C&B Notes

A Venezuelan Counter-Revolution?

Continuing to dispense with the pretense of its socialist revolution dating to Chavez’s rise to power, Maduro’s government – with the military and the judiciary clearly in its pocket – ruled against a presidential recall referendum in a transparently coordinated effort. Venezuelans have taken to the streets in increasing numbers to protest.  Whom will the military ultimately support?

This time, the protests were nationwide.  From Maracaibo in the west to Ciudad Guayana in the east, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans filled the streets to call for an end to the authoritarian left-wing regime led by Nicolás Maduro.  More than 100 people were arrested and one policeman in the state of Miranda died.  “This government is never going to leave through an election,” said María Gil, a masseuse who joined the throng in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital.  “All that is left is protest.” David Mujica, a street trader, agreed that voting “changes nothing.”

Both protesters branded Mr. Maduro a “dictator”, a term Venezuelans have been using more freely after the events of the past fortnight.  On October 21st, days before voters were to go to polling stations to register their signatures in favor of holding a referendum to recall the president from office, the process came to an abrupt halt.  Five criminal courts in five separate states declared that the conduct of an earlier stage in the process — the submission of signatures from at least 1% of the electorate — had been fraudulent.  That is nonsense.  The opposition submitted 2m signatures in April, ten times the minimum number.  The electoral council, which is supposedly independent but kowtows to the regime, had said that 1.4m of those were valid.  The five courts did not explain their reasoning.

The government, which is presiding over the deepest recession in Venezuela’s history and acute shortages of food and medicine, has given up all pretense that it will work with any institution that it does not control.  It has ignored the national assembly, which is dominated by the opposition.  The legislature still summons ministers to explain plans or provide information, but none ever appears.  On October 14th, the president passed next year’s government budget without sending it to the assembly, in violation of the constitution.  A compliant supreme court, stuffed with pro-government cronies, waved it through.  The court has vetoed every law that parliament has passed this year.

Now the assembly is in open revolt.  On October 23rd, after the suspension of the referendum, it met in emergency session to declare that a coup had taken place.  A pro-government mob entered the parliament building during the meeting, in a clumsily stage-managed attempt to demonstrate to television viewers that a popular “revolution” continues.  Some of the intruders were armed.  The assembly has since declared that the president may have abandoned his duties and should therefore stand trial.  No one thinks this will happen.  The constitution does not explicitly provide for the possibility of such a trial, and Mr. Maduro would not show up if it did.

The squelching of the recall referendum is a signal that the regime has made a decision about how to deal with the crisis.  Some in the socialist chavista movement—founded by Mr. Maduro’s charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chávez—are thought to have argued for allowing a recall vote in 2017, past the date when it would have triggered a fresh presidential election. If Mr. Maduro had lost next year, a near certainty given his 20% approval rating, the vice-president, currently Aristóbulo Istúriz, would have taken over from him. Hardliners privately argued for holding no referendum at all. The governors of the five states whose courts blocked it are thought to be among their number. That decision seems to mean that they intend to stick with Mr. Maduro, at least until the next presidential election in 2018. Some now wonder whether that election will be held.

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