Crisis in Caracas: Why Democratizing Venezuela is an Increasingly Sisyphean Task

Samuel Motzkin, Jan 23, 2024

Venezuela was once hailed as a pillar of democratic resilience. In 1978, it stood among the mere three out of twenty Latin American nations that practiced democratic governance [1]. While the region was plagued with relative instability, over the next three decades, Venezuela remained resolute in its commitment to democratic principles. However, it too was ultimately unable to withstand the recent surge away from democracy and towards authoritarianism. 


In 2004, 54.29% of countries in the world practiced some form of democracy. Today, that number has fallen to just over 50%. The erosion of liberal democracies, democracies where individual rights and freedoms are protected by rule of law, is even more pronounced: in 2009, almost 25% of states were liberal democracies, while today the figure has fallen to 18%. For sixteen straight years, a greater proportion of the world’s population has seen a decrease in freedoms than an increase [2]. Unfortunately, Venezuela was not immune to these trends: its 2018 presidential election was characterized by historically low turnout, voter intimidation and suppression, as well as the suspension of candidates from prominent opposition parties [3]. In an age increasingly characterized by democratic backsliding, Venezuela’s recent opposition primary election represented a beacon of hope for the Venezuelan people and democracy activists because it signaled a potential restoration of the democratic electoral processes that Venezuelans had enjoyed for generations. However, the subsequent undermining of the opposition primary election by authoritarian leader President Nicolás Maduro and his allies, coupled with the lack of global response to their destructive actions, indicates that a lasting resurrection of democracy is unlikely.


A Nation Prime for Change


March 5, 2013 was a transformative date for Venezuelans across the social, political, and economic spectrum. President Hugo Chávez, the 58-year old left-wing populist leader who presided over the country during a 14-year period of economic prosperity, passed away after a long battle with cancer. Masses of lower-class Venezuelans—the main beneficiaries of Chavez’s socialist governing philosophy —took to the streets to mourn their beloved leader in a show of support. At the same time, critics of Chávez, who he often decried as members of the “corrupt elite,” called for unity and an end to the stark divisions that underscored politics during the slip towards authoritarianism at the end of Chávez’s rule. María Corina Machado, one of those critics as well as a congresswoman from the opposition party, declared that “a chapter had closed for Venezuela” and the nation should move forward “tak[ing] profound lessons” from Chavez’s rule [4]. Nonetheless, Chavistas (supporters of the late president) were not ready to put their leader’s legacy to rest just yet and, in the closest election since 1968, elected Chavez’s handpicked successor Nicolás Maduro to lead the country by a margin of merely 1.49%. 


Maduro immediately faced problems that his predecessor never had encountered. Throughout his tenure, Chavez benefited immensely from sky-high oil prices that reached upwards of $140 per barrel in mid-2008. Since Venezuela boasted 18% of the world’s proven oil reserves, Chavez was able to massively increase public spending and fix the price of foodstuffs after nationalizing the industry. However, as prices plummeted during the early stages of Maduro’s leadership, the government’s overreliance on the success of oil meant that it could no longer bring in enough money to import goods and sell them at the fixed prices set by Chavez’s government [5]. Maduro responded to the crises of high inflation, soaring poverty rates, and food shortages by attempting to strengthen his grip on power, cracking down on protestors, arresting and jailing opposition leaders, and barring independent media outlets. Violent crime was also on the rise as exemplified by the high-profile murder of the former Miss Venezuela, which exacerbated tensions between the general populace and Maduro’s government [6]. Despite coinciding crises, Maduro was able to fend off years of violent, large-scale demonstrations calling for his removal from office while consolidating his own power. Besides limiting political and civil freedoms, Maduro effectively abolished the separation of powers established by the Venezuelan Constitution. He packed courts with his supporters and siphoned power away from a democratically elected legislative body to one that served as a proxy for the executive branch [7]. After years of civil unrest that only cemented Maduro’s power, a return to democracy seemed more and more improbable. 


Glimmers of Hope


Yet, in 2019, a fervent optimism was sparked in supporters of the opposition movement as Juan Guaidó, lawmaker in the defunct National Assembly, was appointed head of the legislative body. Guaidó first entered politics as a leading student activist during protests in 2007. The then Chavez-led government announced the intended closure of the country’s last private television network, causing students across Venezuela to take to the streets in protest [8]. In the years that followed, Guaidó found himself under the mentorship of opposition leader Leopoldo López who founded Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), a political party that served as the main anti-Chavez force in Venezuelan politics. Despite being placed under house arrest for politically motivated charges of incitement to riot and terrorism, López continued to organize Voluntad Popular and elevated Guiadó to lead the party after the exile of several senior politicians [9]. Guaidó was then chosen to become president of the National Assembly by mere coincidence; the position of president of the assembly rotates between the political parties annually, and it was Voluntad Popular’s turn to lead the assembly in 2019 [10]. 


Five days after Guaidó's appointment, Maduro was sworn in for his second term as president in an election that, according to both domestic and international watchdog organizations, was marred with vote-rigging and voter intimidation. As thousands protested across the country once again, Guaidó seized the opportunity to declare himself interim president by arguing that Venezuela had no legitimate president and promising free elections. The bold move was backed by many nations, including the United States, the European Union, and Venezuela’s neighbors [11], as they believed Guaidó would protect human rights, provide individual freedoms, enforce constitutional compliance, and restore democracy [12]. Despite garnering initial momentum, Guiadó failed to oust Maduro, who still enjoyed institutional support and the backing of the armed forces. This stalemate led to wavering of both international and domestic support for Guaidó. With his term as president of the National Assembly expiring, foreign states no longer had any legal justification to support Guiadó and some countries began to have economic incentives to cooperate with the Maduro government. Colombia, for example, recognized Maduro’s government in order to regain control of a lucrative fertilizer company that partnered with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company [13]. Finally, at home, Guiadó completely lost the public's confidence, with polls showing that 88% of Venezuelans saw Guaidó as incapable of governing [14]. The dissolution of Guaidó’s interim government last year was supported by other opposition parties and party compatriots alike, and any chance of removing Maduro from power seemingly faded away. 


Nevertheless, in 2023, the Biden administration struck a deal with Maduro’s government, with Maduro promising to lift oil, gas, and sanctions in exchange for a commitment to free, fair, and competitive elections and the release of wrongfully detained political prisoners. With Maduro boldly proclaiming “what is written and signed will be fulfilled” as Venezuela “mov[es] forward progressively,” hope for democratic reform was once again on the horizon [15].


The first step towards free and fair elections was an opposition primary. On May 16, 2023, the Unitary Platform, a conglomeration of opposition parties, announced its intention to hold a primary election to choose its candidate for the scheduled 2024 general election. The leading candidate was the aforementioned María Corina Machado, a longstanding member of the opposition and one of the main figures of the 2014 protests against Maduro. She is a former centrist lawmaker who founded Súmate, a volunteer election monitoring organization and previously was an opposition candidate who was defeated in  the 2012 presidential election. Machado’s outspoken anti-Chavismo stances (including her campaign slogan “Until The End”), ability to connect with voters, and distinct brand relative to other opposition candidates all contributed to her popularity among voters [16]. On October 22, voters went to the ballot box, and overwhelmingly selected Machado to be the opposition candidate. On October 26, the result was certified by the National Primary Commission with Machado taking 93% of the vote. 


Back to Square One


However, even before the primary election, Maduro and his allies attempted to undermine the upcoming democratic processes. At the behest of the government, members of the National Electoral Council resigned in June, paving the way for Maduro to appoint loyalists to the election commission [17]. Further, in June of 2023, the state controller banned Machado from holding public office for 15 years. Officially, this charge was leveled as a result of her support of U.S. sanctions on the Maduro government, her backing of former opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who ostensibly misused government funds, as well as alleged “administrative irregularities” during her time as a member of the National Assembly [18]. Unofficially, however, this declaration gives the government a legal basis to contest a potential Machado win in the presidential election. Additionally, pro-government militias repeatedly threatened Machado and other candidates’ lives in the lead up to the primary. While the election proceeded without interruption (or state support), Maduro’s administration almost immediately sought to contest the legitimacy of the primary election. Just a few days after Attorney General Tarek Saab announced a criminal investigation into the organizers of the primary for alleged identity theft, money laundering, and conspiracy, the Supreme Justice Tribunal suspended the result of the election [19] [20]. Additionally, a member of Maduro’s ruling party who led the negotiation team between the government and opposition parties called the primary “a farce” and stated — without providing any evidence — that the primary commission had engaged in criminal behavior [21].


Machado, for her part, vowed to do “whatever it takes” to steer Venezuela towards a democratic path [22]. In the past, Machado would have had very few methods of recourse; however, in an addendum to the broader deal with the United States, the government and opposition agreed to an appeals process for prospective presidential candidates banned from holding public office. The arrangement permits the filing of an appeal to Venezuela’s top court for reconsideration of the candidate’s ban, but the court is stacked with Maduro allies and there is no timeline for judges to rule on the request [23]. Machado was initially hesitant to file an appeal, as the agreement has no guarantees and challenging the decision could be considered implied acceptance of the legitimacy of the ban, but ultimately decided to appeal her ban. The deliberations of the Supreme Court are still in progress. 


Although Maduro has adhered to the appeals process so far and a recently conducted prisoner swap with the United States, he and his allies have directly violated other key features of the agreement. Still, the United States has not reimposed sanctions. With inflation and immigration shaping up to be key issues of the 2024 U.S. presidential election, the Biden administration is likely to stomach Maduro’s repeated transgressions as a means of keeping oil prices down and reducing the number of migrants [24]. Finally, government officials worldwide have shifted their attention elsewhere as pressing diplomatic and humanitarian crises continue to develop in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. With states seemingly in no rush to punish the Venezuelan government for its wrongdoings and Maduro’s continued institutional, military, and structural support, reinstating democratic principles in a nation that was once South America’s most stable democracy has again been deprioritized, while Venezuela’s emboldened autocrat continues to tighten his viselike grip on power.


Exploring Paths Forward


While the prospect of a future democratic Venezuela is unquestionably grim, it is worth considering whether it is at all possible, and if so, how to get there. To begin, it is clear that Venezuelans want to remove Maduro from power. A 2019 poll showed that about 89% of Venezuelans want Maduro and his Chavismo ruling ideology out of government, a figure that has likely risen in the intervening years [25]. The opposition primary’s relatively high turnout also demonstrates the public’s interest in democracy. While logistical issues and the Maduro administration’s hindrance of the election led officials to estimate that a mere one million people out of twenty-two million registered voters would vote, energized Venezuelans went to the polls in numbers far greater than expected [26]. However, with Maduro seemingly uninterested in relinquishing control, Venezuelans are left with few options to pursue democracy, namely: domestic struggle (revolution, coup, etc.), foreign intervention, or negotiated settlement. 


Revolutions and other forms of extreme civil unrest usually emerge from a mixture of factors including social inequality, political oppression, economic dissatisfaction, and government corruption or ineptitude. Generally, they are also sparked by a catalytic event, whether it be a political assassination, a scaling demonstration, an instance of police or national guard brutality, or even a singular provocative act. While the conditions for revolution in Venezuela certainly exist, and a rigged 2024 presidential election could certainly serve as a catalyst, it's unclear if Venezuelans have the appetite for an uprising after decades of unsuccessful protest attempts. Recent global efforts at revolution also have not had much success. The 2011 Arab Spring, for example, saw anti-government protestors depose authoritarian leaders around the Arab world. While each country had varied results, ultimately, these revolutions led to unstable democracies, new autocratic regimes to replace the old ones, and, in some extreme cases, no change at all. As for a coup d’etat, Maduro still has the support of the Venezuelan armed forces, making a military overthrow of Maduro unlikely, baring radical change. The Venezuelan populace are not too enthusiastic about foreign intervention either. A 2018 poll showed a majority of Venezuelans (54%) against external involvement to remove Maduro [27]. Foreign intervention also requires an interested party strong enough to efficiently depose Maduro. Given the United States’ ugly history of coordinated regime change in Latin America, as well as the Biden administration’s priorities described above, the United States is unlikely to pursue covert or military engagement. If the United States or its Western allies were to get involved, other powerful states who have expressed support for the Maduro government in the past — such as Russia and China — may be called upon to lend assistance to Maduro, which could spark an international conflict. 


Therefore, a negotiated settlement is the unlikely, but  promising path toward successful democratic governance. Negotiated settlements have historically been implemented as resolutions to ongoing intrastate conflict. A series of agreements in South Africa, for example, brought a peaceful end to decades of apartheid-related violence and a transition to democracy. However, brokering a deal to oust a country’s leadership without existing large-scale violence would be unprecedented. As a starting point, the Maduro administration and opposition leader would need a third-party facilitator to streamline negotiations. While the United Nations is a natural choice, the government has long rejected UN jurisdiction in present territorial disputes, and thus could conceivably refuse any UN involvement. Another potential facilitator is Norway, whose diplomats assisted with components of the U.S. deal, including the appeals process. Since Norway chose not to recognize Guaidó’s interim government in 2019, Maduro’s administration has shown a willingness to work with them in the past [28]. Even if Norway is inclined to assume this role, the most popular solution among Venezuelans – 63% would support an arrangement to remove Maduro from power while only 26% would not support it – would still involve intense compromise [27]. For example, any agreement would likely be contingent on amnesty for Maduro and senior administration officials, which may anger Venezuelans who suffered almost a decade under their leadership. A settlement is also dependent on a number of other factors, including whether Maduro is ready to retire and whether the military is willing to accept alternative rule. Furthermore, a deal acceptable to all interested parties would likely take a significant amount of time to craft, which in itself might create future obstacles. Finally, the longevity of a democratic government is not guaranteed. With the number of economic issues, such as hyperinflation, extreme poverty, and food shortages, the incoming government would undeniably face substantial challenges. Failure to meet the moment and restore trust in government among Venezuelans could lead the country back to authoritarianism. Thus, while a negotiated settlement could be the best option available to Venezuelans seeking democracy, it is definitely not an ideal nor a certain one.


As a result, Venezuela finds itself mired in the status quo. During the decades-long slip towards authoritarianism, all attempts to renew democratic processes were stifled, and there is little reason to believe opposition leader Machado’s current effort to hold a free and fair presidential election will result in a different conclusion. Other potential pathways to democracy are unlikely, and even a negotiated settlement — the most promising, innovative solution — is seemingly beyond reach. Without any meaningful alternatives,Venezuela’s political structure remains defined by the immortal slogan of the Chavez and Maduro regimes: “motherland, socialism, or death.”


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[2] Herre, Bastian, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, and Max Roser. “Democracy.” Our World in Data, 2013,

[3] Neuman, William and Nicholas Casey. “Venezuela Election Won by Maduro Amid Widespread Disillusionment.” New York Times, May 20, 2018.

[4] Diaz, Emilia and Juan Forero. “Poor masses mourn Chavez’s death as Venezuela braces for who comes next.” The Washington Post, March 5, 2013.

[5] Grillo, Ioan. “It was once the richest country in Latin America. Now it’s falling apart.” Time, 2016.

[6] “Venezuela rocked by killing of beauty queen Monica Spear.” BBC, January 9, 2014.

[7] Aleem, Zeeshan. “How Venezuela went from a rich democracy to a dictatorship on the brink of collapse.” Vox, September 19, 2017.

[8] Marx, Gary and Tribune Foreign Correspondent. “Student protests inspire anti-Chavez movement.” Chicago Tribune, June 27, 2007.

[9] Sanchez, Fabiola and Scott Smith. “Venezuela’s Guaido leaps from back-bench to center stage.” AP News, January 24, 2019.

[10] Anderson, Jon Lee. “Venezuela’s Two Presidents Collide.” The New Yorker, June 3, 2019.

[11] “Many Latin American governments support Venezuela’s Guaido.” Associated Press, January 23, 2019.

[12] Jones, Sam and Patrick Wintour. “EU countries recognise Juan Guaido as interim Venezuelan leader.” The Guardian, February 4, 2019.

[13] Lowenthal, Abraham, Julia Buxton, Victor M. Mijares, Luisa Acedo, and Steve Ellner. “Why is International Support Falling for Venezuela’s Guiado.” The Dialogue, October 21, 2022.

[14] “El 88% de los venezolanos cree que Guaidó no está capacitado para gobernar, según encuesta.” El Espectador, May 21, 2020,

[15] DeYoung, Karen and Ana Vanessa Herrero. “Biden eases Venezuela oil sanctions after Maduro agrees to elections.” The Washington Post, October 18, 2023.

[16] Franco, Marina E. “What to know about Venezuelan opposition leader María Corina Machado.” Axios, November 7, 2023.

[17] “Navigating Venezuela’s Political Deadlock: The Road to Elections.” International Crisis Group, August 16, 2023.

[18] “Venezuela bars opposition leader Machado from public office.” DW, July 1, 2023.

[19] Sequera, Vivian and Mayela Armas. “Venezuela launches criminal investigation into opposition’s presidential primary.” Reuters, October 25, 2023.

[20] Armas, Mayela and Vivian Sequera. “Venezuela’s top court suspends results of opposition presidential primary.” Reuters, October 31, 2023.

[21] Buitrago, Deisy and Vivian Sequera. “Former Venezuelan lawmaker Machado defends opposition primary against govt criticism.” Reuters, October 24, 2023.

[22] “Venezuela opposition candidate backtracks, appeals public office ban.” Reuters, December 15, 2023.

[23] Cano, Regina Garcia. “Venezuela’s government and opposition agree on an appeal process for candidates banned from running.” PBS, December 1, 2023.

[24] Shivaram, Deepa. “U.S. strikes prisoner swap deal with Venezuela, plus extradition of ‘Fat Leonard’.” NPR, December 20, 2023.

[25] “88.9% de venezolanos quiere que Maduro y el chavismo se vayan ya (encuesta Megánalisis).”La Patilla, March 15, 2019.

[26] Cano, Regina Garcia. “Former lawmaker Maria Corina Machado dominates opposition’s presidential primary in Venezuela.” PBS, October 23, 2023.

[27] Smilde, David. “Most Venezuelans Want Maduro Out, but Oppose Military Intervention.” Washington Office on Latin America, January 10, 2019.

[28] Lafuente, Javier. “Norway and the diplomacy of peace.” El País, February 20, 2023.