Venezuela opposition has few options to combat Nicolás Maduro's power grab

Amid Venezuala’s escalating violence and political turmoil, Maduro’s opponents face limited options, most of them unpalatable and likely to cause turbulence

Nicolás Maduro’s plan to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution has been widely condemned as an attempt to exclude the country’s opposition from the legislative process, but options for his domestic and international critics are limited, unpalatable and likely to cause turbulence on international oil markets while worsening conditions for an already suffering population.

More than 100 people have been killed in clashes between protesters and security forces since April amid almost daily demonstrations against shortages of food and medicine, the world’s highest inflation rate, alarmingly high murder rates, delayed elections, the jailing of opposition leaders, the increasing influence of the army, and efforts by the government-appointed courts to curtail the powers of the opposition-held national assembly.

Maduro’s response was to initiate a rewriting of the constitution put in place in 1999 by his predecessor Hugo Chávez. A new constituent assembly was elected at the weekend in polls boycotted by the opposition because constituencies were unfairly skewed in favour of the United Socialist Party, which has ruled the country for 18 years.

Maduro claims this is the only way to restore stability in the face of an “economic war” being waged by the US and its allies, who want to secure control of Venezuela’s vast oil resources.

But this move to nullify the outcome of the 2015 legislative elections has dismayed many former hardcore Chavistas, including attorney general Luisa Ortega, who vowed to challenge the constituent assembly.

“This is the end of freedom of expression,” she said on Monday. “This is a smokescreen to hide the corruption and crisis that Venezuela faces.”

A democratic institutional solution would be the best way out of the political crisis – but it appears an increasingly distant prospect. The ruling party has postponed regional elections that were scheduled at the end of last year, imposed controls on the media, and has now put in place a rubber-stamp assembly.

Outlets for dissent are diminishing and increasingly risky. Two opposition leaders – Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma – have been taken from their homes, where they were under house arrest. They have previously been accused of fomenting unrest by calling for protest, but their supporters appear more split than ever: some call for more violent resistance, while others are reluctant to take to the streets in a situation that many fear is drifting towards civil war.

External pressure is growing, but of mixed effectiveness. The Organisation of American States has been increasingly vocal in its criticism of Venezuela, but its members remain divided. Although many neighbouring countries have said they will not recognize the results of the weekend’s vote, others – including Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Bolivia – have expressed their support for Maduro.

Many governments which have refused to recognize the new constituent assembly have stopped short of calling Maduro’s government illegitimate. “It’s a slippery slope because Maduro’s government is not recognizing the basic tenets of the constitution – but he was democratically elected,” said Jason Marczak, of the Atlantic Council’s Latin America centre.

Marczak recalled that the US recognized the fleeting government of Pedro Carmona after a 2002 coup against Chávez that ultimately failed. “That became a rallying cry for the government ever since,” he said.

While other countries have held back, the Trump administration has shown no hesitation in referring to Maduro as a “dictator”, and on Monday the US unveiled sanctions targeting Maduro, putting him in the same category as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

Political career

Nicolás Maduro has ruled Venezuela without two of the greatest assets possessed by his mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chávez. He has not been lucky. And he has no charisma.

Chávez enjoyed an oil bounty and sublime political talents that secured his power at home and reputation abroad.

Maduro, in contrast, inherited a wobbling economy addicted to high oil prices and a system of authoritarian populism dependent on showmanship and patronage. Oil prices tumbled and Maduro proved to be a fumbling showman, exposing the financial ineptitude and ideological hollowness of the “Bolivarian revolution”.

This could have doomed his presidency, which began in 2013 after Chávez died, but the former bus driver, a hulking bear of a man who rose up trade union ranks, turned out to be tenacious and ruthless.

Born into a working class family in Caracas in 1962, he left school without graduating and drove buses for the Caracas metro. He became a union organiser and early supporter of Chávez, who, after leading a failed coup, led a leftwing coalition to an electoral landslide in 1998.

Maduro was the speaker of the assembly before serving as Chávez’s foreign minister from 2006 to 2013, a visible if largely silent presence as the comandante held court on the world stage. Chávez anointed Maduro as his heir before succumbing to cancer.

The story of his rule – and Venezuela’s agony – is a determination to keep power amid economic collapse, humanitarian disaster and international condemnation. Since January 2019 his presidency has been disputed, with Juan Guaidó being sworn in as interim president, and recognised as Venezuela’s ruler by some international powers.

Crisis after crisis has buffeted his government – hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, power blackouts, mass protests, drone attacks, defections, US-led sanctions – and Maduro has remained standing, resolute, implacable.

It is a remarkable position for a man who, in a 2014 Guardian interview, described himself as a bit of a hippy and a fan of Led Zeppelin and John Lennon.

“I never aspired to be president,” he said. “I always honour something that commander Chávez told us: that while we were in these posts we must be clothed in humility and understand that we are here to protect the man and woman of the streets.”

Rory Carroll

State department spokeswoman Lydia Barraza told RCN radio in Colombia that the sanctions sent a “clear message to government officials and former government officials that there are serious personal consequences for participating in this government, of violating human rights”.

They are also meant to send a message to the people of Venezuela, she said. “We understand what is happening and we support you so that those who are responsible for this crisis are held accountable,” Barraza said.

But beyond the symbolism this is likely to have little impact – not least because of the diminished stature and moral authority of the White House under Donald Trump.

A step that would make a difference would be broader sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports, which account for more 95% of the country foreign currency earnings. This is now being discussed, but the pain would be felt across borders.

For Venezuelans, it would become harder to secure food and medicine, which are already in desperately short supply. Such a move would probably cause a fresh wave of refugees to neighbouring countries.

Globally, it would push up the price of oil. In the US – which gets 10% of its petrol from Venezuela – this would mean higher fuel costs for drivers. For Trump – who promised lower gas prices at the start of his administration – this would be another political own goal.

Michael Shifter of the think tank Inter-American Dialogue said tougher sanctions by the US would be less effective than quiet persuasion by Venezuela’s business partners in China and political allies in Cuba and Russia.

“Venezuelans are already in misery. US oil sanctions would make them worse off. The government would probably survive – and also claim more credence for their narrative about being victims of economic war,” he said.

“It would be better for others to encourage a soft landing. If Maduro continues to dig in, it will get ugly and that is not in the interests of Cuba, China or Russia “

Despite Venezuela’s growing international isolation, Maduro has insisted that the new constituent assembly will be sworn in as planned.

It is unlikely to bring the current crisis to an end. It may yet make the situation much worse.

  • This article was amended on 1 August 2017. An earlier version said a failed coup against Chávez took place in 2003, instead of 2002.


Jonathan Watts and Sibylla Brodzinsky

The GuardianTramp

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