Andres Oppenheimer

Venezuela’s opposition is gaining momentum — at home and abroad

Police and protesters clash in Venezuela

Anti-government protests continue to grow in Venezuela with one of the largest to date happening on April 19, 2017.
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Anti-government protests continue to grow in Venezuela with one of the largest to date happening on April 19, 2017.

When I interviewed Venezuela’s National Assembly President Julio Borges earlier this week, amid the massive anti-government protests that have left at least 26 dead in his country, one of my first questions was whether the opposition will be able to maintain its current momentum with huge protests on the streets. Some say it won’t.

An April 23 article in the Financial Times argued that the opposition protests may soon get smaller, as they did in 2013, 2014 and 2016. The country’s authoritarian ruler, President Nicolás Maduro, may ride out the demonstrations, it said.

Venezuelan ex-pats gathered at Doral's El Arepazo 2 to march against the government of Nicolas Maduro on April 19, 2017.

“In a country where scrounging for food and medicine has become a full-time job for many, the personal costs of sustaining protests are simply too high,” said the story by Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management professor Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez. “When the world stops paying attention and international pressure begins to wane, so too do the crowds.”

The article went on to say that time “is on Maduro’s side, even as 80 percent of Venezuelans are not.” Unlike what happened in Brazil when former President Dilma Rousseff was ousted amid nationwide protests, Venezuela does not have an independent judiciary, nor an independent Supreme Court, nor a fully empowered Congress, the article said.

It concluded: “The system is too broken to reset itself.”

Borges, the opposition leader who heads the Venezuelan National Assembly, knows firsthand how Maduro has abolished all independent institutions. After the opposition won legislative elections by a landslide in 2015, Maduro single-handedly took away virtually all congressional powers in a slow-motion coup d’etat.

But Borges insists that the current wave of nationwide street protests will not subside.

“Today, we have much more favorable conditions, both domestically and internationally,” he told me. “We have more energy, more motivation and a much weaker government.”

Domestically, there are growing cracks within the regime, he said, citing the case of attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz, a close ally of the Maduro regime who recently surprised the world by saying that the government had violated the Constitution by curtailing the National Assembly’s powers. There are similar cracks within the armed forces, he said.

Internationally, Latin America’s biggest countries — including Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru — have for the first time signed a joint document denouncing the break of democratic rule in Venezuela, and demanding free elections. So has the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union.

Venezuelans defy government roadblocks surrounding the capital city of Caracas on April 19, 2017.

The OAS was scheduled to convene a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the Venezuelan crisis, including the regime’s near-abolishment of congressional powers, its holding of political prisoners, and its ban on the best-known opposition leaders from running for office for up to 15 years.

And unlike in previous occasions, the regime is bankrupt, and Venezuela is going through widespread shortages of food and medicine. The country’s inflation is the highest in the world, estimated at more than 700 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

These are new factors that together create a new dynamic, Borges said.

Asked about the fact that — unlike Brazil when it ousted Rousseff — Venezuela has no independent institutions that could carry out an impeachment, nor a free press, Borges said: “That’s a key point: In Venezuela. there is no functioning constitution, no law and no institutions.”

But a combination of factors — including a demand by the armed forces that the regime abide by the Constitution, massive street protests and growing international pressure — will converge to force Maduro to hold free elections, he said.

“We don’t want the armed forces to come and ‘save’ the country. We don’t want a coup,” Borges told me. “What we want is [help] to restore the constitution that the government has abolished with its coup.”

My opinion: I don’t know whether Maduro will last one month, one year, or even beyond scheduled elections in late 2018. But 18 years after its disastrous “Bolivarian revolution” turned one of the richest countries on earth into a basket case, Venezuela has proven that it’s no Cuba.

Venezuelans haven’t lost their democratic reflexes, despite nearly two decades of press censorship, massive government propaganda, intimidation and repression. I, for one, am optimistic that Maduro won’t last many years.

Sen. Bill Nelson gives remarks on the crisis in Venezuela at his regional office in Coral Gables, Florida on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español

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