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Venezuela’s latest elections are likely to trigger a regional migration crisis

- October 19, 2017

On Oct. 15, Venezuelans went to the polls to elect state governors, amid a desperate economic crisis, manipulation of democratic institutions (including packing the supreme court and dissolving the legislature), and widespread allegations of electoral fraud. Last year, the country endured four months of massive street protests involving 6 million to 8 million Venezuelans; those protests were finally banned and put down by President Nicolás Maduro’s government, leading to 134 deaths and roughly 4,800 arrests.

Opinion polls had suggested that Maduro’s governing Socialist party would be turned out of office in many states. However, official results announced that the party won 17 of 23 governors’ seats. The U.S. State Department declared that the election was neither free nor fair, and questioned the result. The Venezuelan opposition bloc Democratic Unity denouncedsystemic manipulations” and called for more protests.

We have researched (with sociologist Sorana Toma) the dynamic relationship between protests and migration. That leads us to predict that Sunday’s evidence of electoral fraud will lead not to more street protests but to a wave of migration out of Venezuela. The opposition to Maduro’s regime will be displaced abroad, spreading the Venezuelan crisis throughout the region.

Here’s how things stand in Venezuela

Back in April, many in the Venezuelan opposition were protesting Maduro’s efforts to alter Venezuela’s democratic structure. Those efforts included delaying local elections in late 2016, rewriting the constitution and arresting opposition leaders. The opposition remained united, built up a strong coalition, held regular street protests and coordinated a symbolic international plebiscite held on July 16 against Maduro’s call for the election of a new National Constituent Assembly, a supra-powerful institution that would have the powers to rewrite the constitution and displace congressional powers.

The regime banned all protests on July 27 and, even though 73 percent of Venezuelans disapproved, held the election for a constituent assembly. The software company that had helped set up the voting systems charged that Maduro’s government falsified the results by at least 1 million votes. Much of the social science literature predicts that electoral fraud and repression would break citizens’ thresholds of political patience and activate “a duty to protest.” But after months of protest in which the only result was police violence, Venezuelans are staying home.

Here’s how we did our research

In a classic text, political scientist Albert Hirschman described three options for such a scenario: exit, voice and loyalty. That leaves two options for those discontented with the Maduro government: voice their discontent by protesting or voting, or exit the country.

Our adaptation of economist Albert Hirschman’s work suggests that after the local elections:

  • Those loyal to the Maduro regime will expect that voicing support for the regime will be enough to sustain it.
  • Those discontented with the regime but still loyal to the state and not the regime and have voted for the opposition are likely to remain in the country — but only as long as they believe that their “voices” will not be drowned out by the regime faithful.
  • Those with a strong sense of civic duty might decide to continue voicing their discontent through protests. But they will do so only as long as their material, emotional and political resources allow them to do so.
  • An increasingly large group of ordinary citizens — those with few resources to fight and just enough network ties for flight — will leave the country.

Our ongoing and as-yet unpublished research with Toma explores how ordinary people made these choices in previous upheavals: in Ukraine, in the lead-up to and in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the EuroMaidan protests of 2013-2014; and in Romania, in the lead-up to and following the 2013 Roșia Montană Project protests and the 2016 anti-corruption protests.

Using nationally representative survey data, we analyzed which types of individuals are more likely to choose to protest and which to leave. We find that loyalty to the state is an important deterrent to apathy but does not influence the choice between protest and migration. Rather, we find that people who are poorer and less educated (and have fewer resources) are more likely to emigrate. Meanwhile women and people who are middle class, better educated, have more resources at their disposal, and score higher on social trust are more likely to choose to stay and protest.

More recently, using Pew Research Center data, we have assessed these patterns in Latin America generally and Venezuela specifically, and coupled this with preliminary ethnographic field research in Venezuela. We are finding that the pattern holds. And as the economic and political situation deteriorates, we are likely to see an enlarging wave of migration.

What does that mean for Venezuela?

Hirschman’s research suggests that migration can have one of two possible effects. If combined with protests, emigration can put political and economic pressure on the regime. If enough of the opposition leaves, exodus can secure the regime’s unilateral hold on power, reducing the likelihood of further mass protest or internal civil conflict.

On the basis of our research, we believe that there is a third possibility: The crisis will spread to neighboring countries, with Venezuelans continuing to use their voice after they exit.

Infighting has fractured the opposition

The government’s call for gubernatorial elections triggered extreme divisions within the opposition bloc. Some opposition members argued that these elections should be boycotted lest they be seen to legitimize the system. Nevertheless, opposition parties did indeed run candidates for office.

Our own ethnographic field research this past summer, which included participant observation of ordinary citizens and opposition groups, suggests that the opposition’s base was left disaffected and confused by the infighting. As a result, some opposed to Maduro’s regime did not vote; others who had been involved in protests felt alienated from the opposition and disappointed in the moderate approach. We know from our past research that divisions among the opposition and alienation of core members can predict demobilization — in which instead of protesting, regime opponents stay home.

Thus, our findings predict that we will see more mass migration to neighboring countries. Our research posits that those who oppose the regime and those who are poorer are more likely to leave. These two groups’ mass exit will relieve both political and economic pressure on the Maduro regime. The opposition will have fewer supporters to mobilize, and the regime will need to offer fewer conciliatory handouts to its most impoverished supporters.

A coming humanitarian and regional crisis

Today, the mass migration out of Venezuela is larger than the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. If the opposition can rally its supporters from abroad, the Venezuelan crisis could spill over into Brazil and Colombia, which are already unstable.

Olga Onuch is an assistant professor in politics at the University of Manchester; an associate fellow at Nuffield College in Oxford; 2017 research fellow at the Harvard Davis Center; and author of Mapping Mass Mobilizations: Understanding Revolutionary Movements in Argentina and Ukraine (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014). Find her Twitter @oonuch. 

Jeanmiguel Uva is a graduate student in comparative politics at the London School of Economics, and co-founder and former deputy editor in chief of the Manchester Magazine. Find him on Twitter at @jeanm_uva.