For months, most Venezuelans (not to mention the country’s neighbors and the international community) held out hope that there would be a popular vote on President Nicolás Maduro’s mandate this year. It seemed possible that the Venezuelan government would abide by the opposition’s request for a referendum that would put Maduro to a popular vote of confidence and perhaps lead to a change in government. But on October 20, Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) indefinitely suspended the process that could lead to such a referendum, closing off the last constitutional option to resolve the political crisis that has convulsed the petro-state.
Foreign observers have long debated how to best characterize Venezuela’s political system: it has been described as a participatory democracy, an illiberal democracy, and a competitive authoritarian state. Today, none of those labels hold. By repeatedly violating the constitution and denying citizens the right to express themselves electorally, the Maduro government has shown that it has become a full-on dictatorship. The deeply unpopular president governs by decree, the opposition-dominated National Assembly has been shut out of the decision-making process, the judicial system is under the control of the president, opposition media outlets have been harassed and shut down, and—as the recent declaration on the referendum showed—even the electoral council is in the pocket of the government.
This state of affairs is the result of a long process that began in 1999, when former President Hugo Chávez took office. Over the years that followed, Chávez, Maduro (who Chávez tapped as his successor before his death in 2013), and their party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), systematically extended their control over the Venezuelan state, crushing the checks and balances enshrined in the constitution that their own movement introduced a year after taking power.
Some members of Venezuela’s opposition have decried the government’s suspension of the referendum process as a coup. The opposition is correct to do so: it is only One third of Maduro’s cabinet ministers are active duty or retired military officers, and 12 of Venezuela’s 23 governors, all of them pro-government, are former military officers. In late July, Maduro promoted General Vladimir Padrino López, Venezuela's defense minister, to a newly created position overseeing the production and distribution of Venezuela's foodstuffs, granting him a crucial role in trying to address food shortages. The loyalties of Padrino and the rest of the military are clear: just last week, Padrino issued a statement denouncing the opposition’s calls for peaceful protests as an effort to create "chaos and anarchy" and overthrow Maduro and reiterated the military’s “unconditional loyalty and unbreakable commitment” to the embattled president. This was a coup with a civilian mask—but a very thin one. It is time for Venezuela's neighbors to step in to resolve the crisis.
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