Venezuelan lawmaker says hunger, not politics, will drive Maduro from power

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, third from left, and opposition lawmaker Gaby Arellano, second from left, march during anti-government protests in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, April 20, 2017.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, third from left, and opposition lawmaker Gaby Arellano, second from left, march during anti-government protests in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, April 20, 2017. AP

A former student activist and lawmaker in Venezuela, Gaby Arellano has become hardened by seeing friends and colleagues languish in jail or die on the streets protesting a socialist administration that has become increasingly authoritarian.

But she says she was rattled when she recently stepped into a fully stocked supermarket in Colombia.

“It was jarring,” she said of all the food on the shelves. “I spent two days crying, thinking, ‘My god, what have we turned our country into?’ 

It had been a week since the all-powerful Constituent Assembly in Venezuela had stripped congress of most of its remaining functions, leaving her and other opposition lawmakers essentially without jobs. And even in the relative safety of Colombia she was on edge. She had changed hotels three times during the week amid fears she was being followed by Venezuelan intelligence.

Arellano had come to Bogotá to warn local lawmakers about a looming humanitarian crisis across the border, as tens of thousands of Venezuelans continue to head to Colombia every day looking for food and refuge.

Venezuela, rich in oil and poor in everything else, has been gutted by falling crude prices and rampant corruption that have led to widespread food shortages, hunger and an exodus.

Sitting in a Bogotá cafe on a recent weekday, Arellano named the everyday items that now seem like luxuries: “Milk doesn’t exist in my country. Sugar doesn’t exist. There’s no fruit. There’s no bread.”

Opposition student leader Gaby Arellano, charged with conspiring against the government, arrives at the attorney general's office to testify, in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Jan. 16, 2015. Ariana Cubillos AP

A few days later, Washington would restrict the sale of Venezuelan bonds, aiming to starve the administration of resources. But even before that, Arellano said she thought the route to change would come through measures that “asphyxiated” the government, diplomatically or economically.

“I, for one, don’t see this dictatorship leaving because it lost an election,” she said.

But it’s unclear what comes next for the beleaguered opposition.

Earlier this month, Venezuela’s opposition coalition, known as the MUD, fractured over whether it should participate in gubernatorial elections in October. In addition, massive anti-government street protests that began in April have largely disbanded — in part over disappointment with the opposition.

Police and protesters clashed in the streets of Caracas on Saturday, July 29, 2017, ahead of Sunday's controversial vote.

Arellano acknowledged the coalition’s recent missteps, but she also believes that President Nicolás Maduro and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) are on borrowed time.

“The dictatorship is incredibly weak,” she said. “It’s only being propped up by the military, which has lost its legitimacy, and the errors of the political class — myself included — that opposes it.”

Just 32 years old, Arellano has spent her entire adult life living under “21st Century Socialism” — the idea conjured by the late President Hugo Chávez. A student activist since 2009, Arellano caught national attention in 2014 when she helped organize widespread anti-government demonstrations for the Voluntad Popular party. During those protests, which paralyzed swaths of the country and led to violent confrontations, Arellano was charged with conspiracy. The party’s leader, Leopoldo López, was jailed on charges of inciting violence and is now serving a 13-year sentence.

She got her big political break in December 2015, when she was swept into congress on the back of anti-government sentiment. As the opposition took control of the body for the first time in a decade, hopes were running high that it might be able to rein in Maduro.

Instead, the Supreme Court immediately began undercutting the legislature — barring deputies from taking their seats and depriving opposition lawmakers of their salaries.

Venezuelan police set fire to motorbikes belonging to the press, after police were targeted with an explosive device on Sunday, July 30, 2017. A group of around 50 journalists was reporting on the clashes between the national guards and anti-government protesters when the pro-government forces targeted their motorbikes at a corner of the Plaza Francia de Altamira, in the capital.

On March 30, 2017, the court tried to dissolve congress, only to backtrack amid an international outcry. But the attempted power grab triggered four months of anti-government protests that left more than 120 dead on both sides of the political divide.

“We had the dictatorship cornered,” Arellano said of the demonstrations. “And the opposition said it was going to stay on the streets until we had general elections.”

In the middle of the bloodshed and mass detentions, though, Maduro called for a National Constituent Assembly (ANC) to draft a new constitution — superseding all other branches of government.

“It became clear that they were going to impose the [ANC] whether they had one vote or 100, whether there was one person dead or 1,000,” she said.

The opposition boycotted the election of the members of the assembly — depriving itself of representation — and held a symbolic referendum on July 16 in hopes of derailing the ANC altogether. What it didn’t plan for, Arellano said, was how to confront the assembly once it was functioning.

Opposition women, from left, student leader Gaby Arellano, wife of jailed opposition leader Lilian Tintori, Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado, mother of jailed opposition leader Antonieta Mendoza, and two unidentified people hold a minute of silence under large images of protesters who died in recent weeks of anti-government demonstrations in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Fernando Llano AP

“We put all our energy into the July 16 [referendum], but didn’t consider what might happen July 17,” she said.

Predictably, the ANC has quickly set about amassing power, and it stripped congress of most of its remaining powers on Aug. 18.

Even as Venezuela has quit seething with daily protests, Arellano says they’re lurking just beneath the surface, waiting for a new outrage to fan them back to life. She predicted the next “detonator” might come when the administration realizes it will lose October’s regional elections and postpones them or cancels them altogether.

“The street protests in Venezuela are a product of hunger,” she explained . “Regardless of what the opposition does, or the dictatorship does, these protests are a product of the people’s needs.”

Arellano isn’t running for one of the governor’s posts, but she said she will be pushing people to vote in the Sept. 10 opposition primary and on Election Day, sometime in October.

“I’m convinced that we’ll be free someday,” she said, but she also worries that the nation still has to face some tragedies.

“With all these political processes, the end is always the worst,” she said. “The barbarity is at the end, the worst is at the end, the most shocking is at the end.”

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