“The mainstream narrative on Venezuela goes something like this: the Caribbean nation exemplifies what happens when a majoritarian civil opposition falls victim to violent repression by an authoritarian government at the helm of a pointless “revolution from above”. But if the results of Sunday’s Venezuelan constitutional assembly’s election are true, the theory is now untenable.
According to official figures, more than 8 million voters turned out in favour of a proposed assembly. The assembly will have the power to rewrite the constitution in an attempt to unblock the stalemate between a rightwing-dominated and largely inoperative legislative, and a leftwing executive whose business has faltered thanks to a combination of incompetent measures and plummeting oil prices.
Not only that, the assembly will limit the effects of the decision by the US-backed opposition to boycott production and not engage politically, while inciting reciprocal violence in the streets and inviting the army to join in a coup similar to the failed 2002 one.
This opposition, it should be noted, is dominated by far-rightwing sectors, for whom getting rid of Nicolás Maduro would also mean crushing, once and for all, the rebellions of the past 15 years. Two of these opposition leaders, Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, had their house arrest measures suspended after violating their conditions. López used his Twitter account last weekend, Trump-style, asking Venezuelans to take to the streets and “ratify the 16 July results by force”. Days before, a video had surfaced where he urged the army to rise against the constitutional government, just like the civilian leaders behind the military coup did in Chile back in 1973. Venezuelans are as undeserving of such an opposition as the incompetent Maduro is of succeeding Chávez.
Still, those on the right of the Labour party now pressuring Jeremy Corbyn to condemn their arrest fail to tell us what would happen to someone in the UK or the US who sought to overthrow the elected government by force and inciting violence. They also seem more concerned with finding yet another stick with which to hit their now not so unelectable leader. Their line is the same used on daily basis by the Spanish rightwing press establishment against Podemos, and in France against Mélenchon. Rather, Corbyn and Labour should condemn the Trump administration’s attempt to intervene yet again in the internal affairs of a sovereign Latin American nation.
The assembly will also provide an opportunity for those parts of society who drove the revolutionary process that began in 1989 – peasants, indigenous people, the LGBT community, etc. These are the groups who have been sidelined by both the centralising tendencies of the party of government and the historical indifference of a rightwing opposition that has never shown any interest in extending and radicalising democracy. If the assembly is successful, there may be a renewal of energies from below to relaunch that revolutionary process, which has seemingly stalled. If not, the danger of civil war becomes more apparent.
But given that, should we believe the figures? The opposition says 2.5 million turned out to vote. But its numbers are as unofficial as the 6.5 million it says voted against the constitutional assembly on 16 July, when they themselves consulted citizens on the issue.
That is less than the votes obtained by Maduro during the 2013 presidential election, and much less than the opposition obtained during the 2015 legislative elections. There are other reasons not to trust the opposition: it hasn’t backed its claims with impartial evidence, and it had no neutral observers overlooking its own elections. Still, it stands by its claim to have obtained some 37% of the vote against the assembly.
But there are also reasons not to believe the government: unconfirmed reports that workers voted under threat of losing their jobs, and the violence that took place as the vote happened on Sunday. Still, the government stands by its claim to have obtained 41% of the vote in favour of the constitutional assembly.
We know that in conflict, truth becomes the first casualty, and class conflict is a good description of what is going on in Venezuela. In any case, not even seemingly stable democracies are immune to “alternative facts”. Witness the informational dissonance of the Trump-led White House, which on Monday branded Maduro “a dictator”. Why should we believe Trump on this, while denying him any credibility otherwise? The US rarely gets things right in Latin America. Its record speaks for itself.
So we can choose to believe neither side or, as I propose, give both the benefit of the doubt. If we do the latter, a conclusion forces itself upon us: the rightwing Venezuelan opposition is, by its own admission, unable to rally a decisive majority of Venezuelan voters. The numbers largely coincide with what independent pollsters say: 51% support the street protests led by the rightwing opposition, but 44% do not, and in contrast, 57% still feel sympathetic towards Hugo Chávez. This is no consolation for Maduro. As the oil boom went bust, so went the fortunes of the president: his popularity stands at 22%. That is bad, but not as much as the unpopularity of rightwing leaders from the neighbouring countries which didn’t recognise last Sunday’s results. Mexico’s Peña Nieto is at 17%, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos 14%, and the putschist Michel Temer of Brazil a meagre 5%.
If we believe both the rightwing opposition and the government, it turns out the former still has a long way to go before it can mount a credible democratic challenge against the latter. That may be the real reason why it boycotted Sunday’s elections and keeps calling for continuing street protests, even though it knows this means escalating violence from both sides. It is emboldened by Trump’s support, the Organisation of American States’ partiality, and international backers such as Temer. But it also means that its star may rise and fall together with the fortunes of Trump, Nieto and Temer, as well as isolating an even larger margin of Venezuelans.
The rightwing opposition can’t rally a majority beyond the middle-upper classes even while many Venezuelans, especially the poorer, suffer from very real shortages and economic hardship. Why? There’s only one sensible answer: the majority of them fear the return of the rightwing to power more than the alleged incompetence of Maduro. They know that if the current opposition leadership comes to power, backed by the likes of Trump and the notorious former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the result would be austerity and most likely a civil war as devastating as that of neighbouring Colombia.
• Oscar Guardiola-Rivera teaches international law and international affairs at Birkbeck College, University of London
• This article was changed on 4 August to correct the name of the opposition leader, Antonio Ledezma.”