Two prominent Venezuelan opposition leaders were taken from their homes in raids by intelligence services in the early hours of Tuesday, in what analysts say signals a lurch toward a harder government line in the crisis, VICE News reports:
Leopoldo Lopez (left) and Antonio Ledezma, both under house arrest for their political activities, were taken from their homes by agents of Venezuela’s intelligence service, according to their families.
Having achieved its objective in holding Sunday’s elections, the government was now emboldened to take a harder line on the opposition, said Diego Moya-Ocampos, senior analyst for the Americas at IHS Country Risk.
Sunday’s power grab was a dramatic crash for the country’s opposition in its long quest to regain control of Venezuela after a tide of popular discontent brought Hugo Chávez to the presidency in 1999. Not since the politicians joined the military to back a failed coup in 2002 — which spurred Mr. Chávez to purge his opponents — have members of Venezuela’s opposition been laid so low, The New York Times reports.
“They played all their cards, and they played them effectively,” said Christopher Sabatini, a foreign policy expert at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, citing the opposition’s attempts to parry Mr. Maduro this year. “But now all of their channels for representation and means for mediation have essentially evaporated,” said Sabatini, a former Latin America program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy.
In recent days, the opposition has seemed disorganized, caught flat-footed by a government announcement banning protests through Tuesday, The Washington Post adds.
“Where’s the leader who has mobilized people in the slums because they believe in him?” said Luis Vicente León, director of the Caracas-based pollster Datanálisis. “People in the slums are scared, but when you have a leader you love, that barrier can be overcome. That leader doesn’t exist. And there’s internal divisions within the coalition on how to confront this situation now.”
“This process of voting for a Constituent Assembly has been totally unconstitutional and illegal,” said Leonardo Vivas, a lecturer on Latin America at Northeastern University in Boston, and the former director of the Latin America Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights. By removing “all the controls used in elections over the past 15 years”, the government effectively eliminated a paper trail and a way to verify votes, Vivas told FRANCE 24.
Tulane University’s David Smilde, a former professor at the Central Universtiy of Venezuela, listed some of those measures on his blog, writing that the “National Electoral Council dispensed with14 of its normal audits and protocols. In addition, it allowed voters to vote in alternative centres, did not use indelible ink, had no independent electoral observation,” among other irregularities.
The vote came amid a devastating economic crisis in the Opec nation, once the wealthiest country in South America but now among its poorest, The FT adds:
Inflation is in triple figures and people are going hungry. The economy has shrunk by 28 per cent since 2012, a figure expected to rise to 35 per cent by the end of this year. “Only six countries in the world this century have had that kind of contraction,” said Francisco Rodríguez, chief economist at Torino Capital in New York. “It’s the type of contraction associated with armed conflict.” In Latin America, only Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution in the late 1970s and Peru during the 1980s have experienced anything comparable.
“Venezuela has already surpassed Peru and will probably surpass Nicaragua this year to have the largest contraction in Latin American economic history,” Mr Rodríguez said.
The diffidence of Latin America’s Left before what Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales has called the “grotesque distortion of democracy” is puzzling, notes Bloomberg’s Mac Margolis. After all, a little more than three decades ago, left-wing parties and militants were the targets of some of the world’s most ruthless machines of democratic suppression. Leading intellectuals were jailed or exiled for speaking their minds, when they weren’t outright “disappeared” by the juntas’ handlers.
Corrales, political science professor at Amherst College, and co-author with Michael Penfold of “Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chavez“, traces a straight line between the “illiberalism” of Chavez and Maduro. In 1999, “Chavez changed the constitution by ignoring, and in fact hoping to bury, the newly elected legislature, which he did not control,” he told FRANCE 24, adding that the 1999 constitution expanded executive powers more than any other new constitution in a Latin American democracy since the 1980s.
“Maduro is copying this model – ignoring congress and inventing extra-constitutional rules along the way,” said Corrales.
Venezuela is experiencing a process of “democratic deconsolidation” akin to developments in Russia, Hungary and Turkey.
It is tempting to picture the demise of democracy as a Manichaean drama in which the stakes are clear from the start and the main actors fully understand their roles, notes Harvard’s Yascha Mounk, the author of the forthcoming “The People Versus Democracy” and contributor to The Journal of Democracy. Would-be dictators rail against democracy, hire violent thugs to do their bidding and vow to destroy the opposition. When they demand expanded powers or attack independent institutions, their supporters and opponents alike realize that authoritarianism has arrived, he writes for The New York Times:
There have, in fact, been a few times and places when the villains were quite as villainous, and the heroes quite as heroic. (Think Germany in the 1930s.) But in most cases, the demise of democracy has been far more gradual and far easier to overlook.
In their first years in office, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Viktor Orban in Hungary claimed that they wanted to fix, rather than cripple, democratic institutions. Even as it became clear that these strongmen sought to consolidate power, most of their opponents told themselves that they were saving their courage for the right moment. By the time the full extent of the danger had become incontrovertible, it was too late to mount an effective resistance.