National Security & Defense

Venezuela on the Brink

Protesters clash with national guard troops in San Cristobal, October 26, 2016. (Reuters photo: Carlos Eduardo Ramirez)
The region and Obama stand by impotently as Maduro drops all pretense of democratic rule.

Venezuela under the late socialist firebrand Hugo Chávez and his successors has been this century’s longest national train wreck — and the situation only continues to get worse. Colossal economic mismanagement, corruption, and political repression have led to the country’s across-the-board ruin. Indeed, the situation has grown so dire that international organizations are now raising alarm bells about a profound humanitarian crisis.

A new report from Human Rights Watch says:

Severe shortages of medicines and medical supplies make it extremely difficult for many Venezuelans to obtain essential medical care. And severe shortages of food and other goods make it difficult for many people to obtain adequate nutrition and cover their families’ basic needs.

This, in a country that reaped hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue over the last decade and longer.

Meanwhile, not only does the government of Nicolás Maduro deny that there is any crisis, but Venezuelans who publicly criticize or protest conditions are being subjected to intimidation or violence by government goon squads.

It would be laughable if it were not so pitiable.

Yet, Venezuela is poised to enter an even more unstable period, because the government has just removed the last vestige of the country’s democracy and is now ruling in full authoritarian mode. Last week, the government-controlled National Electoral Council abruptly canceled a recall referendum against the president as provided for in Hugo Chávez’s own constitution. The council claimed fraud in the collection of signatures but produced no evidence to substantiate the charge.

With upwards of 80 percent of Venezuelans supporting a recall of the president, an opposition win was near certain. The only uncertainty was when the recall would take place. According to the constitution, if the recall occurs in the first half of a president’s term (in this case, this year), then a new election must be held. If it’s the latter half (meaning 2017), then the vice president will assume power.

Although the opposition was pushing for a vote in 2016, a vote in 2017 to remove the hapless Maduro would still have been considered a victory, even though that would leave the ruling party (the current vice president or a new appointee) in power. Now, however, the opposition has lost the last sliver of hope to peacefully change the direction of the country.

The regional reaction to what many are calling an “auto-golpe,” or self-coup, by the Maduro government, has been swift and condemnatory. The spirited head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, who has almost single-handedly led the regional charge against Venezuela’s serial violations of democratic norms, said:

Only dictatorships deprive their citizens of rights, ignore the legislature, and hold political prisoners. . . . Today we are more convinced than ever of the breakdown of the democratic system. It is time to take concrete actions.

Argentinean president Mauricio Macri called for Venezuela’s suspension from the southern trading bloc Mercosur for its violation of the group’s democracy clause. Peru’s president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, expressed his solidarity with Venezuelan protesters.

Here, Senator Marco Rubio has called for increased sanctions on Venezuela:

The Venezuelan people have made it clear at the ballot box they are sick of Maduro’s incompetence and corruption at all levels of government, and have worked through the constitutional process to remove him, only to see him and his puppets on the supreme court and elections commission illegally squash the people’s will. The Obama administration should officially sanction Nicolás Maduro and every member of the commission that supported this illegal, unconstitutional and undemocratic decision.

For its part, the Obama administration issued a typically tepid statement, reiterating its “push for dialogue” and expressing its “deep concern” over the electoral council’s maneuver to suspend the recall process.

In other words, Obama is recommending a dialogue between the opposition and a government that has jailed opposition leaders, deprived the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its constitutional powers, postponed gubernatorial elections in which the opposition was set to make major gains, and suppressed the only independent media outlets that gave the opposition a voice.

In fact, a phony dialogue with the opposition is precisely what the Maduro government wants; it would allow Maduro to buy time while only pretending to resolve the crisis peacefully. To that end, it has already ensnared the Vatican and some elements of the opposition into a meeting scheduled to take place this weekend. No one should be fooled.

Obama is recommending a dialogue between the opposition and a government that has jailed opposition leaders.

For now, the onus for action is on the opposition. This week, its members began major street demonstrations in Venezuelan cities to protest what citizens are calling the government’s “move toward an outright dictatorship.” In the capital Caracas, protests are occurring even as the government tries to impede the throng by setting up roadblocks and shutting down mass-transit stations.

That it has come to this dangerous standoff is a failure of regional governments to intercede as the Venezuelan government has systematically stripped away the façade of democratic rule. It’s also a signal failure of the Obama administration, which has clung to the spurious notion of a dialogue, well past its sell-by date. But Obama’s tolerating the bad behavior of tin-pot dictators like Maduro is less a policy than it is an ongoing apology for the perceived interventionist sins of the United States in Latin America over the years. It is sad, however, to contemplate how many more Venezuelans will have to die while President Obama makes his self-glorifying ideological point.

In the end, however, the likely result is that Venezuela’s crisis will be decided in the streets, which will not bode well for anyone.

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