Thousands of people are expected to fan out in protest across Venezuela on Wednesday to demand a referendum for the removal of President Nicolás Maduro: His government has overseen an economic crisis that has decimated livelihoods throughout the country.
A so-called recall referendum may be held if 20 percent of registered voters in each state sign a petition at the end of this month.
Even if they do, however, a meaningful recall vote is far from guaranteed. Under the Constitution new elections won’t take place if the referendum is scheduled after Jan. 10. In that case, and if Mr. Maduro is voted out, the vice president will serve the remaining two years of Mr. Maduro’s term in his place.
It’s up to the national election commission to determine when to hold the referendum, and the commission has a long record of pro-government partisanship. Earlier this year, it took over a month to produce the simple one-page official form that the political opposition needed to collect signatures for the referendum.
This foot-dragging has been called unconstitutional, undemocratic, a desperate ploy to hang on to power. And it’s all of those things. It’s also a betrayal of Mr. Chávez’s vision for the country. The regime, which casts itself as carrying Mr. Chávez’s torch, cannot be seen as undercutting his legacy, especially not by the all-important army brass.
Back in 1998, when Mr. Chávez, then a charismatic former army officer, was first elected, he was riding a wave of popular discontent against a sclerotic political system. He promised a radical new brand of democracy he called “protagonist democracy,” in which regular people would be in charge. In 1999, he spearheaded a new Constitution that, among other changes, enshrined the current provision allowing voters to remove elected officials.
For Mr. Chávez, this was partly a way to justify his role in history. In 1992, he had led a failed coup attempt against the democratically elected government of the day. It was a shabby affair: A few dozen troops machine-gunned the presidential palace in Caracas, the capital, while the president slipped out a side door and Mr. Chávez himself struggled to coordinate the revolt from the military museum nearby. The coup failed, but it propelled its leader to media stardom and eventually to the presidency.
Later, Mr. Chávez would argue that his revolt had been legitimate because Venezuela’s Constitution at the time contained no provision for getting rid of a catastrophically underperforming president.
“The Venezuela of ‘92 was so different from today’s Venezuela,” he said in a 2000 television interview. “Back then, all exits were blocked, totally blocked.”
“Today,” he added, “for the first time in our history we have a recall referendum, so it’s not necessary for a group of desperate officers, spurred on by history, to go off into the middle of the night to see what comes of it — to try to open up a new path, as we did.”
Fast forward to 2016. Once again, Venezuelans are disgusted with a government they elected. Since Mr. Chávez’s death from cancer in 2013, Venezuela has been run by his hand-picked successor, Mr. Maduro. In just three years, the Maduro administration has overseen a record decline in Venezuelans’ living standards.
After oil prices tumbled in 2014, Venezuela has experienced the kind of economic collapse countries rarely see outside a war. Diseases that were eradicated decades ago, like malaria and diphtheria, are returning. According to a recent study by the National Assembly, 93 percent of Venezuelans can’t afford to buy enough food for their families.
Desperation is roiling just beneath the surface. Voters said to be in favor of removing Mr. Maduro from office far outnumber those against: nearly 68 percent, compared with 23.5 percent, according to a poll taken this summer by Venebarometro, a respected local pollster. Some 92 percent of respondents also said the country’s situation was “somewhat bad,” “bad” or “very bad,” with 57 percent calling it “very bad.”
Venezuela is no longer a country split between roughly two antagonistic halves: a pro-government left and an opposition-minded right. Now, a small, heavily militarized state elite rules over a hungry, desperate mass of people who increasingly hate it.
The elite, made up of the powerful ruling party and its supporters in the military and the bureaucracy, labels itself socialist, and in a way it is: It resembles nothing more than the Soviet elite of the early 1980s. Old chants are still sung and old certainties are repeated, but it’s a threadbare act, lacking real conviction.
A broad and diverse opposition movement has coalesced around the need to return Venezuela to democracy. But it finds itself in a peculiar predicament: Although its numbers are strong, it is virtually powerless.
Several opposition leaders — Leopoldo López, Manuel Rosales, Yon Goicoechea — are political prisoners. Others are being followed and harassed. The opposition Democratic Unity coalition won a huge majority in parliamentary elections last year, but that made little difference. The Supreme Court, which has become a subsidiary of the ruling party, has simply refused to recognize the National Assembly, declaring its decisions “void.”
And now the Maduro government, by maneuvering to deny a timely recall vote, is shutting down any institutional avenue out of the crisis — doing precisely what Mr. Chávez said had justified his 1992 rebellion.
Which is why today, depressingly, Venezuela’s fate once again may rest where it should never be: with the armed forces. Yet Chavistas, of all people, should realize the dangers of making it necessary for a group of desperate officers, spurred on by history, to go off into the middle of the night to see what comes of it.
Francisco Toro is the editor of CaracasChronicles, a website about Venezuela.