CIVICUS speaks with Feliciano Reyna, founder and president of Acción Solidaria, a Venezuelan civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1995 with the mission to contribute to reducing the social impact of the HIV epidemic. As a result of the multiple crises facing Venezuela, Acción Solidaria has expanded its scope of action and provides medicines and medical supplies to wider vulnerable populations.
How has the current crisis come about in Venezuela?
A process of dismantling the rule of law has taken place over several years and is still ongoing. The judiciary has long ceased to be independent and now operates according to the interests of the government. Added to this is a high level of corruption. Many documents and reports, such as a recent one by the United Nations (UN) Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, describe how a non-independent justice structure was put in place, taking advantage of the opacity of public data and discretionary state management.
As a result, many people, acting in their own interest, destroyed the economic and productive apparatus. Nowadays the Venezuelan economy is 20 per cent of the size it was in 2013. This has impacted on poverty levels, the quality of public services and the resulting lack of protection.
An initial period of enormous income, lasting many years, allowed for a great waste of wealth, with resources reaching the major groups that supported Hugo Chávez’s government, from 2005 to 2013. But money was just spent on individual benefits, not invested in public services. Thus, little by little, the public sector was left in a state of total abandonment: hospitals, roads, lighting, electrical system, water distribution. Everything is pretty much destroyed. There are about four million people who cook with firewood or charcoal because they don’t receive gas. Where I live, we get water once a week for 24 hours, and sometimes we don’t get water for two or three weeks.
There was a major shift in the global economy, with a sharp drop in oil prices coinciding with Chávez’s last days in office. When Nicolás Maduro took power in 2013, the fragility of a regime largely based on Chávez’s personality was exposed. Maduro’s victory triggered political protests because his mandate was questioned, and very harsh repressive practices were adopted in response. The situation has deteriorated ever since, leading to the current human rights crisis. CSOs have documented arbitrary detentions, torture and cruel treatment under detention. There has been a sustained attack on dissent and political opponents. Anyone in a position of power who is viewed as a political threat is taken out of play.
The years between 2014 and 2016 were terrible. In addition to human rights violations, there was widespread harm caused to the population in terms of health, nutrition, access to water, education and other rights. As the economy deteriorated, there began to be many social protests, not for political reasons but regarding income, lack of resources, power cuts, lack of transportation and public services, and so on. With two major exceptions – the 2017 and 2019 protest waves, in which people expressed political grievances – the vast majority of protests have been social protests, not ideological ones, through which many people who ultimately supported and voted for the government expressed their discontent.
While the attack on opposition and dissent has driven many into exile, economic shortages have led to a massive emigration wave. More than four million Venezuelans have emigrated, including many professionals, teachers and doctors, further weakening service delivery systems.
What is the context in which civil society works?
There state has been greatly weakened and is unable to control all the territory under its jurisdiction, so it has handed over control to other groups. Power is increasingly in the hands of local parastate actors who enjoy small bubbles of well-being within the context of immense poverty in which the vast majority of the population lives.
Because of the weakening of the state and the deterioration of the oil industry, which has always been the main source of national income, the government has opened some spaces for a freer economy. That means that in order to serve the populations we work with, we have been able to import medicines and supplies thanks to international cooperation. Our international donors send us supplies or pay for transportation so that we can receive them, using a door-to-door delivery system.
Since 2017 Acción Solidaria has brought in almost 240 tons of aid. We have grown from nine staff in 2016 to 40 in 2021. Every week about 120 people come to the offices of Acción Solidaria to seek medicine. Most of them are women and people with very little resources, over 55 years old. The things they need may be available in the parallel economy, but at prices they can’t afford.
But the environment for civil society remains a high-risk one. Last year we experienced a raid by the Special Action Forces, the most fearsome command of the Bolivarian National Police. What they did to us was not an official operation but a criminal action. CSOs doing human rights advocacy are criminalised, and CSOs conducting humanitarian action face serious problems of access and are subject to extortion by these autonomised groups and paramilitary actors. We have become targets not because we are opponents or dissidents, but because we have coveted resources.
One colleague of ours was imprisoned 160 days ago and five comrades from an organisation that works alongside the UN Refugee Agency were imprisoned for a month in a military facility.
As the electoral process was underway, the government’s information networks among the population seemed to have become aware that government programmes – which transfer the equivalent of about US$4 a month to their beneficiaries – could not compete with the nearly US$60 that humanitarian organisations were transferring to people in their target populations, without demanding anything in return, simply as part of the humanitarian response. So they immediately stepped in and suspended the 38 humanitarian aid programmes that were making cash transfers.
Following the elections, the transfer ecosystem has started to begin again, but so far only transfers from the Food and Agriculture Organization and UNICEF have been reactivated.
How much popular support does the Maduro government have left? Did it have enough to win the November regional elections, or did it resort to fraud?
In November 2021, regional elections were held to renew all executive and legislative seats in the country’s 23 federal entities and 335 municipalities. The official turnout was just over 40 per cent, and the government won 19 governorships, compared to four won by the opposition. The government also won 213 mayorships, but various opposition groups won 121, a not insignificant number.
The conditions of electoral competition were set up well before the selection of candidates, the campaigns and the voting took place, as new members to the National Electoral Council (CNE) were appointed. The CSO Foro Cívico had proposed names of independent candidates for the CNE: people with a strong electoral background who could build a bridge of dialogue with the people in government who wanted a less authoritarian rule. This resulted in a more balanced CNE, with one independent rector and one from the opposition among the five full members, and three out of five alternates proposed by civil society. This allowed us to expect an election with greater legitimacy than previous ones.
The electoral process was very tense. While there was no fraud in the sense that voting figures were changed, there was a lot of pressure and obstacles to prevent opposition supporters from voting. Leading opposition politicians were disqualified and unable to stand as candidates. The conditions in voting centres, including schedules, were altered for the government’s benefit, and many people were brought out to vote, despite the fact that the government no longer has the same mobilisation capacity as in previous elections. Turnout was low for several reasons: because millions of people have emigrated, and because many popular opposition figures were not taking part in the election.
The opposition also bore a great deal of responsibility for this, because it viewed the elections with a lot of suspicion. Many of its key spokespeople were opposed to participating, and it did not reach the kind of broad agreements that would have allowed it to win as many as 10 or 12 governorships. In part, its growth was limited not just by the obstacles imposed by the government, but also by its own inability to reach an agreement.
Still, it is important to emphasise that the playing field was not level. The opposition could have won more governorships than it did, but there was a clear limit to this. This was seen in Hugo Chávez’s home state of Barinas, which the government could not afford to lose to the opposition. An opposition candidate clearly won there, so after the fact the Supreme Court ruled that the winning candidate did not actually meet the conditions to be eligible to compete, and ordered a rerun.
Faced with these limitations, which were foreseeable, there was a part of the opposition that from the beginning opposed participating in the elections and left the way open for many pro-government victories that might not otherwise have taken place.
How consolidated is the Maduro regime, and what are the chances that a democratic transition can take place?
A democratic transition does not seem to be an option in the short term. The opposition is very diverse and is dispersed both programmatically and in terms of its institutional approach, so it is questionable whether it would be able to govern if it had the opportunity right now.
What lies ahead of us is a long trek through the desert. The government suffers from many weaknesses, but it has the support of China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and a lot of political support from Cuba and other countries in the region, as is apparent in the UN Human Rights Council. Maduro’s government has adopted a deft approach in the image of these supportive states: despite corruption and lack of transparency, it has allowed an opening in the economy while keeping its repressive behaviour intact.
The international support that the government receives is important and has been systematically underestimated, while the support received by the interim government led by Juan Guaidó has been overestimated. It has been said that he has the USA and 60 other countries on his side, but those who support him with real actions are in fact much fewer.
For many in the opposition, the interim government has itself been a big problem, partly because it became associated with the Donald Trump administration, and partly because since the interim government was established what it did became the only thing that mattered, and the space of the National Assembly, which had enjoyed broad popular support, was abandoned.
The interim government was prompted on the basis of Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution. Since by virtue of his fraudulent re-election in 2018 Maduro was not recognised by the opposition as a legitimate president, the opposition-dominated National Assembly proclaimed its president, who at the time was Juan Guaidó, as interim president of Venezuela. I think that the opposition should have continued to work through the National Assembly, an elected and legitimate body whose presidency alternated between the parties with the most votes. Evidence of corruption could have been collected and mechanisms sought to protect the country’s assets with the help of the international community.
Instead, the opposition named itself as a legitimate government without having any control over internal processes. And when it took over, it set out expedited conditions and deadlines, demanding that Maduro should first leave office so that the interim government could constitute itself as a transitional government and organise free elections.
The choice of the opposition to proclaim an interim government was the result of it underestimating the government’s forces and overestimating its own. When expectations were not met, as was bound to happen, disaffection with the interim government began to grow. There is still an enormous desire for change, because things remain bad for the vast majority of the population, but the hope that this change would be achieved through the interim government has faded.
What kind of support should the international community provide to facilitate a democratic transition?
What we would like to see from the international community is a multilateral, flexible and creative approach. The change of administration in the USA has been extremely important because the approach of the Trump administration was unilateral and overbearing. Fortunately, the Biden administration appears to adhere to a multilateral approach and to include Europe, Canada and other countries in our region.
Regarding Europe, it was very important that the European Union sent an election observation mission for the 21 November elections, as it was for the UN and the Carter Center to send their election experts. The UN also has essential contributions to make in humanitarian and human rights matters, both in terms of mobilising resources to address the humanitarian emergency in the country and to support migrants and refugees across the region, as well as with regard to the human rights violations that continue to occur.
The international community must listen to civil society and pay attention to the grievances of the people who are directly affected by the measures that external actors take in relation to Venezuela. Many of the sanctions that have been imposed on the government, such as the US secondary sanction that penalises the exchange of oil for diesel, end up not affecting the government, which has alternative courses of action, and instead harm users and consumers, ordinary people whose already complicated lives are complicated even further.
If this part of Venezuelan society were listened to, it would be possible to think of alternative policies to generate spaces for negotiation and agreements that would allow us to return to the path of democracy and human rights in a non-violent manner.