Venezuela is hurtling towards a catastrophe. The economic crisis and political repression that sparked the anti-government protests appear to be entering a new, bloody phase. So far this year more than 100 protestors have been killed by government forces. In addition to the uniformed government police, the Maduro government has relied on pro-government militia forces to attack protesters and use threats of violence to keep other suffering Venezuelans in their houses and away from the anti-government protests.
The economic crisis was brought about by the clientelist policies of Hugo Chavez. Awash with oil revenue during the commodity boom of the last decade, Chavez kept prices of food and other necessities artificially low through price controls. While these price controls would prove disastrous for domestic producers, the Chavez government could import goods by taking advantage of a strong currency and high oil revenue. The situation in Venezuela is an example of Dutch Disease, whereby high exports of a commodity strengthen the domestic currency and domestic production is not able to compete with cheaper imported goods.
The economic situation deteriorated further after Chavez’s death in 2013. His successor, Nicolas Maduro, did not have Chavez’s charisma nor were Venezuelans personally loyal to Maduro as they were to Chavez. Confronted with insufficient political capital and a failing economy, Maduro was not able to maintain total control of the Venezuelan government. In 2015, the opposition won control of the National Assembly. In December 2015, opposition leader Henry Romos predicted that President Maduro would leave or be removed from office before his term expired in 2019. The scale of the current protests suggests that Romos’ comments may prove to be prescient.
The current protests began in earnest in March after the Supreme Tribunal of Justice assumed the legislative authority of the National Assembly. The opposition in Venezuela and much of the free world viewed the court’s action as a coup d’état by a court packed with Chavistas. Although the Supreme Tribunal of Justice backtracked on much of its ruling after massive domestic and international backlash, the Rubicon crossed by Maduro and his allies during the attempted coup last March signaled a new phase in Venezuela’s struggle for democracy.
Since then the situation has worsened. In late June, a police officer stole a helicopter and attacked the buildings of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice and Interior Ministry. In early July, pro-government groups attacked opposition legislators at the National Assembly. On July 16, more than 7 million Venezuelans took part in a non-binding, opposition-run vote in which the overwhelming majority voted against Maduro’s plan to change the constitution. At the end of the month, the government plans to hold elections for a Constituent Assembly to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. Opposition leaders warn that the Constituent Assembly will rubber stamp a new constitution that would create repressive, anti-democratic institutions modeled after the government in Cuba. In the United States, President Trump imposed economic sanctions on 13 officials aligned with Maduro in anticipation of the vote on Sunday.
Venezuela currently finds itself at a crossroads. Recent events show that the status quo is untenable and unacceptable to all sides of the political divide. There are three options for Venezuela: democracy, a Maduro-led dictatorship, or a military-led dictatorship.
It is unlikely that Venezuela will return to a functioning democracy after the current crisis has passed. Whereas the socialist government under Hugo Chavez ruled with a democratic mandate and accepted election results, such as his acceptance of a failure to reform the constitution in 2007, Maduro’s actions vis-à-vis the opposition controlled National Assembly demonstrate his contempt for democracy. The constitutional reforms of 2009 under Hugo Chavez reinforced the power of the presidency, and the reforms that would come from a constituent assembly would assuredly create an imperial presidency. Just as Chavez in 2009 and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2017, Nicolas Maduro is attempting to gather power around himself at the expense of democratic institutions.
If Venezuela does return to democracy, it is likely to be via one of three paths. First, the military removes Maduro and manages a caretaker government until new elections take place. A further necessity to return to democratic rule under this scenario would probably also be the election of the opposition to power. This situation is similar to what occurred in Honduras in 2009 when the military, backed by the Supreme Court, executed a coup against then-President Manuel Zelaya, a supporter of Hugo Chavez. The Supreme Court ruling that predated the coup found President Zalaya in contempt of a court order relating to a constitutional referendum to expand the powers of the president. This path back to democracy relies on the military to act decisively against President Maduro, which is not likely in the near future given the military’s recent public recommitment to the Maduro regime.
The second path back to democracy would be for President Maduro and Vice President Tareck El Aissami to resign under pressure from both the opposition as well as from within their regime. This scenario would be similar to the events in Tunisia during the Arab Spring in 2011 when President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia. Since then, Tunisia has held free and open elections in 2011 and 2014 with the next elections scheduled for 2019. While there have been several well-publicized defections within the ruling regime in Venezuela, opposition to Maduro from within the government does not appear to be robust enough to force his ouster.
The third and most dangerous route that Venezuela could take back to democracy would be through a revolution. A revolution is the violent overthrow of an existing government by illegal means with the goal of replacing the current political regime. Revolutions are inherently violent and often linked to a long, violent struggle for power. The civil wars and chaos that came out of revolutions in Syria and Libya after the Arab Spring, as well as the FARC’s failed revolution in Colombia, show how devastating revolutions can be. Neither the rank and file opposition protests nor their leaders have advocated for violence let alone for the violent overthrow of the Maduro regime. For the opposition to attempt a revolution without the full or at least significant support of the military would be suicidal, and as was mentioned above, the military appears to be fully supportive of President Maduro.
All three paths back to democracy for Venezuela are unlikely. The military continues to back Maduro which precludes the first and third paths. Even after months of protests and 7 million Venezuelans showing opposition to Maduro’s proposed constituent assembly, Maduro still feels comfortable in power suggesting that he will not resign anytime soon. With the paths back to democracy apparently closed for the time being, Venezuela seems headed towards dictatorship.
At the moment, Venezuela appears headed towards dictatorship. In the short term, it seems that President Maduro will rule Venezuela as a dictator. However, his tenure as a de facto dictator will be predicated on the military backing of his government. As other rulers in the history of Latin America discovered, support from the military is not always guaranteed.
The upcoming vote for a constituent assembly is a thinly veiled attempt by President Nicolas Maduro and his regime to rule Venezuela indefinitely without the niceties of rights, democracy, and separation of powers that is currently in the Constitution. While the text of the new constitution is not known, we can look to other countries to better understand Maduro’s plan, especially Turkey and Russia. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin both expanded their power through constitutional changes, including expanding emergency powers, extending presidential terms, and modifying term limits. Changes along these lines would formally make President Maduro a de facto dictator. Should Maduro’s plan to elect a Constitutional Assembly in order to give himself dictatorial power succeed, his regime would still not be safe from regime change.
As both dictators and democratically elected presidents in Latin America occasionally discover, the greatest threat to their regime often comes from their country’s military. A coup led by the military would most likely fit one of two scenarios. The first would be a military overthrow of Nicolas Maduro that installs someone from within the current regime who aligns more closely with the military. This scenario would be similar to the 2009 coup in Honduras.
The second scenario would be a military overthrow of the entire regime to install a member of the military as President. This scenario more closely resembles the 1973 coup in Chile or the 2013 coup in Egypt. In the case of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi found it necessary, as many dictators today do, to hold “elections” to legitimize their rule. Typically, the results of these elections end with the dictator defeating his opponent in a landslide victory as el-Sisi did in 2014 when he won with 97% of the vote.
President Maduro has been concerned with the military’s loyalty to his regime. For its part, the military has stated its support for Maduro’s planned Constituent Assembly. Benigno Alarcón, Director of the Centre for Political Studies at Andres Bello Catholic University, wrote an article in May for The Conversation about the role of the Venezuelan military:
Authoritarian regimes that stay in power using violence are well aware of their dependency on the military, so they try to find ways to gain its commitment, including by incorporating the military into the government itself.
The practice of appointing generals into positions of power existed under Chávez, but it has increased markedly since Maduro’s dubious election in 2013, which called into question the legitimacy of his government. And it’s now difficult to distinguish between government and the military as a significant number of Maduro’s cabinet members are active in the armed forces.
The blending of civilians and military personnel provides a glimpse of what the government would look like under a military-backed dictatorship. The true question will be whether or not Nicolas Maduro heads such a dictatorship.
Venezuelans face an uncertain future for their country. The opposition continues to lead a general strike against the upcoming vote for a Constituent Assembly. Cracks are emerging within the government’s power structure, and some people within the regime have come out against the President’s actions. Maduro appears to be working to shore up his power by further incorporating the military within the top echelons of the government. These three groups – the opposition, the government, and the military – are struggling for control of the country.
The crossroads that Venezuela finds itself at has two paths: democracy or dictatorship. As the crisis drags on, the country will reach a point of no return. The upcoming vote on July 30 for the Constituent Assembly may be the point at which Venezuela begins down the path of dictatorship.
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