Venezuela’s opposition movement is promising to follow its huge march last week with a march this week to the Presidential Palace to demand the restitution of the recently shut down recall referendum. The government of President Nicolás Maduro has mobilized its followers to defend the revolution in the streets. It is a confrontation unlikely to have a happy ending.
I first visited Venezuela in 1992, eight months after Hugo Chávez’s failed coup d’état. It was a desolate period. Not only was an economic crisis grinding at the spirits of the people, there was a sense that Venezuela’s political elite was irremediably out of touch with the population, and doing what it could to prevent change.
I never considered myself a Chávez supporter — I’m too much of a classical liberal for that. From the beginning I thought his style of social policy was unsustainable, his critique of liberal democracy simplistic, and his campaign against corruption misconceived. But I greatly admired the ability of a “poor people’s movement” to use electoral democracy to turn the tables on Venezuelan society. Through 2012 the data is clear. Poverty and inequality declined and people rewarded Chavismo with large electoral majorities.
I last visited Venezuela this month. I was struck by how many people I have known for decades had suddenly lost weight. In normal circumstances, an adult dropping 20 or 30 pounds generates congratulations and admiration for exercising self-control. But in the current context such weight loss prompts silence and quiet admiration for someone who is prioritizing their children at mealtime.
Venezuela is not South Sudan, Haiti or Aleppo. But it is going through an acute economic crisis that is entirely unnecessary. This crisis is not caused by an imaginary economic war, or even the dramatic drop in oil prices — it already existed while oil was above $100 a barrel. It is caused by a set of obviously dysfunctional economic policies held in place by a government unwilling to change course.
Since March, the opposition has been pushing for a recall referendum against President Maduro through a Kafkaesque series of requirements. In September the government-controlled Electoral Council finally announced Oct. 26 to 28 as the three-day period in which the opposition could collect the 3.9 million signatures needed to call the referendum. The catch was that instead of using the 14,000 voting centers it has at its disposal, the Electoral Council would open just 1,356, seven hours a day, closing at noon for a one-hour lunch break.
But apparently even this limited access was too threatening. On Oct. 20, the Electoral Council indefinitely postponed the signature collection, on the most dubious of grounds. The government appeared to fear the optics of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans being turned away from the voting centers, and the mass protests that could have generated.
Hence Chavismo has come full circle. From a movement that showed how nonelite actors could use the instruments of electoral democracy to upend an entrenched elite, Chavismo has itself become an entrenched elite preventing those same instruments from upending it.
This is not only a violation of Venezuela’s Constitution, it is a violation of one of the most basic of human rights, the right of people to choose their leaders.
The international community needs to respond vigorously but intelligently. The United States government’s unilateral, targeted sanctions put into effect in March 2015 have already done considerable damage to Venezuela’s political process. In theory, they are supposed to discourage government officials from engaging in human rights abuses. In reality, not only do they provide the government with substance for its anti-imperialist rhetoric but they also create a cadre of officials who see their fate as synonymous with the government’s and who will fight for it to the end. Indeed, Mr. Maduro has promoted most of those on the sanctions list and has placed several in key security positions.
Effective international engagement must be multilateral, preferably working through existing institutions. While Venezuela has long dismissed the Organization of American States as an imperialist tool, Secretary General Luis Almagro’s invocation of the Democratic Charter in June seriously got their attention. That initiative needs to be taken up again. The Union of Southern Nations does not have the institutional strength the O.A.S. has, but it has the government’s ear. Venezuela has embraced its role in the United Nations and would find it difficult to deflect a special envoy. Perhaps the only thing the opposition and the government have agreed on this year is the desirability of Vatican mediation in Venezuela.
Any dialogue that occurs should not be seen as an alternative to the referendum but should focus primarily on restoring the people’s right to choose their leaders. Debate regarding the economy, education and crime would serve only as a red herring for a government that is doing whatever it can to prevent change.
David Smilde is a professor of sociology at Tulane University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.