation must end, giving Maduro a way out; Guaidó is already trying to do this, including through amnesties. The second step is the transition government. Third step: the transition government must focus on establishing a minimum level of order in the country, but, above all, they must organise elections. Those who observe from a distance think that elections can be organised in 90 days. It is not true. There is no census, no National Electoral Council. They must change the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. There must be elections in the shortest amount of time possible. But this can be nine months, not 90 days. And the fourth point in Guaidó’s plan is the humanitarian dimension. How is it possible? Maduro does not notice that there is a humanitarian crisis, because he is getting fatter, no matter how much he dances. But the population has lost an average of 12 kilos. Twelve kilos. There are a lot of children starving, a lot of misery in the country, the minimum wage is seven dollars a month. As such, these four points proposed by Guaidó should be the roadmap of the entire international community.

JI – How have you perceived the European Union in this process? Do you think it should follow the route of sanctions, freezing funds? What is its role?

FG – The European Union faces difficulties in achieving consensus on topics it does not sufficiently know and, when there are members under direct or indirect pressure from Putin and who do not have a clear position. All the same, I think the EU members quickly reached some basic consensus on interesting points. Maduro is not a legitimate president; and they reached that conclusion very quickly. And so they warned on 10 January that they did not recognise his legitimacy when he assumed the presidency. This is a very important point. Maduro being illegitimate, there is an agreement that the National Assembly is the legitimate one because it represents the people’s sovereignty. Constitutionally, he is called ‘acting’. That is where there has been division, with some I believe influenced by Russia. But the EU is slow to achieve consensus on issues of this nature and, as witnessed in the Middle East, in Ukraine, or with the annexation of Crimea, its capacity to contain Putin’s aggression is very limited. The EU must act according to the minimum points upon which all the members can agree, with the countries that have recognised Guaidó and those who do not recognise the legitimacy of Maduro. It must have a serious sanctions policy. What does “serious” mean? Among other things, freezing Venezuela’s assets overseas so the country can start accessing resources to begin to recover, and not stealing them as they are being stolen by Maduro’s people.

JI – How can Spain help?

FG – Beyond the fact that there is a slight contradiction in declaring Maduro illegitimate and then granting him a period of time to call elections, Maduro needs to be taken into account. Because, even though he is almost always lying, sometimes he radically speaks his mind. For over three years he has been saying that he would never again call elections to lose them, and he has lived up to his word until now. He manipulates the census, manipulates the Electoral Council, manipulates the tribunals: there will never be elections that Maduro will lose if he is the one to call them. Apart from that small contradiction, the criticisms that have been levelled at Sánchez on the domestic level for his management of the matter have two dimensions: one which could be justified by this; and another which seeks to transform the Venezuela question into a matter for internal battles and disqualification. Putting to this to one side, I think that the rest of the government’s management of the issue has been quite rational, attempting to create consensus in the EU. There are other things I do not agree with: “This man is not leftist”, they say. But, please! This is not an issue of left and right, it is an issue of democracy or tyranny, and I do not think we should establish barriers here. The opposition has behaved in an unjustified way and the government has made some procedural mistakes, but on the real substance, we have the same consensus that the big EU countries have. To start with, we agree with France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and then with others. I believe that was what had to be done. Does this delay decision-making? Of course. Imagine the complications the EU is facing with the Brexit process. With the Brexit process alone, the EU struggles to decide where to focus its attention and how to act. But a decision has been reached via a large majority in the European Parliament. Thus, the EU’s behaviour, slow as it is, is a behaviour which progresses in the correct direction. I hope they do not make a mistake now.

​The international community has to say with all clarity that nobody will accept a US military intervention in Venezuela

JI – With the level of economic, humanitarian, social, and alimentary devastation, and the level of political polarisation that exists in that country, are you worried that the return to democracy could spell a democracy so fragile in its capacity to restore quality of life that this fragility could become a threat for the nascent democratic process? In order for democracy to succeed, what should the day after be like? 

FG – I do not believe that the truth must be sacrificed if one wants to restore democracy. It is a painful exercise to tell the country what the real situation is, but it is absolutely necessary. A minimum of six years of petrol exports are required to pay off the public debt. As petrol exports represent the sole real income of the country, it will not take six years, it will take longer. The country must be in over $150 billion of debt. They have hidden all the statistics but the international organisations know that it is above $150 billion. It is also true that they have stolen $300-400 billion directly from petrol and far more sinister activities. Thus, they need to restructure the debt, and they need international support. But the participation of Venezuela in the International Monetary Fund, as with every member country of the fund, has a limit. The IMF, being very generous and with a plan of economic recovery, debt restructuring, a serious monetary policy et cetera, could give $30 billion. For a country with that level of devastation, it is completely insufficient. So, what is left to do is extraordinarily difficult, it requires an enormous effort. We have a government that believes inflation is an invention of capitalism and that the exchange rate is set in Miami and therefore people who earn seven dollars a month – seven dollars a month minimum wage, do not get confused, month, not a day – the people who earn seven dollars a month are in that situation because the dollar’s exchange rate has been decided outside the country. Therefore, the accumulated errors are many and not only has the gross product been devastated. The GDP per inhabitant in Venezuela today is similar to that of 1953. The tragedy is immense. Therefore, the Venezuelan citizens must be informed – if someone tells them the truth they will understand it well enough – that an enormous collective effort will be required for reconstruction, and that that effort should include support for the weakest and most marginalised, ensuring they are not left out of the recovery, and to make sure they benefit from the outset in improvements to living conditions. But the effort is going to be gigantic.

JI – With a different US president, we would not fear that an intervention would go beyond mere bravado, but do you think that Trump's unpredictability could lead us to a situation in which a foolish military intervention materialises or becomes a real option?

FG – I think he is an unpredictable and arbitrary guy and he is also surrounded by guys like Bolton who already conducted the intervention in Iraq and who were the architects of all the war’s lies and who are now threatening again. Bolton’s or Trump’s style most resembles Maduro’s. With another American president, say with Obama, we would not be so worried because he would have institutional respect. But with this man, what the international community has to say, but with all clarity, is that nobody will accept a US military intervention in Venezuela. That’s what must be said very clearly, because it will only make things worse, among other things. Not even a coup d’état is needed in Venezuela. All that is required is the removal of the bayonets that sustain Maduro, so that he do not continue punishing his people. With that he leaves, it does not require anything further: he does not have anyone else! That’s why an intervention and such interferences are so crude. They proclaim it and the Russians capitalise upon it.

This conversation was recorded on 4 February 2019 and was made possible with the generous participation of the Fundación Felipe González.

Felipe González Márquez is one of the key political figures in the history of Spain in the second half of the twentieth century. A major figure in the democratic transition process, he was the third Prime Minister of the Government of Spain following the return to democracy at the end of the 1970s and is the longest serving Spanish Prime Minister, spanning four parliaments and a total of thirteen and a half years.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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