Venezuela is careening toward civil war. Political and criminal violence is spreading like wildfire and the capital city, Caracas, has become one of the world’s most violent. At least 130 people were killed and another 3,500 injured in anti-government protests over the past four months. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries, Brazil and Colombia, in search of refuge. Meanwhile, most countries in the region are quietly preparing contingency plans to deal with the blowback. That won’t be enough: if full-on armed conflict is to be averted, a far more robust response is needed.
Venezuela’s democratic institutions are under assault. Since President Nicolas Maduro was elected in 2013, thousands of his opponents have been arrested. Over 430 of them were jailed, many of them after trials in military courts. This month has seen the imprisonment of two top opposition leaders, prompting widespread condemnation in Venezuela and abroad. Even judges are feeling vulnerable: a number of them recently sought asylum in the Chilean embassy. Meanwhile, government-supported vigilante groups are patrolling the streets and harassing citizens, and anti-government opposition groups are manning barricades across the country.
Maduro is consolidating his authoritarian hold. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court, which is stacked with government loyalists, attempted to strip the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers: the decision was reversed, with opponents accused Maduro of staging a coup. In July, bands of plain-clothes government supporters, with the tacit support of the military, stormed the National Assembly, physically attacking lawmakers and journalists. Maduro subsequently announced the formation of a new Constituent Assembly, tasked with rewriting the constitution. The opposition instantly denounced the move, and then boycotted a government-sponsored referendum on the assembly in July.
The referendum on the Constituent Assembly vote was marred by violence. At least 100 voting booths were destroyed across the county and a police motorcycle convoy in Caracas was hit by an explosion. The minister of defense, Vladimir Padrino Lopez, deployed a 130,000 person security force to “actively contain” flare-ups
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