Venezuela, Nicaragua… We should have seen it coming

The political and human rights crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua were predictable. It may have been preventable too, if media, multilateral institutions and governments had reacted to the obvious and documented warning signs.


  • Christopher Sabatini

    Dr. Christopher Sabatini, is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and was formerly a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. Chris is also on the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU, the Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, and of the Inter-American Foundation. He is also an HFX Fellow at the Halifax International Security Forum. He is a frequent contributor to policy journals and newspapers and appears in the media and on panels on issues related to Latin America and foreign policy. Chris has testified multiple times before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2015, Chris founded and directed a new research non-profit, Global Americas and edited its news and opinion website. From 2005 to 2014 Chris was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s rule of law and Cuba working groups. Prior to that, he was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a diplomacy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance. He provides regular interviews for major media outlets, and has a PhD in Government from the University of Virginia.

If, as Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle said, economics is “the dismal science,” then political science must be its unheeded, ugly step child. While many political scientists may have failed to foresee the collapse of Soviet Union, the vast majority did see that the consolidation of power and politicization of the state in Venezuela and Nicaragua would come to no good end.  And yet observers and policymakers appear shocked (shocked!) by the body count in both countries and the lack of a clear, peaceful end to the crises.

Even if it had heeded the warning signs, could the international community have actually prevented it? I’ll get to that in a second. Spoiler alert: It’s hard to say.

First, though, was the inescapable evidence of political decay that was ignored or downplayed.

For decades, political scientists had been analyzing and cataloguing the accumulation of power and the decay of institutions in Venezuela. Whether they labeled it competitive authoritarianism, authoritarian populism or just an out-and-out dictatorship, the writing was on the wall years ago that the unfettered crushing of the checks and balances on executive power and independent political space was a one-way, dead-end street. The same was true of the government’s reckless, profligate economic policies: eroding the independence of the state oil company, PdVSA, and the central bank; capriciously nationalizing industries; maintaining a multiple exchange rate that, rather than improving access to cheap consumer goods, enriched the well-connected; and spending the short-lived oil windfall like a drunken sailor on a series of unsustainable so-called poverty alleviation programs. (In the end the whole bundle of economic policies was more of a poverty creation program, with the poverty rate in Venezuela, according to The Guardian, standing at a whopping 82 percent.)

The same is true with Nicaragua. Ever since Daniel Ortega formed a pact with outgoing former president Arnoldo Aleman, the country has been heading off a political cliff.  The so-called El Pacto (The Pact, for non-Spanish speakers) allowed Ortega to return to the presidency in 2006 with only a plurality of the vote, eliminate third party opposition and appoint political judges. In return it also gave the infamously corrupt Aleman impunity for his thievery. Reforms to the constitution soon followed that consolidated Ortega’s control over the congress—turning Nicaragua into a pseudo-parliamentary system—gutted the once-independent, professional electoral commission and allowed him (and later his wife, Rosario Murillo) to run indefinitely. When Ortega won re-election in 2016, he did it after his electoral commission had conveniently disqualified his main challenger.

Now the region is facing crises in both countries. The numbers and details are well known: political repression, economic meltdown, refugees, and a growing body count (more than a 100 in Venezuela from last year’s waves of protests and more than 300 in Nicaragua since April according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights).

It was all predictable. But was it preventable? We’ll never know, of course. Sadly, in retrospect there were a number of things that could have been done, and they apply to a number of actors.

First, the media needs to recognize these warning signs of creeping authoritarianism and its implications. Consolidation of personal or partisan control over the judiciary, the appointment of temporary judges over career officials, the packing of electoral commissions, and the invitation of partisan or fake election monitors to observe elections should all be red flags that need to be reported on, not just as temporal phenomena but for what they mean for human rights and political stability over the long term. In short, journalists need to identify them for what they are: signs of a country on a path to crisis.

Second, the international community needs to be better positioned to identify and react to these signals of political decay earlier, before they erupt in political crisis, misery and bloodshed. To misquote the classic opening lines to the Six Million Dollar Man, we have the technology, we can make it better.  The work of political scientists like Steven Levitsky, Lucan Way, Javier Corrales, and others cited above can easily be distilled into a set of warning signs that should trigger international discussions and, if appropriate, action.  And, of course, there is the fine, detailed definition of representative democracy in the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Democratic Charter, though clearly even under Secretary General Luis Almagro’s courageous leadership that has not been sufficient. Nevertheless, the Charter should remain a template against which to evaluate democratic performance, not just by OAS-member states but also by the European Union, the United Nations, other multilateral organizations and  individual countries for when to consider raising concerns about institutional decay and democracy, both bilaterally and multilaterally.

Third, the U.S. needs to use its points of leverage more preemptively. Below is a quote from a piece I wrote in Foreign Policy on the eve of Ortega’s re-election in 2016. (Please forgive the self-indulgence, but why bother re-writing something if you’ve already gone through the effort of explaining yourself):

“Thanks to the economic and developmental links that have emerged since 1990, the U.S. does have a series of carrots and sticks at its disposal. Here are a few that it can use…there’s nothing that says that [the Central American-Dominican Republic free trade agreement with the U.S.] CAFTA-DR can’t be tweaked to support the values it was intended to bolster. So why not identify the economic sectors that have been infected by the Ortega family’s nepotism and reduce their level of tariff-free access to the United States? Crony capitalists don’t deserve access to a free market, especially when they are violating free markets themselves. In short, block notoriously corrupt, Ortega-controlled economic sectors from U.S. market access. [In addition] U.S. development assistance to Nicaragua is not important enough to make a difference to threaten a cut-off. But collectively cutting aid from the European Union and other countries (including the U.S.) might have an impact.”

Recently the U.S. sanctioned three members of the Ortega government under the Magnitsky Act. The sanctions only snapped into place after the repression. The same is true of the dozens of Venezuelan officials sanctioned by the U.S., Canada and the EU; those occurred only after the repression started.  In addition, in 2017 the U.S. Congress reduced U.S. development assistance to Nicaragua in response to the brazen authoritarian tactics of Ortega and his wife.

Well played, but perhaps too late.

Would earlier raising of concerns by media and earlier application of sanctions have made a difference and perhaps averted the crises both countries are facing? We’ll never know. But it’s clear that this was all predictable. It’s also clear that the international community failed to react to obvious, identifiable warning signs; and that the media underplayed the risks as the Chávez/Maduro and Ortega regimes followed an obvious (by now, thanks to Orban, Erdogan, Putin and others) playbook. In the meantime, as the body count continues to grow, there are more than 100 Venezuelans and 300 Nicaraguans who might still be alive if the world had acted earlier.

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