Peter Wilson Friday, March 11, 2016
Venezuela’s ongoing political battle between its three branches of government, which has paralyzed efforts to stop the country’s slide into the economic abyss, is slated to get worse this weekend when the opposition takes to the streets to press President Nicolas Maduro to resign. The Democratic Unity Roundtable—the opposition coalition known by its Spanish acronym, MUD, that won a parliamentary majority in last year’s elections—has called for demonstrations in Caracas and other cities Saturday as part of a full-court press to end Venezuela’s crisis peacefully by forcing Maduro out and holding fresh presidential elections.
Those protests left 43 dead in their wake and resulted in the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is now serving a 13-year jail term in a military prison outside Caracas on what many consider to be politically motivated charges. After Torrealba’s press conference, the Maduro-led government immediately announced plans for its own competing march the same day.
The other prongs of the MUD’s strategy against Maduro include pressing for a constitutional amendment that would shorten his term, or starting moves for a recall vote. Others have called for rewriting the entire constitution.
The opposition’s strategy, however confrontational, may also be the result of decisions by Venezuela’s Supreme Court, which has repeatedly thrown aside actions by the National Assembly, the country’s legislature, calling them unconstitutional. The court began doing so in early January when it ruled that three opposition lawmakers couldn’t take their seats in the assembly due to alleged electoral irregularities. The decision deprived the opposition of an air-tight two-thirds majority in the assembly, which would have facilitated their push to oust Maduro. Nearly three months later, the court still hasn’t made a final ruling on the trio.
“Maduro is killing Venezuela. Anyone would be better.”
Then, after the assembly denied Maduro’s request to call an economic emergency and assume special powers, the court interceded again, ruling that the president didn’t need congressional approval.
The court’s attitude isn’t a surprise. The majority of the judges are supporters of Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez. Their partiality has been suspect for years, especially following the opening of one session when the judges launched into a pro-Chavez song.
“So far, the most important power, the Supreme Court, seems to be holding tight,” says David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “As long as the Maduro government keeps the court and the armed forces on its side, it will probably be able to deflect the opposition’s plans for a constitutional amendment or constitutional assembly. I think a push for a recall referendum following established norms is the only path that has a chance of success given the court’s stance.”
Still, Maduro’s seeming inability to right the economy and end shortages of basic foodstuffs, medicines and spare parts, which have left Venezuelans spending hours in line whenever they go shopping, has strengthened the movement to push him from power.
Maduro, who has warned that Venezuela’s economic crisis may run into 2017, hasn’t taken the necessary steps to right the economy, fearing a backlash from his own supporters. He has devalued the currency and raised domestic gasoline prices but failed to present a comprehensive economic plan. Instead, he has called for greater state control of the economy, while firing his finance minister only six weeks after appointing him.
Venezuela’s economy is expected to contract by an additional 8 percent this year, following last year’s decline of 10 percent. Inflation is expected to top a staggering 700 percent, and the value of the Venezuelan currency, the strong bolivar, continues to sink on the black market. The currency now trades at 1,207 bolivars to the dollar, versus the official exchange rate of 10 to the dollar. The black market rate has fallen by more than 150 bolivars to the dollar since Maduro devalued, as investors vote with their money.
Making matters worse are fears that Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, may default later this year. The government made a $1.5 billion bond payment earlier this month but must come up with an additional $12 billion later this year. Facing a 70 percent drop in oil prices that has shredded public finances, the government has chosen to slash imports to make debt payments. Oil accounts for 95 percent of Venezuela’s exports, and taxes on the industry account for about 40 percent of government revenue.
But in cutting imports, shortages have exacerbated. “I can’t find bread; I can’t find milk; I can’t find toilet paper or soap,” says Hector Villareal, a 43-year-old car mechanic and father of four in Caracas, who plans to attend the protest. “Maduro is killing Venezuela. Anyone would be better.”
Polls suggest that Villareal isn’t alone in his belief. A survey by the Datincorp polling agency found that 72 percent of respondents want Maduro to leave office before his term expires in 2019. Seven out of 10 believe that he is “incompetent” when it comes to resolving the economic crisis.
And there are some that believe that many within Maduro’s own United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) privately doubt the president’s ability to pull the country out of its tailspin. Opposition leader Henry Ramos Allup, who heads the National Assembly, said in a television interview at the end of February that some factions within the PSUV were contemplating an internal putsch, which would relieve Maduro of his duties, create a transitional government with the opposition and move up presidential elections.
Allup charged that one anti-Maduro faction was headed by the governor of Zulia state, Francisco Arias Cardenas, who had the backing of five other governors. All the members of the clique were former army officers who participated in Chavez’s two abortive coups in 1992. “And more than one of them has presidential aspirations,” Allup said. Allup’s assertions were backed by other opposition figures—and denounced by government backers.
Yet Maduro’s failing prospects are alarming many in the party, says Caracas-based political consultant Tareq Yorde, especially as gubernatorial elections are set to take place later this year. The PSUV currently holds 20 of the 23 statehouses.
“They could lose up to 15 of them,” says Yorde. “People within the party are worried.”
Unrest is mounting, and many fear that a social explosion—widespread looting, demonstrations or attacks on government facilities—could lead the military to act. According to the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, the number of attempted or successful lootings across the country last month totaled 41, the highest monthly level in a year.
“Something has to give,” says Villareal. “We can’t go on living like this.”
Peter Wilson, the former Caracas bureau chief for Bloomberg News, is now a freelance journalist living outside Caracas. He has lived in Venezuela since 1992.