Venezuela’s opposition landed a major blow to Nicolas Maduro, but the next steps may be tougher

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An indigenous Guajiro woman votes in an unofficial plebiscite against President Nicolas Maduro’s government, in Maracaibo, Venezuela, July 16, 2017.
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REUTERS/Isaac Urrutia

Well over 7 million Venezuelans cast ballots in an opposition-led referendum on July 16, a resounding rebuke of President Nicolas Maduro’s call for a super-legislative body many see as a government attempt to entrench its power.

The turnout was well above what many expected and came despite the short notice for the vote, which did not have the same resources the National Electoral Council typically has for elections.

Nearly 700,000 of those votes came from Venezuelans abroad, where they voted at over 600 polling stations set up in 100 countries.

Now, however, the Venezuelan opposition is likely to face internal and external challenges – the former stemming from the at-times unwieldy coalition aligned against Maduro, including hardline radicals and disaffected government supporters, and the latter from a Maduro government that still holds considerable power and has shown little sign it will budge.

Opposition builds

International support for the opposition and criticism for the government has been building in recent months, particularly since the end of March, when the Supreme Court, which is aligned with Maduro, made an attempt to assume the powers of the opposition-controlled legislature.

While the Supreme Court walked back that move, it sparked a period of protests that has now lasted more than 100 days and led to the deaths of more than 100 people.

Venezuela opposition protest

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Opposition supporters hold signs reading “100 days” during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela July 9, 2017.
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REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

“One of the more interesting things about this moment for the opposition is just how much international support they’ve been able to muster,” Alejandro Velasco, a professor at New York University, told Business Insider about a week prior to the vote. “Certainly they’ve gotten far more attention than they’ve ever had and far more favorable attention than they’ve ever had.”

Venezuelans abroad played a large role in organizing for the vote. While three months have worn down and frustrated many opposing the Venezuelan government, the success of the unofficial plebiscite is likely to buoy their spirits and burnish their international standing, even as Maduro has vowed to go ahead with the July 30 vote to select members of his constituent assembly.

“Overall this vote, I think, makes it difficult for the government to just proceed as planned,” David Smilde, a professor at Tulane University and expert on Venezuela, told the Associated Press. “I think it’s going to embolden the international community to reject” Maduro’s constituent assembly.

The US, the EU, Germany, Brazil, Canada, and Mexico are some of the countries that have already called for the constitutional assembly to be canceled.

Weighing the options

Venezuela opposition plebiscite vote

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A Venezuelan woman in Argentina leaves a polling station after voting in an unofficial plebiscite against President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 16, 2017.
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REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

Over 90% of voters in the July 16 referendum voted in favor of the three questions asked by the opposition.

The third question began by asking the if voter saw the need for the “renewal of public powers” and for free and transparent elections but concluded with a more ambiguous reference to the formation of a national unity government “to restore the constitutional order.”

That part of the question may present political and legal stumbling blocks for the opposition and its backers as events move forward.

The opposition had “been struggling to sort of find a message that says this plebiscite is actually, has some sort of foundation and that it isn’t just about creating a parallel state,” Velasco told Business Insider in an interview earlier this month.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro raises his fist during an official ceremony of a Campaign Command to support reforms to the constitution in Caracas, Venezuela May 29, 2017. The screen reads:

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at an official ceremony to support reforms to the constitution, in Caracas, May 29, 2017.
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Thomson Reuters

The overwhelming support that the public mustered for the referendum may have freed opposition leaders of such reservations, however.

Lawmakers said the vote was a “trigger” to form a national unity government and to ask for global recognition before the end of July, according to Wall Street Journal correspondent Anatoly Kurmanaev.

The naming of 33 justices to the Supreme Court in a rejection of the current court, which has been stacked by Maduro, appears to be one of the first steps toward that goal.

“This is where the law ends,” writes a contributor to Caracas Chronicles, a website heavily critical of the Maduro government. “If we have two people for the same post, there’s no mechanism to tell us which one is actually legal. A while back, the government blocked out all the strictly legal options, and it’s time to go into uncharted territory.”

Opposition leader and National Assembly Vice President Freddy Guervara said “the dictatorship accuses us of mounting a parallel state.”

“Who usurps functions of the National Assembly to name the national electoral council and deputy attorney general?” Guervara added, referring to actions taken by the Maduro government. “We are the constitutional state.”

But seeking international recognition for such a parallel government “could considerably complicate matters,” Smilde writes. It would be “no small step for governments in the region and would likely take longer than the two week window they have before the” vote on the constituent assembly’s members.

What the people want

Julio Borges (C), president of the National Assembly and deputy of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD) addresses the media after an unofficial plebiscite against President Nicolas Maduro's government and his plan to rewrite the constitution, in Caracas, Venezuela July 16, 2017.  REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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Julio Borges, president of the National Assembly and deputy of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties, speaks after an unofficial plebiscite against President Nicolas Maduro’s government and his plan to rewrite the constitution, July 16, 2017.
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Thomson Reuters

It’s also not clear what the broader Venezuelan public sentiment will be toward the establishment of such an alternative government.

Survey results released this month found that nearly 80% of Venezuelans wanted political change by way of elections, which Maduro has postponed, but there was no consensus on how to resolve to the current crisis: 33% of respondents wanted to wait for presidential elections in 2018; 25% said they saw dialogue as the solution, while 18% wanted a combination of dialogue and protest. Just 5% supported Maduro’s constituent assembly. (The survey didn’t ask about the opposition’s referendum or the national unity government.)

The survey also found that only about 19% of Venezuelans said they had taken part in a march or protest in recent weeks.

While that number may be influenced by differing definitions for what constitutes a “protest” among Venezuelans, Velasco said, the divergent visions for moving ahead suggest that the opposition has thus far not be able to unite the vast swaths of Venezuelans unhappy with Maduro and that a broad range of Venezuelans remain unsatisfied with the visions that both the government and opposition have presented.

“So you have these varied factions, which speaks to these two poles that are very, very retrenched, and yet they can’t really capture everyone else that’s in the middle,” Velasco told Business Insider earlier this month, “and so everyone else that’s in the middle is going off in these various directions.”

International response

Venezuela protest Maduro

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A government supporter holds a poster with images of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez and President Nicolas Maduro during a simulation of the government’s official July 30 vote for a new assembly, in Caracas, July 16, 2017.
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REUTERS/Christian Veron

These domestic political questions seem unlikely to to shape looming international action, particularly the possible sanctions the US is contemplating, where the Trump White House has said that “all options are on the table” for penalizing the Venezuelan government.

“Venezuelan domestic politics, that’s for the Venezuelan politicians and that’s for the Venezuelan people to work out,” Mark Feierstein, who worked for the Obama White House as special assistant to the president and senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, told Business Insider.

It’s not for the international community to decide who runs Venezuela, or who the president is, but it is the role of the international community to weigh in when people’s fundamental rights are being deprived.

“It’s not for the international community to decide who runs Venezuela, or who the president is, but it is the role of the international community to weigh in when people’s fundamental rights are being deprived,” Feierstein said.

The Trump White House didn’t respond to a request for comment about its deliberations regarding sanctions on Venezuela.

The full impact of Venezuelans’ resounding rejection of the Maduro government in the July 16 referendum has yet to unfold – as does the US’s and international community’s full response.

And events are likely to be complicated again by the July 30 constituent-assembly vote that Maduro says will go ahead. But for the opposition, the July 16 vote sent a clear message.

“We interpret [the results] as a message from the people telling us to keep doing what we have been doing, plus much more,” Juan Andrés Mejia, an opposition legislator who organized the referendum, told The Washington Post. “We will respond to that call accordingly.”