Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is running scared. His government’s recent decision to suspend efforts to hold a recall referendum against him is irrefutable proof. It removes the last fig leaf of democracy from his nakedly authoritarian regime.
The decision to short-circuit efforts to gather enough signatures to hold a constitutional referendum that would almost certainly result in Mr. Maduro being rejected foreclosed what may be the only remaining peaceful option for change in this unraveling country of 30 million.
The president’s popularity has plummeted, the economy’s in the tank, Venezuela’s people are angry and frustrated. Amid the widespread discontent and rising chorus demanding his removal, the president is running out of options and has finally abandoned the pretense that Venezuela is a democracy.
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Before succumbing to cancer in 2013, the late Hugo Chávez, founder of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, handpicked Mr. Maduro, a favorite henchman, to become his successor. Mr. Maduro, however, had precious little understanding of what it takes to run a country. He possesses none of the political skill or charisma of his predecessor and has proven unable to win the support of the masses of poor Venezuelans who practically worshiped Mr. Chávez.
As a result, the former bus driver and union leader has resorted to anti-democratic means to stay in power, ordering his puppet courts to deny the constitutional authority of the national assembly and jailing opposition leaders he deemed a threat to his power.
Today, however, even former Chavistas have had it with the government and are flocking to the opposition’s side. The proposed referendum represented one last, legitimate effort to use constitutional, democratic means to remove an inept and oppressive government.
On Monday, the Maduro government appeared to step back from the brink by releasing five Venezuelan opposition politicians from detention, a day after the government and the opposition held Vatican-mediated talks on how to end the country’s political crisis. The opposition then said it would postpone a “political trial” of Mr. Maduro in the Assembly.
Normally, this would be a reason for optimism. But given the track record of deception and intransigence by the Maduro government, there’s little reason to have confidence in dialogue.
Hopes for democratic progress were high in 2014 amid a previous round of talks following a series of demonstrations that left 43 dead. But the talks failed, and Mr. Maduro went on about his business as usual. Once again, Mr. Maduro sees talks as a convenient way to evade responsibility and buy time to wiggle out of a constitutional impasse.
The opposition is unlikely to be fooled. If Mr. Maduro does not rescind the order to halt the referendum, his foes will go ahead with a planned protest march on Thursday, as it should, to demand that the government reverse its ham-handed action.
Given the anger on the streets and refusal by the president to recognize the legitimate authority of the national assembly, the opposition has no other recourse.
At one time, friendly Latin American countries would have stepped in to pressure an out-of-control government to listen to its people. But the Organization of American States is apparently not in the business of upholding hemispheric standards of democracy any longer. And the Obama administration has been content to keep a low profile rather than risk being seen as a meddler.
That leaves the people of Venezuela alone to face a government that doesn’t know when it’s time to leave.