Venezuela, one of the key countries in the global economy and of geopolitical importance in Latin America, saw an eventful 2016. The nation lived an economic boycott by major food and commodity corporations, a sharp drop in oil prices that directly affected the oil-producing economy and, at the same time, it also dealt with coup-mongering and calls for violence from the right-wing opposition.
President Nicolas Maduro continues to lead the Bolivarian Revolution, launched by former President Hugo Chavez, that transformed the country and finally gave Venezuelans free education, health care and more dignified living conditions for the poor.
On the heels of a turbulent 2016, a few issues top the agenda of what to watch for in the South American country throughout 2017.
Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuelan historian and professor of Latin American Studies, spoke to teleSUR about the future of his home country. Tinker Salas is the author of “The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela” and “Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know."
In the immediate future, Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, face a determined campaign inside the opposition-controlled National Assembly that has sought in recent months to promote a recall referendum against the president.
The right-wing opposition coalition known as the MUD, the Spanish acronym for the Democratic Unity Roundtable, began collecting signatures to push out Maduro last year. According to electoral authorities, the signature drive presented 600,000 inadmissible entries, including 11,000 corresponding to dead people, 3,000 from minors, 1,000 belonging to ineligible prisoners and 1,000 with non-existent ID numbers.
In October, the Supreme Court froze the recall referendum process over allegations of fraud, and the opposition will need to repeat the process.
This year, even if the legislators and political parties were to achieve the signatures needed and obtain the majority in a popular vote, the cut-off date when a presidential recall would trigger new elections — Jan. 10, 2017 — has already passed.
If a recall referendum were to occur later, the vice president of Venezuela Tareck El Aissami would take office in the event that the president was removed from office, and then El Aissami would face elections again in 2018.
Amid frustrations over the stalled recall referendum process, the opposition has called for violent protests in the capital Caracas, and even tried to indirectly call for a military coup. Recently, leaders declared — without legal backing — that Maduro had abandoned his position as president. The Supreme Court recently struck down another attempt by the National Assembly to oust Maduro, saying that the vote to "remove" Maduro and pave the way for new elections was unconstitutional.
According to Tinker Salas, although the recall referendum was at the center of political debate in the country for months, the exact goals of the opposition were not always entirely clear.
"The referendum is the democratic electoral option that exists in the Venezuelan constitution," he said. "But it's still not clear to me if the intention of the opposition throughout last year was really to begin a recall referendum."
"I think there were divisions inside the opposition — the sector that wants a referendum, the sector that wants an immediate exit, those who want to ‘heat the streets,’ and the sectors who want to wait until 2018 to begin a new government," Tinker Salas continued.
While the government has demonstrated good will in negotiating with the opposition in a national dialogue process, what seems clear is that over the next year the Maduro administration will have to continue to deal with destabilizing efforts to bring down the socialist government.
Peace Dialogues and Economic Crisis
In response to rising political clashes sparked by the opposition's bid for a recall referendum, the government and opposition groups launched peace dialogues in 2016 aimed at easing high-running tensions. The talks are expected to continue in 2017.
In the middle of the political unrest, Maduro's government called for a national dialogue among all sectors to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
"The stance can’t be ungovernability," said Tinker Salas. "We have seen in the National Assembly they’ve tried to create situations of ungovernability, but I believe we need to seek governing conditions."
Some parts of the opposition have boycotted, walked out and failed to show up for the agreed upon appointments, while others have continued to attend the dialogues, revealing clear divisions within the right-wing leadership in the country.
"That has always been the dynamics of the opposition in Venezuela," said Tinker Salas.
The Vatican, head of the Catholic church, and the regional trade bloc UNASUR, made up by South American nations, have both agreed to mediate the process and offer assistance during the talks.
As demanded by the opposition, Maduro has agreed to comply with several requests, in order to advance the dialogue.
"I think it’s fundamental to have a dialogue," Tinker Salas argued. "The opposition, the Chavistas, the left-wing sectors and the social movements are not going to disappear in Venezuela. We have to find a way to live together."
In the process, both sides of the political divide reached an agreement on ways that the opposition and the government can collaborate in tackling what Maduro calls the “economic war” plaguing the country and worsening economic crisis.
"The dialogue has to continue, it’s the only solution for Venezuela," Tinker Salas continued. "We can’t continue acting as if the project of the nation belongs to one side or the other. It belongs to the Venezuelan collectiveness."
Equally important for Venezuela's economic future is the fact that the OPEC oil bloc reached an agreement last year to reduce crude production in order to spur a surge in oil prices, which is set to ease the burden on both oil-producing and non-oil-producing countries. But according to Tinker Salas, Venezuela's oil dependency will remain a key economic challenge in the future.
"Venezuela needs to stop depending on oil," he said. "We can’t just depend on the OPEC agreement to lower production of oil."
Salas argued that Venezuela needs to promote regional and artisanal development in communes with the support of the private sector in hopes of giving a fundamental boost the country's economy.
"We can talk about the economic boycott, and the presence of the U.S., the economic war," he continued. "But at the end, the government in power receives the blame for what’s happening."
Venezuela will also transition to a new political scenario in 2017 as it is set to hold regional elections at the beginning of the year. Venezuelans will choose new governors and mayors that will serve mandates until 2021.
The elections were postponed for several months due to the political situation in the country. In the meantime, the opposition reiterated calls for violent protests and also refused to begin dialogues with the government.
According to Tinker Salas, the regional elections could serve as a barometer for the political climate moving forward.
"I think the regional elections would be a challenge that will really set the stage for the upcoming presidential elections in 2018," he said.
The 23 current governors were elected at the end of 2012 for a four-year term, which ended in January 2016. Twenty of those 23 lawmakers are all members of Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela or PSUV, the remaining three are part of the opposition MUD coalition.
"Venezuela needs opposition, we need an opposition that criticizes and helps move the process forward," said Tinker Salas. "That is really critical of what happens in the country."