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Venezuela’s democracy has crumbled. Over the past several years, the country’s separation of powers, freedoms of speech, and press, and rule of law have been on life support—enshrined in the constitution, but often disregarded in practice. Until recently, the political breakdown had been mostly incremental. But on July 30, President Nicolás Maduro followed through on his threat to organize a National Constituent Assembly to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution. The constituyente, as it is known, could set the stage for the Maduro government to totally and indefinitely consolidate its power, criminalize the opposition without limits, and usher in a new and even darker phase in Venezuela’s crisis.
Sold as an attempt to bring “order, justice, peace, [and] a country that is reunited,” the new superbody that was elected Sunday is anything but unifying. A large majority of Venezuelans see it as illegitimate. More than 80 percent believe that the current constitution—drafted by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, who compared it to the Bible and would hand out miniature copies of it at rallies—is sufficient.
Marred by violence (at least ten people were killed in related clashes) and reports of coercion and irregularities, the election to select the members of the assembly was illegal because it circumvented the constitution’s requirement that citizens approve such votes in referendums. Worse, the government stacked the election to its advantage, arranging it so that the constituyente would draw one delegate from each municipality, which disproportionately favored the thinly populated rural areas where Maduro is most popular. The opposition boycotted the vote, resulting in a body that represents a tiny fraction of Venezuela’s population. Despite the National Electoral Council’s claims to the contrary, turnout appears to have been very low.
In practice, the constituent assembly is akin to a new super-congress, a body capable of reshaping the government as it wishes and delegitimizing the other institutions of the state without replacing them. Even if it never produces a new constitution, the assembly’s existence could thus provide the means to shutter the legislature, fire the attorney general (who has recently emerged as a nuisance to the government), and postpone future elections indefinitely. In other words, the assembly could effectively shred Venezuela’s constitution without replacing it.
Venezuela’s crisis is the product of the laws of political and economic gravity. Harnessing widespread anger toward an ineffective electoral democracy that had failed to redistribute oil wealth, Chávez built a popular socialist project between 1999, when he took power, and his death in 2013. The country’s massive petroleum reserves funded his government’s largesse while enabling creeping corruption and mismanagement. Winning elections was never difficult under Chavez’s charismatic leadership, which gave the Chavistas cover to undermine Venezuela’s institutions, slowly loosening the restraints on executive power and further empowering an unsustainable but politically expedient economic agenda.
When the price of oil collapsed in 2014, it rendered the economic model Chávez had built unsustainable. Since then, Venezuela’s economy has shrunk by almost a third, inflation has approached four digits, and medical shortages, malnutrition, and preventable diseases have spiked. The country’s crime and violence rates now rank among the highest in the world. The IMF has predicted that if Venezuela’s economic collapse continues, the country will be among Latin America’s poorest, as measured by GDP per capita, by 2022—despite the fact that it holds the world’s largest proven oil reserves.
The Chavista government has always had authoritarian tendencies, but the economic crisis led it to ever-greater repression. No longer able to claim the legitimacy of the popular vote, the government sought to maintain power through other means. When the opposition won a sweeping victory in the December 2015 parliamentary elections, Maduro used control of the executive branch, Supreme Court, and military to neutralize what legally should have been a powerful legislative supermajority. The government has refused to enforce new laws passed by the National Assembly, and the Supreme Court has frequently declared even routine actions by the legislature to be unconstitutional (it has also suspended three opposition delegates). Last year, the government used delays and bureaucratic hurdles to block a legally sanctioned recall referendum against Maduro that would likely have received overwhelming support and could have led to the president’s ouster.
As the Maduro government has consolidated its power, the opposition—which has fought on an uneven playing field since the beginning of the Chávez era—has struggled to adapt and maintain a unified front. It has tried to press for change within the democratic system, and it has secured the backing of most Venezuelans, but it lacks a political path to power, and a constitutionally sanctioned transfer of authority has become improbable. Making matters worse, the opposition’s unity does not extend much beyond the cause of expunging Chavismo and restoring stability. When it comes to the longer term questions of policy and leadership, it is divided.
Meanwhile, the government has dug in. Maduro and many of his lieutenants have made political survival an overriding goal, as they desperately wait for the price of oil to rise so that they can ease the economic collapse eroding their legitimacy. For many Chavista leaders, the stakes are high: losing power may mean prison. Some could face prosecution not just for human rights abuses, but also for corruption, money laundering, drug trafficking, and other crimes. U.S. sanctions—which Washington has levied against a variety of officials, most recently Maduro himself—raise the cost of losing power even further.
The government could break this deadlock and secure power indefinitely by using the constituent assembly to permanently shutter the legislature, extend Maduro’s term, or grant him new emergency powers. For years, Maduro’s harshest critics have called him a dictator; now, the constituyente could unambiguously make him one.
Whether that happens depends in part on the internal dynamics of Chavismo and the military. If hard-line factions—led by Diosdado Cabello, the former president of the National Assembly—get their way, unvarnished authoritarianism is likely. In that scenario, Venezuela may come to resemble Zimbabwe: a semi-elected dictatorship monopolizing power for years despite long-term economic hardship. Another disturbing possibility is that the violence will spiral out of control and Venezuela will enter a prolonged civil conflict, as Libya and Syria have. Alternatively, faced with overwhelming protests and growing international criticism, Maduro could choose to use the constituyente as a bargaining chip in eventual negotiations with the opposition, restoring some of Venezuela’s constitutional order to buy time in office. That could eventually lead to a transitional government and new elections. But perhaps the most likely scenario is that Venezuela barely avoids a violent collapse as it descends further into political and economic crisis for at least another year.
Venezuela’s future looks grim, but the opposition and its supporters should not lose focus. The biggest risk is that the government succeeds in sapping the morale and energy of its opponents, whose strategy of staging peaceful protests while marshalling international pressure could prove effective in the long term. Indeed, if the Maduro government dissolves the legislature, the opposition’s task will become akin to those of Latin America’s democratization movements of the 1980s, which used popular pressure to help bring down dictatorships in countries such as Chile.
Above all, opposition leaders need to maintain control of the demonstrations. Although the vast majority of the protests have been peaceful, a small but dedicated group of mostly young protestors with little to lose—branding themselves “La Resistencia”—have taken a more confrontational tack, building barricades and setting fires in the street. The organized opposition should condemn those tactics and avoid any association with violence, which the Maduro government routinely uses to try to delegitimize its critics.
The opposition would also do well to smooth over its internal differences. A lack of coordination has hindered the coalition in the past—as in the fall of 2016, when some opposition leaders attended mediation talks that others opposed. As the pressure mounts for a more aggressive, confrontational response, the opposition will be most effective if it can speak calmly and in one voice. Polarization would only intensify the deadlock. As Luis Vicente León, the head of the Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis, has written, “the post-constituyente period threatens a political crisis marked by the radicalization of both parties... [with each] convinced that it isn’t necessary to negotiate [and] that their power is sufficient to destroy their adversary.”
The other countries of the Western Hemisphere—many of which began to voice protests against Maduro in the past year—should pressure his government further. The United States should take a supporting role in this effort, working together with the governments of Mexico, Peru, and other Latin American countries. Unilateral sanctions by the United States could backfire, however, giving credibility to Maduro’s false claims of an imperialist economic war against Venezuela. And if Washington sanctions Venezuela’s oil sector, a measure some U.S. officials are now considering, Venezuela’s people—not its government—would bear the burden, as the economy’s lifeblood would be cut off.
As the opposition lays its plans for an eventual transition, regional states should be ready to step in with humanitarian aid and economic support. Venezuela’s problems will get worse before they get better, but the situation could change suddenly. At that moment, Venezuela’s neighbors will need a way to help the country out of its crisis.
The government’s situation is still unsustainable, especially if oil stays cheap. That is why the opposition should keep on building a platform that could eventually help ease political polarization, soothe popular anger, and overcome Venezuela’s economic problems. The supporters of democracy should trust that someday, this crisis will pass.