The fight to reverse the authoritarian, despotic project of Nicolás Maduro continues in Venezuela. Maduro (and the military-civilian leaders who support him) took complete control of the state apparatus during the July and December 2017 elections that put in place new governors, mayors, and members of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC). The electoral processes were fraudulent and not in accordance with the law; nor did they guarantee equal conditions for competing candidates or democratic transparency. Moreover, no national arbiter exists with the authority to investigate or revoke the results. To further consolidate control, Maduro and the ruling party took advantage of the frustration and tension between citizens and opposing political leaders, and through the power vested in the illegal and illegitimate ANC, announced early and unconstitutional presidential elections for April 22. Maduro immediately proclaimed himself a candidate.
While Maduro dismantles the last vestiges of Venezuelan democratic institutions, the country sinks further into a catastrophic socioeconomic crisis. The international community has sounded the alarm and is exerting pressure on the government to return to constitutionality and address what is already a humanitarian crisis. Thousands of Venezuelans flee daily toward the borders, threatening the stability of neighboring countries. The interests of the great powers—the USA, Russia, and China—also add to the tragedy, due to their disputes over Venezuela’s large mining resources.
The country’s future is uncertain. Maduro has ensured that his authority is secure. He has neutralized his internal rivals and confused and divided his political opponents through skillful maneuvers of “carrot and stick,” persecution, and negotiation. However, the people have not stopped pushing back. Between April and July of last year, the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict recorded an average of more than 55 protests daily. The official response was a brutal repression that left more than 140 dead. The political protestors, exhausted and terrified, yielded under pressure, but the acute lack of food and medicine continues to incite riots and daily looting of grocery stores, warehouses, and trucks carrying food. Venezuela is in a state of anarchy. It has the highest homicide rate in the world. The government, under the pretext of protecting the population, enters lower income neighborhoods at night, without a court order, and raids homes, supposedly in pursuit of delinquents. Reports of human rights violations number in the hundreds. This policy of terror goes under the name of the “Operation to Free the People.”
January began with a joint police, military, and paramilitary operation that left seven armed rebels dead. Oscar Pérez, a pilot and former officer of the Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas Penales y Criminalísticas (CICPC)—the investigative police corps—together with six other companions, the majority of them civilians, were cornered and killed on the outskirts of Caracas. The forensic evidence—a bullet in each of their heads—suggests extrajudicial executions. Pérez posted 14 videos on Instagram narrating the siege, their attempt to surrender, a failed negotiation, and the final government attack with grenade launchers.
In the coming months, things in Venezuela will likely stay this way. Maduro—already a dictator—has set himself up as the continuation of Hugo Chavez. Negotiations between his government and the opposition continued in the Dominican Republic, with his delegates demanding that the opposition party recognize the illegitimate ANC while threatening to pursue the presidential elections extemporaneously under their arbitrary rules. The National Electoral Board is only the executing arm of the will of the president. These conditions are obviously unacceptable to democratic opposition groups.
It does not seem that Maduro and his civilian-military entourage are concerned about the political costs of their growing authoritarian, militarist, delinquent, and corrupt state. Despite their compromised financial situation, the atrocious socioeconomic condition of the country, and their international isolation, they are not budging. They are betting on their control over the population with a strategy that combines repression with clientelism, supported by the Carnet de la Patria (Venezuelan ID Card) and the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAS) that distribute money and boxes of food at subsidized prices. This strategy is reinforced by public relations campaigns that instill terror.
Without a political change, the population will continue to suffer. Hyperinflation will continue decimate salaries, forcing citizens to depend on handouts distributed by Maduro and his military henchmen. Basic public services, electricity, water, and security will continue to collapse. Young people will remain in the diaspora. For now, there does not seem to be any sign that a strong opposition coalition capable of unifying the social discontent can be formed.
However, it is hard to imagine that the current situation can continue over time without undermining the support base of Maduro’s regime. There is, in the acute poverty of millions of people, as well as in the violence that ravages homes of every social status, an explosive situation that makes the immediate future unpredictable. The firm support of regional and international organizations for the forces of democracy, as well as the existence of a civil society and internal democratic politics, although weakened, continues to abrade the apparent cohesion of the dominating block. The perseverance of these actors is decisive for Venezuelan democracy.
A political transition could occur in the next few months if the hegemonic block were to splinter. It could be the product of a military coup, in which case any democratization effort would be in ashes. Or it could, thanks to international and domestic pressure, be the fruit of negotiations between government and opposition forces, facilitating an agreed-on agenda based on freedoms. It is also possible that the unequal and rigged presidential elections in April could end up setting off a political crisis that precipitates such a splintering.
The challenge is clear: the democrats must be ready to unite around a political direction to be able to take advantage of any opportunity. Parties, movements, and citizens must be coordinated and clear about the immediate steps to take, both for getting out of the dictatorship and overcoming the country’s humanitarian emergency.
Margarita Lopez Maya is a professor at the Central University of Venezuela and researches and lectures on the contemporary political history of Venezuela.