Venezuela: The Opposition Mobilizes for the Presidential Referendum

Venezuela is suffering from a combination of severe crises — political, economic, social and humanitarian — that require urgent attention if an implosion is to be averted. However, President Nicolás Maduro and the ruling Chavista United Socialist Party of Venezuela, following their overwhelming defeat in parliamentary elections last December, have had a radically different priority: survival. From that date, their main objective has been to prevent the opposition from fulfilling constitutional requirements for holding a recall referendum that would end Mr. Maduro’s term in 2016.

Mr. Maduro’s administration, with the support of the Electoral National Council and Supreme Court of Justice, two branches of the government over which it has absolute control, has placed a series of formal obstacles of dubious legality in the opposition’s way. It has also increased repression against the opposition, including imprisoning several leaders of Voluntad Popular, the party of Leopoldo López, a political prisoner since February 2014. The government strategy, aimed at survival, has led to functional paralysis in state institutions, but so far it has been successful in avoiding the recall referendum.

Last August, the Venezuelan opposition, united in an ad hoc political organization known as the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica, started to organize mass demonstrations to demand that the electoral council set a schedule for the referendum. The first demonstration on Sept. 1 was a huge success for three reasons. First, it was enormous, despite the government’s attempts to obstruct it. Second, it was peaceful. Third, it once again raised the specter of defeat for Mr. Maduro and his allies, as did the parliamentary elections in December.

Venezuelans marching this month in Caracas in protest against the government. Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
Venezuelans marching this month in Caracas in protest against the government. Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Despite this success, the leaders of MUD need to be adroit and careful about their next steps. In addition to fighting and defeating Mr. Maduro by democratic means, they will need to keep their own more radical wing in check. In fact, MUD has had the hard task of trying to defeat Mr. Maduro’s government democratically while dealing with internal squabbles among its own radical members, particularly those who never understood the social significance of the Chavista movement, the complexity of the Venezuelan situation or the need to repair the damage without having Venezuela evolve into another Syria.

The referendum is the only path that meets the requirements of being electoral, democratic, peaceful and constitutional. It is the longest and most cumbersome, but the only other way is to wait for the 2018 presidential elections.

Why not wait? There are several reasons for accelerating the process. Alongside a severe political standoff between the government and the opposition, which deadlocks any collective decision-making process, Venezuela is experiencing a social and economic emergency that reaches the level of a humanitarian crisis. The general secretary of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, diagnosed the magnitude of the problem and brought it to the attention of the international community.

His report on the situation in Venezuela gives a detailed account of the daily hardships faced by its citizens. Using the International Monetary Fund’s estimates, Mr. Almagro warns that by the end of 2016 Venezuela will have a further decline of 8 percent in its gross domestic product; inflation greater than 700 percent; a fiscal deficit of 17 percent of G.D.P.; and an accumulated $130 billion in foreign debt, which will weigh heavily on its finances. The impact of these figures on Venezuelans is devastating: hunger, shortages and deterioration of the health care system. It makes it easy to understand why Mr. Maduro must go sooner rather than later.

There are no shortcuts, however, and it would be perilous to attempt them. The only choice is to force the government’s hand by democratic means, such as mass mobilization. New actions announced by MUD echo this and support the goal of forcing the government to set a timeline that will ensure that the recall referendum takes place this year.

Timing is crucial for the opposition. Legislation requires that the referendum occur in 2016, before the first half of Mr. Maduro’s six-year term has elapsed on Jan. 10, 2017. According to the law, if he is defeated after that date, new elections could not be held. Instead, the vice president, appointed by Mr. Maduro, would finish the term, which lasts until January 2019. If that were to happen, many Venezuelans fear it would be business as usual, and that current conditions, though hard to believe by any standard, would only get worse.

Mr. Maduro, his party and senior officials will not surrender without an exit plan. Many of them are also active military personnel, and some are suspected of being responsible for crimes like drug trafficking, theft of public funds and human rights abuses. They should be brought to justice, but until that happens, they will be a serious obstacle to an orderly recall.

They are not the only obstacle. Though the opposition’s mobilization strategy, as suggested in the Sept. 1 demonstration, has the potential to achieve the objective of forcing the recall referendum this year, no other significant action has occurred since then. On Sept. 7 demonstrations were organized by MUD in every state capital, but attendance was poor. Some dissenting voices in the opposition claim that MUD’s leadership is not really committed to exerting mass popular pressure on Mr. Maduro, and suggest that they are in the course of cutting a deal with the government.

Certainly, there are some indications that talks between the two parties, with the mediation of Spain’s former president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, are underway. There is nothing wrong with that. Venezuela needs political negotiation to hammer out a democratic transition, but for MUD, success is unlikely if mass demonstrations are halted.

Francisco Suniaga is a Venezuelan writer. This essay was translated from the Spanish by Carolina Grosscors.

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