When Venezuela’s opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) won a two-thirds supermajority in the National Assembly last year, it represented an unquestionable shift after sixteen years of socialist rule. There was desire for change. Not just from the traditional array of opponents to the ruling party government, but also from those who still call themselves Chavistas.
Those clamors, in part mobilized by the MUD, have become noticeably louder in recent weeks and months and protests have been firmly met by riot police and tear gas.
The country, home to the world’s largest oil reserves and previously one of the most developed in Latin America, is now suffering from the world’s highest inflation rate, varying between 180 and 700 percent. In the boom times, oil (which accounts for 95 percent of exports) helped pay for a million homes for the poor. Now, after three years of decline, with the sovereign wealth fund depleted and the economy expected to shrink by 8 percent, default is a distinct possibility.
Everyday Venezuelans are feeling the bite through shortages in electricity, food, water and medicine. The bare essentials of society have been stripped away and replaced by blackouts, endless queues for basic household goods, violence and looting. The country has the second highest murder rate in the world.
Desperation is in the air and its manifestations can no longer be passed off by the government as “revolts of the rich,” as was the case following similar protests in 2014.
President Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded the charismatic and controversial Hugo Chávez, has struggled to handle his mentor’s legacy amid low oil prices and El Niño-inspired droughts.
In spite of the MUD’s mandate in the National Assembly, Maduro has sought to extend his authority by declaring a sixty-day state of emergency.
These emergency powers, rejected by the assembly, allow the government to take control of the means of production and entrust the armed forces with greater powers of redistribution of basic goods and services as well as security.
Not for the first time Maduro has resorted to ruling by decree to limited positive effect. But on this occasion it appears to be a last resort.
Public opinion is no longer on his side. The MUD, seeking to channel the anti-government sentiment have, following their campaign promise, started proceedings for a recall referendum.
The process is a long three-stage bureaucratic affair and Chavista-dominated agencies, including the Supreme Court and the Electoral Board, have already started to impede its progress.
Firstly, 1 percent of the electorate needs to sign a petition launch the campaign: the opposition claims they have achieved this nine times over, obtaining 1.85 million signatures. These are being verified.
Should the process continue, four million signatories (20 percent of the electorate) will be required to trigger a referendum.
Finally, in order to achieve their goal, the MUD will have to surpass the 7.6 million votes that handed Maduro his electoral victory in 2013.
The government remains defiant. Maduro states that the National Assembly had lost its relevance and would soon disappear. Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz has said there will be no referendum, because the MUD application was fraudulent and late.
The timing of the referendum is significant. Should it occur before January 10, 2017, during the first half of Maduro’s term, a new presidential election can be held. Should that time frame elapse, Maduro would be replaced automatically by his deputy, Istúriz.
Time is running out and conditions on the ground are deteriorating to such an extent that civil servants are working two-day weeks to save power. Maduro has even called for the women of Venezuela to stop blowdrying their hair, which takes matters into the realm of the ridiculous.
Maduro, like his predecessor, has described the challenges facing Venezuela as those imposed, domestically, by right-wing fascists and, externally, by foreign imperial interests. His emergency measures were deemed necessary to “stabilize the country and confront all international and national threats against the fatherland”.
As such, he has organised military exercises involving 500,000 soldiers. It would appear that he is in no mood to back down.
Henrique Capriles, one of the MUD coalition leaders, has referred to the referendum as the only way to avoid social unrest — “a time bomb that can explode at any moment.”
Chavez survived a recall referendum in 2004, but Maduro lacks his predecessor’s self-assuredness. His unbending stance, with events seemingly beyond his control, offers little hope of a resolution and it’s hard to envisage the completion of his mandate without the application of more repressive measures.
Maduro can be forcibly displaced, like his recently impeached neighbor, Dilma Roussef, in Brazil. Or he can confront his growing group of detractors, pushing the country worryingly close to civil war, as experienced by the long-suffering people of Colombia.
However events unfold, there will be casualties.