Venezuela’s socialist administration is flirting with confrontation and violence if it continues to drag its feet on a presidential recall, opposition leaders said Wednesday.
The warning came as thousands of foes of President Nicolás Maduro marched on the headquarters of the National Electoral Council (CNE) demanding that a date be set for the next stage of the referendum.
In Caracas, the crowds were blocked from reaching downtown, but CNE member Luis Emilio Rondón reportedly told organizers that the council had passed one of the preliminary steps of the recall and that there would be an official announcement Monday.
The nationwide demonstrations were called after the CNE failed to deliver the expected go-ahead on Tuesday.
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Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, one of the main proponents of the recall, warned CNE President Tibisay Lucena not to delay the announcement any longer.
“We’ll wait until Monday for your answer, Mrs. Lucena,” he told a crowd of supporters. Otherwise, “you’ll be responsible for what happens in this country. The patience of Venezuelans is running out.”
“We will keep insisting on a peaceful solution, but the people who live in the slums know better than anyone else that if there’s no solution, anything can happen,” he added.
The march was smaller than previous demonstrations, the Associated Press reported, and broke up peacefully amid afternoon rains.
The show of force came as Venezuela is staggering beneath a deep economic, social and political crisis in the wake of plummeting oil revenue. Major polls show that Venezuelans — weary of rampant violence and chronic shortages of basic goods — are ready to oust Maduro.
If the recall happens before Jan. 10, new elections would be triggered. After that, however, Maduro’s vice president would finish out his term through 2019. That’s a scenario the opposition wants to avoid.
It’s far from clear whether the CNE, which is accused of being beholden to the president will let the vote happen in a timely fashion. And there are still major hoops for organizers to jump through.
In the next phase, recall proponents will have just three days to collect 3.9 signatures, or 20 percent of registered voters.
And there are also legal challenges. The administration is accusing organizers of acting in bad faith and packing the petition with thousands of fraudulent signatures — from made-up names to the dead.
Late Tuesday, Jorge Rodríguez, a mayor and member of the ruling party’s recall “verification commission,” asked the electoral body to strip the opposition coalition of its political status, saying it “had committed the country’s largest electoral fraud.”
Even with suspect signatures, however, the opposition claims that it turned in more than 400,000 valid signatures last month, or more than double the amount necessary, to get the process under way.
Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba, the general secretary of the opposition group known as the MUD, said the administration wouldn’t dare dissolve the party during these tense times.
“That would mean that the government gave up on politics and gave up on [even] the appearance of being a democracy,” he said. “That’s a scenario like North Korea or Fidel’s Cuba. That’s a scenario that doesn’t exist in Venezuela.”
Whether authorities will use the legal challenge to delay the recall remains to be seen. But it’s another indicator of the multiple forces that the opposition is up against.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch underscored the dangers of dissent. The U.S.-based organization, which has often butted heads with the Maduro administration, said that since May, security forces had detained at least 21 people on allegations that they were planning or had participated in violent anti-government action.
In several of those cases, prosecutors didn’t present any credible evidence, the report found. And many of those detained claimed they had been tortured or abused in custody. Some said they had received electric shocks and were threatened with rape and murder to coerce confessions.
“The Maduro administration speaks about dialogue abroad, while cracking down on political dissent at home,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Without strong regional pressure, the Venezuelan government may well believe that it can get away with brutal and authoritarian punishment for dissent.”
Organizers of Wednesday’s march said they planned to keep the pressure on the government the rest of the week. But not everybody is convinced the demonstrations will make a difference.
At a grocery store near one of the protests, Luz Bastez said she was more concerned about putting food on her table than politics.
“What’s the point in protesting? The people in power are going to do what they’re going to do,” she told the Associated Press. “What I’m worried about is whether the milk is going to run out at this store.”