The late socialist leader Hugo Chávez should be turning over in his grave as the poor are suffering the most from Venezuela’s economic collapse. His successor, President Nicolás Maduro, is attempting to cling to power by railing against a recall referendum, a provision that Chávez himself included in the constitution.
The humanitarian disaster caused by Maduro’s policies, compounded by the economic impact of a sharp drop in global oil prices, explains why even some longtime Chavistas are demanding a referendum to oust the president. Misguided policies have undermined national production of basic goods and undercut imports. Hospitals are running out of catheters, sheets, and working x-ray machines. People line up before dawn for milk and other basic foods — which are usually gone by the time they reach the front of the line.
Meanwhile, Maduro claims that petitioners supporting a recall referendum are equivalent to military coup plotters. With each passing day of this crisis, he sounds more like the Mad Hatter declaring, “Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be.”
The desperation of the regime is reflected in the latest presidential emergency decree announced last week, which is unprecedented in its scope. It allows the president to “dictate the measures he considers convenient” to maintain public order.
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Worryingly, the Maduro government appears willing to use armed force against political opponents. In 2014, protests calling for Maduro’s exit were met with violence. Security forces used tear gas, water cannons, plastic bullets, and even fired occasional live rounds. Groups of armed, pro-government civilians, known as the colectivos, were frequently involved. Last week’s massive military maneuvers seem intended as a show of strength.
There are reasons that Maduro is not following Chávez’s lead by accepting a mid-term referendum. Unlike Chávez, who prevailed in the 2004 referendum, Maduro, is in a much weaker position — particularly after seeing his party lose two-thirds of the parliament last December. He suspects, probably rightly, that any new election triggered by a referendum would result in an opposition victory.
Earlier this month, the opposition claimed it had garnered 2.5 million signatures in support of the recall — about 14 times more than the 1 percent of the population needed to pass the first hurdle of the referendum process. If the government-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) approves, the second step is for the opposition to kick off another signature drive to obtain the names of at least 20 per cent of the electorate needed to trigger the actual referendum.
As if that process were not complicated enough, now Maduro has named a commission — without any legal justification — to “help” the CNE determine whether the required number of names are on the first petition. And just so no one could mistake the committee’s purpose, Maduro, his vice president and ruling party leader all have said, “there will be no referendum this year.”
The timing is significant: If the referendum can be postponed at least until early January, then even if the government loses, Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz, or whoever Maduro names to that post, would serve out the rest of the president’s term.
The Obama administration, while sanctioning some of those most directly involved in repression, has largely stayed on the sidelines, knowing that any intervention by Washington only gives the Venezuelan government more ammunition to use against its critics.
Harder to understand has been the silence, until very recently, of the hemisphere’s democratic governments, most of which had to overcome a history of human rights abuses. When they see political leaders jailed, judges imprisoned for refusing party orders, and the separation of powers rejected, it is difficult to explain their inaction. So far, they appear disinclined to apply the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which provides for the Organization of American States permanent council to be called into session when its norms are violated, to bring the Maduro government to account.
Latin American leaders should convince the Maduro government to accept international mediation. Thus far, the government has refused overtures for serious dialogue — including an effort led by Socialist leader and former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero focused on a simple agenda: allow fulfilment of the constitutional obligation to hold a recall referendum in response to popular demand; permit humanitarian aid to reach those in need; and release all political prisoners. If the government continues to hold out, then Latin American leaders should activate the Inter-American Charter to pursue this common-sense agenda.
Urgent political and humanitarian initiatives are needed to avoid a collapse that would deepen the misery of Venezuelans and threaten regional stability.
Mark L. Schneider is senior vice president and special advisor on Latin America of the International Crisis Group.