Venezuela Lurches Toward Authoritarianism

International pressure on Venezuela is mounting as the country’s strongman, Nicolás Maduro, clamps down.

President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela waves at crowds during an Independence Day parade, July 5, 2016
President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela waves at crowds during an Independence Day parade, July 5, 2016 (Prensa Presidencial/Yoset Montes)

Venezuela has plummeted to new depths. In an act of blatant disregard of the separation of powers, the Supreme Court has stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its lawmaking power and revoked immunity from all assembly members after accusing parliamentarians of “contempt”.

This latest step toward authoritarianism was denounced as a “coup” and “a final blow to democracy” — not just by opposition parties, but by the international community and even some within the government (the state attorney general).

It was this broad consensus that brought about a hasty volte face within a matters of days. President Nicolás Maduro reversed the judiciary’s decision in order to “maintain institutional stability”.

Authoritarianism

When the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable won a two-thirds supermajority in the National Assembly last year, it was heralded as an opportunity for change.

However, Chavistas still fill key executive, military and judicial posts and have blocked the legislature’s challenges to the ruling United Socialist Party at every turn.

Attempts to unseat Maduro through a recall referendum have been seen off by the Supreme Court and the Electoral Commission. For the 2017 national budget, the National Assembly was circumvented altogether.

Despite last week’s U-turn, Maduro has managed to bestow upon himself sweeping new powers over the oil industry, enabling him to make deals without congressional approval.

This authoritarian behavior denotes a fear of removal and the consequences that this might bring. Maduro’s approval rating is at a low of 24 percent. Gubernatorial and municipal elections have been postponed and fresh obstacles put in place of small (opposition) parties.

This week, opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who nearly defeated Maduro in the presidential election of 2013, was barred from public office for fifteen years. Fellow presidential hopeful Leopoldo Lopéz lost his final appeal against a fourteen-year jail sentence for inciting violence during the 2014 protests.

International pressure

Over the past year, attempts at dialogue to resolve the political impasse, mediated by the Organization of American States and even the Pope, have proved fruitless. Maduro’s government has used these talks as a diversionary tactic to avoid progress on the recall referendum.

Neighbors are now losing patience. Some have already removed their ambassadors from Caracas.

Mercosur, the Latin American trade bloc, suspended Venezuela in 2016. The country now faces expulsion.

There are other external actors who, for financial reasons, may seek to push for change. Venezuela has $110 billion in external debt. China and Russia combined have extended $55 billion in credit to Venezuela and, while they remain allies, they expect a return on their investments.

Maduro has started to sell off parts of the the state-run oil company to meet bond obligations, as the shrinking sovereign wealth fund is insufficient to cover both these and the cost of imports.

With American foreign policy subject to the whims of Donald Trump, it is likely that these allies and neighbors will play a major role in the Venezuelan strongman’s future.

Economic plight

Since Maduro came to power in 2013, he has struggled to carry on the momentum generated by his predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

The country, which depends on oil for 95 percent of its exports, has suffered tragically in recent years from prices that have fallen from highs of $130 per barrel to $20.

A focus on short-term political gain and a completely unsustainable economic policy have led to record inflation — estimated to reach 1,600 percent next year — as well as shortages in food and medicine. Three out of four Venezuelans have lost weight on the Maduro diet. Power outages are commonplace. The percentage of people living in poverty that has gone up from 27 to 82 in just the last three years.

Add to this situation a leader who stubbornly clings to power and constantly divides the nation between “the people” and “the neoliberal elite” and the result can only be chronic disorder. Caracas is now the murder capital of the world.

Maduro has no strategy for recovery except to hope and wait oil prices will rise again. With no political outlet for dissent, and a scarcity in two-thirds of basic goods keeping desperate protesters malnourished, there is a sense of hopelessness setting in.

A free and fair 2019 election seems a long way off. If Maduro’s repressive attempts to ensure his own survival at the expense of his citizens are to be curtailed beforehand, the opposition and indeed the people of Venezuela will need internal Chavista fissures and external pressure to continue in order to succeed.