At around this time last year, I wrote an article describing the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and the legacy he left behind. I also offered some reflections on the country’s future, in view of the legislative elections which were coming up at the end of last year, and their projected impact on the country’s political landscape. One year later, it is worth revisiting this question and looking at the reality that has unfolded in the Bolivarian Republic in 2016. As we shall see, it is one characterized by political stalemate as the government has done all it can to neutralize the opposition’s efforts and cling on to political power.
The Venezuelan legislative elections in December 2015 saw the opposition party win a landslide victory, as they secured a two thirds ‘super’ majority in the National Assembly – the Venezuelan equivalent of the UK Parliament. This decisive outcome reflected the public’s discontent at the government of Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’ protégé and successor, who has presided over the country’s complete economic meltdown, with inflation reaching 470% and the country now facing an acute shortage of staple goods. Against this sad backdrop, the opposition’s victory in the National Assembly promised to bring real political change in 2016, giving them the power (among other things) to remove government ministers, curtail government spending, reform central bank and foreign reserve law, and most importantly, arrange a recall referendum – i.e. a national election to remove the government before the end of its term in 2019.
Despite the promising outlook, these changes have failed to materialize due to the government’s attempts to block the opposition’s plans and initiatives at every turn. In response to the legislative election defeat, Maduro packed the country’s Supreme Court with pro-government judges, thereby allowing him to overrule and bypass the opposition controlled National Assembly. At the start of the year, for instance, the Supreme Court gave Maduro temporary emergency powers to intervene in the economy without the National Assembly’s approval. The Supreme Court has also blocked efforts by the National Assembly to grant amnesty to the dozens of political prisoners held captive by the government. These are clear signs of the government’s reluctance to yield any political power.
Crucially, on the question of the recall referendum, the government has been equally uncompromising. Over the summer, the opposition successfully collected four million public signatures needed to arrange the referendum, yet the government last month suspended the vote on the grounds that some of the signatures were fraudulent. The reasons for this move are obvious – a referendum defeat this year would spell the immediate end of the current socialist government, whereas (by a constitutional loophole) the same outcome next year would only require the replacement of Maduro with no further impact on the ruling socialist party. With recent polls showing that up to 70% of Venezuelans support the government’s removal, these delay tactics are clearly motivated by nothing more than political self-interest.
This has sparked widespread public outcry, leading to mass street protests a few weeks ago reminiscent of the 2014 protests which resulted in dozens of deaths. As political tensions rise, the Vatican has now stepped in to act as a mediator between the two sides and avoid the prospect of
further bloodshed, in a country where 75% of the population is Catholic. So far the Vatican has convinced the opposition to postpone a march on the presidential palace which would have almost certainly ended in bloody confrontations. However, little progress has been made beyond this step, as the government shows no signs of agreeing to the opposition’s key negotiating demands such as the freeing of political prisoners. If an agreement is not reached in the coming weeks, the opposition is likely to call for protests to resume, raising the prospect once more of state violence and repression.
Finally, with regards to the economy, the government’s handling of the country’s foreign debt presents another clear of example of their political self-interest. Against all market expectations, Venezuela has kept up its foreign debt repayments this year in the face of tumbling oil revenues and dwindling foreign exchange and gold reserves. The reason investors did not see this coming is simple: they were expecting the Venezuelan government to use what little funds they have left to pay for imports to counteract the country’s shortage of basic goods. However, rather than feed the people, the government has taken a different priority: namely, to avoid a default at all costs since this would lead to the disruption of the country’s oil exports, resulting in the government’s certain demise.
In summary, the developments that have shaped Venezuelan politics over the past year reveal a sad truth about the country – namely, the government’s principal aim lies in clinging on to power at all costs rather than protecting the interests of the Venezuelan people. This explains why the government has openly defied the will of the people by blocking the recall referendum and undermining the democratically elected National Assembly. This is why they prioritise the country’s foreign debt over solving the shortage of food and medicine. This is why no serious action is taken to address economic problems such as hyperinflation. The result is a growing humanitarian crisis where scenes of human desperation become increasingly commonplace. Moreover, as the opposition threatens to coordinate a fresh wave of street protests and other forms of civil disobedience, this crisis risks descending into a full-blown conflict.