Venezuela’s odd transition to dictatorship


Venezuela’s Congress on Sunday declared that the government had staged a coup by blocking a drive to recall President Nicolas Maduro in a raucous legislative session that was interrupted when his supporters stormed the chamber, AP reports:

Opposition lawmakers vowed to put Maduro on trial after a court friendly to his socialist administration on Thursday suspended their campaign to collect signatures to hold a referendum on removing the deeply-unpopular president. Lawmaker Julio Borges said the opposition-led congress is now in open rebellion after a majority of its members voted that the decision constituted a coup with government participation.

vzlachavezcorralesBy suspending the process to carry out a recall referendum, Venezuela became the only country in Latin America since the late 1970s to experience the transition to a full dictatorship, according to Javier Corrales, a political-science professor at Amherst College.

There was a time when Chavismo’s problem with democracy was that it did not tolerate the opposition. Today, the problem with Chavismo is that it cannot tolerate being the opposition, he writes for The Americas Quarterly:

A major diplomatic effort is therefore needed to help the opposition pressure the government, but more fundamentally, to convince the government that it’s okay to be an opposition force. This in turn will require convincing the opposition to think of some form of transitional justice. The problem is that when a ruling party has committed so many abuses, and an opposition feels so aggrieved, thinking in terms of transition and justice is painfully hard for both sides.

“The government has just killed the only democratic window left,” said Nicmer Evans, a leftist political analyst who is deeply critical of Maduro. “The government went from being a competitive authoritarian [regime] to absolute authoritarianism,” he told the Venezuelan news website Efecto Cocuyo.

For Venezuela’s pro-democracy activists, fighting a regime that has instituted dictatorship by tiny increments has been an exhausting ordeal, analyst Francisco Toro writes for The Washington Post:

Which is why today, mixed with the genuine anger at the subversion of our constitutional right to a recall, you can detect just a hint of gratitude for the clarity this brings…There’s no need to hyphenate it anymore. Venezuela is just a dictatorship.

vzla carnegieThe opposition is hobbled because it has been unable to make alliances with anyone in the ruling Socialist Party, argues Corrales, a regular contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy.

“It’s important because in other constitutional crises elsewhere in Latin America, the behavior of the ruling party was crucial,” he said.

“Democracy doesn’t exist without the separation of powers, without elections and without votes,” Alberto Barrera, a noted author here, said in an online column this week. “That has another name,” he told The Wall Street Journal:

vzlaHenrique_Capriles_Radonski_2The government followed the referendum’s suspension by issuing travel bans for 11 opposition leaders, including former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles [left] and Jesús Torrealba, the general secretary of the opposition alliance. Critics said the move appeared aimed at preventing the opposition from drumming up international support for their cause, one of the few avenues of action left to them.

“They’re trying to turn the whole country into a prison,” said Cynthia Arnson, a Latin America scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.

The Venezuelan government has targeted critics of its ineffective efforts to alleviate severe shortages of essential medicines and food while the crisis persists, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today:

The 78-page report, “Venezuela’s Humanitarian Crisis: Severe Medical and Food Shortages, Inadequate and Repressive Government Response,” documents how the shortages have made it extremely difficult for many Venezuelans to obtain essential medical care or meet their families’ basic needs. The Venezuelan government has downplayed the severity of the crisis. Although its own efforts to alleviate the shortages have not succeeded, it has made only limited efforts to obtain international humanitarian assistance that might be readily available. Meanwhile, it has intimidated and punished critics, including health professionals, human rights defenders, and ordinary Venezuelans who have spoken out about the shortages.

vzla dialogue“The Venezuelan government has seemed more vigorous in denying the existence of a humanitarian crisis than in working to resolve it,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Its failures have contributed to the suffering of many Venezuelans who now struggle every day to obtain access to basic health care and adequate nutrition.”

Venezuela’s downward spiral has yet to reach bottom, notes Erika de la Garza, the program director of the Latin America Initiative at the Baker Institute. The national oil company (PDVSA) has seen steep declines in production since 2014 and oil prices remain low, she writes:

The International Monetary Fund estimates Venezuela’s inflation in 2017 will reach 1,640 percent and GDP will contract by 4.5 percent. Chávez’s Bolivarian socialism was in part made possible by a fortunate confluence of circumstances: a functional PDVSA and a rise in oil prices from $10 per barrel in 1999 when he first took office to $126 per barrel at its peak in 2008. Maduro, in contrast, was dealt a very different hand. Despite his mounting efforts to hang on to power and run the country like the tropical Mussolini, Venezuela’s economic and social realities are a ticking time bomb. When the day comes, the next president will be left with the aftermath of an economic, social and political explosion that will take years to fix.

This CFR Backgrounder explores Venezuela’s economic fractures and political turmoil.

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