Venezuela is fast on its way to becoming the next Cuba, if the Socialist Party of Venezuela gets its way and succeeds in rewriting the constitution to enshrine its authoritarian rule permanently – and that should be worrisome for those of us that share the Western hemisphere with Caracas. Venezuela due to its vast natural resources and wealth, strategic importance, and established relationships with hostile, extra-hemispheric actors, has the potential to be a far greater problem. The only political body not in the government’s control is the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which has therefore come under both political and physical attack from the government and its allies. The Venezuelan people, as I’ve written about previously, have taken to the streets to fight their government. Close to one hundred people have been killed in three and a half months of massive street protests against the government, which has grown increasingly repressive and violent. Approximately 1,500 have been injured.
The national security implications of continued chavista rule are as big a cause for concern as is the worsening political, economic and humanitarian crisis. Venezuela has increasingly become a source of instability due to the vast and institutionalized corruption and narco-trafficking, in which government officials and the military are key parts. It has also been a focal point in the region for the presence of extra-hemispheric powers, prominently including Iran and Hezbollah, other jihadi groups (among other ways, this enabling has taken place through the sale of Venezuelan passports to Islamic militants), Russia, and China, all of whom, to varying degrees, have sought to use their presence to undermine American interests. A loss of power by the chavistas in Caracas would threaten a key base in Latin America for all of these actors, and all have supported the regime in varying ways.
The government has used shady methods to frustrate every attempt by the National Assembly to limit Maduro’s power, force a recall election, or even hold regularly scheduled regional elections. The concern of the ruling chavista regime goes beyond just the potential to lose political power. Due to the widespread nature of corruption and narco-trafficking, should the government lose power government officials could in all likelihood end up in prison, or even on a plane to the United States to face narco-trafficking charges. The Venezuelan military has propped up the chavista regime due to it having been made a stakeholder by Hugo Chavez in the government’s corruption and narco-trafficking for the express purpose of ensuring its continued loyalty. The limited number of senior military officers are all very much a part of this morass and the whole of the officer corps is watched carefully for any signs of disloyalty. In recent months the military’s role in the country has been expanded – it has now been placed in charge of imports of food and basic consumer goods, given the right to set up mining and oil companies, etc. It is therefore extremely unlikely that a military leader will arise who will side with the people against the government.
The government attempted to neutralize the constitutional power of the National Assembly this past spring when it had the Supreme Court, stacked as it is with chavistas, strip the National Assembly of its legislative powers. A short time later the government was forced to backtrack due to the huge outcry on the part of the Venezuelan people and intense international criticism. This time, the government is seeking to neutralize the National Assembly permanently, through a Constituent Assembly, elections for which are to take place on July 30. The goal of the Constituent Assembly is to create new governing institutions, to be known as communal counsels, members of which can be handpicked by the government and the counsels controlled directly by the Venezuelan Socialist Party, doing away with state and local governments, and, of course, the National Assembly – the only political institution left in the country that can reasonably claim to have the support of the vast majority of the Venezuelan people and of civil society. The result will be the complete Cubanization of Venezuela. The Constituent Assembly would have almost unlimited power while it pursues the constitutional revision process. Maduro claims it is necessary to restore “peace and prosperity” – ignoring the fact that the problem with Venezuela is not its existing constitution, but the chavistas themselves.
The government has a constitutional responsibility, both the opposition and many legal experts argue, to allow the people of Venezuela to decide whether they want a new constitution before creating a constitutional assembly and rewriting the existing one. Hugo Chavez called a referendum both times that he attempted to rewrite the constitution – his embarrassing loss in 2007 referendum that sought a major rewrite has doubtless contributed to Maduro’s refusal to hold one in this case. A poll by Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis showed that 85% of those surveyed opposed rewriting the present constitution. A similar number said that Maduro should have called for a referendum before attempting to call a constituent assembly.
The democratic opposition, therefore, calling on its constitutional powers to call a national referendum on issues of pressing national importance, has called for a national plebiscite (consulta popular), to take place Sunday, July 16, two weeks ahead of the government’s vote, to illustrate the depth of public opposition to the government’s attempt to make permanent its authoritarian rule, and the depth of public support for the National Assembly’s efforts to restore the rule of law and observance of the constitution. Aware that the government is likely to do all that it can in order to undermine the plebiscite, including the use of violence, the opposition has invited international observers. When Julio Borges, the President of the National Assembly, announced the plebiscite on July 3, he was flanked by other opposition leaders a well as key actors from civil society – university presidents, leaders of various student movements, church leaders, etc., illustrating the breadth of support for the plebiscite.
On July 5, Venezuela’s Independence Day, the National Assembly met to vote formally on holding the July 16 referendum. In order to forestall that vote, government-backed “colectivos” invaded the building and assaulted Assembly members and their staff with pipes, rocks, firearms and home made mortars, over the course of several hours, while the government guards who are supposed to protect the institution stood idly by. Not to be dissuaded, the opposition held the vote anyway, after the physical threat subsided.
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