How to save Venezuela


Venezuela‘s opposition’s campaign to gather enough petition signatures to recall President Nicolás Maduro has passed the first stage after enough of the signatures were ratified through the scrutiny process, reports suggest.

Venezuelans across the country lined up last week to verify their signatures for the recall, an early step in a process expected to take months, The Washington Post reports:

But many complained that the 300 registration locations that had been set up were insufficient for the crowds that turned out. Others noted that the sites closed at 4 p.m. despite long lines of people waiting, and that some were located far from residential areas.

“The government’s fighting for its life,” said David Smilde, a Caracas-based analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America. “It wants to do everything possible to postpone this recall referendum.”

But how did chavismo, an electoral powerhouse that easily won the vast majority of all elections in the last 17 years, end up in this situation, evading a new vote at all costs? asks Daniel Fermín, a researcher at the Center for Political Studies, Andrés Bello Catholic University (UBAC) in Caracas, Venezuela. The answer lies in the collapse of the economic model promoted by the regime and the severe crisis it generated, he writes for Open Democracy:

The Venezuelan socialist economy relied exclusively on oil exports and sustained high oil prices. In 17 years, chavismo failed to diversify the economy, and instead saw thousands of industries and businesses close as the state increased its hold on the economic sector, relying on imports instead of national production. Chávez’s death coincided with the end of the latest oil price boom, and Mr. Maduro was left with a bill he couldn’t pay.

The Venezuelan government and its allies in the Bolivarian Alliance of Latin America (ALBA) argued that OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro exceeded his authority, writes Jennifer Lynn McCoy, Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University:

OAS Secretary General Almagro’s gambit to make the OAS once again the preeminent defender of democracy and human rights was high-risk. His move is caught in the ideological polarization of the hemisphere, which mirrors the polarization within Venezuela….A majority of OAS countries welcomed Almagro’s report as important information. However, given the divisions within the organization, they did not make any formal decision to activate the Charter.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday urged the Venezuelan government to respect the democratic process and the rule of law, including allowing the release of political prisoners, Reuters reports.

“Given the very serious situation in Venezuela and the worsening plight of the Venezuelan people, together we’re calling on the government and opposition to engage in meaningful dialogue and urge the Venezuelan government to respect the rule of law and the authority of the national assembly,” Obama said at a news conference with the leaders of Canada and Mexico. “Political prisoners should be released, the democratic process should be respected and that includes legitimate efforts to pursue a recall referendum consistent with Venezuelan law.”

Venezuela’s recovery will be much quicker and less painful with three forms of international assistance, argues Ricardo Hausmann, professor of economic development and director of the Center for International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School:
First is the issue of emergency supplies of food and medicine. The 80 percent plus reduction in imports engineered by the government has led to a deadly collapse in output and inventories – especially food and medicine – and the breakdown of production chains. ….

Second, to fund a path to recovery and sustainability, Venezuela will need to restructure its public external debt to lower its cost and lengthen its maturity and it will need significant amounts of international financial assistance to do so. …

Third, the country will need to reestablish intelligence cooperation with the United States and other security agencies to tackle the narco-trafficking and money-laundering groups that have taken control of important sections of the Venezuelan state, including its armed forces and the criminal justice system….

Venezuela’s slide into authoritarianism elicited hardly a collective peep from the region’s many multilateral organisations, almost all of them purporting to defend democracy and human rights, notes Columbia University’s Chris Sabatini, a former program director at the National Endowment for Democracy. In fact, Latin America and the Caribbean may have the distinction of being the most heavily networked, multilateralised, summit-oriented region in the world.

The political and economic spiral continues, with only faint hope that protests, mediation efforts, and international pressure will bring about political and economic change in the short term, according to Ben Raderstorf and Michael Shifter of Inter-American Dialogue:

The status quo is unsustainable: The human costs and suffering by Venezuelans are nothing short of a tragedy, and the pain will soon be too much to bear. But it is unclear whether Venezuela has reached rock bottom. That inflection point may well come in 2017 after Maduro is removed from office through one path or another—although the situation in Venezuela is so volatile that any predictions—this one included—should be taken with a grain of salt.

When that breaking point does come—and it will—the international community must be ready to respond, they conclude.

“The question is not who can win a referendum. Obviously the opposition would win a referendum,” said Luis Vicente León, director of Datanalisis, a polling firm here. About three-quarters of Venezuelans want a change in government this year, he said, and they are willing to vote against Maduro in a recall. “The question is whether they have the ability to surf over the obstacles that the government, with their institutional control, uses to impede the referendum.”

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