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Venezuela: Towards Regime Change?

The economic situation in Venezuela has become desperate and the country’s political system appears unsustainable. As the government moves in an authoritarian direction, persistent and growing opposition protests suggest this may instead produce regime change.

It’s been almost a year since the presidential recall referendum in Venezuela was blocked and the country’s economic and political situation worsened. In September last year, I wrote that the Bolivarian Revolution had entered a critical phase, given the government’s diminishing prospects of keeping power through elections. There was the possibility of a recall referendum against President Maduro taking place in 2017 alongside the worrying, yet unlikely scenario of an uncertain transition to authoritarianism. In a subsequent reflective piece this year, following a visit to Venezuela, I regretted to report that the situation had quickly deteriorated further, that the prospects of mounting social turmoil and political violence were high and that Venezuela’s troubles should be of great concern for its neighbors and the broader international community. Unfortunately, after the Vatican’s efforts to assist in building a dialogue between the government and the opposition failed, and following renewed efforts within the Organization of American States (OAS) to resolve the crisis—led by its Secretary General Luis Almagro—the situation has only worsened in every possible respect.

Maduro’s embattled government continues to face substantial economic problems. If the IMF’s latest report is correct, the country’s unemployment rate is on the way to surpassing 25 per cent, from only 7.5 per cent in 2015; GDP plummeted 18 per cent in 2016; and the inflation rate might be over 700 per cent this year. High levels of scarcity of key foodstuffs, medicines and other essentials continue to affect most the population. The overwhelming perception is that the problems won’t abate any time soon.

Against this background, the clock ticks. Setting aside the blockage of the recall referendum against Maduro, in theory, regional elections should take place later this year and presidential elections in 2018. Yet, the government-controlled electoral authority has refused to organise elections. The regime is moving in an authoritarian direction. In early April, the government-controlled Supreme Court decided to effectively annul the opposition-controlled National Assembly and remove the immunity of its democratically elected members. This was the last step in an 18-month effort to block and bully the legislature. The ruling was reversed following a wave of criticism at home and abroad, but it had already further tarnished the regime’s reputation.

Since the ruling, the country has experienced more than  45 days of sustained protests nationwide, including daily demonstrations in Caracas and other large cities.  These protests have left at least 36 dead and hundreds wounded. Far from promptly engaging in meaningful dialogue or showing at least a disposition to comply with the legitimate, constitutional expectation to hold elections in the foreseeable future, the government is turning its palace, Miraflores, into an unaccountable enclave guarded by the military operating as a modern Pretorian Guard.

Now that the numbers are not there to win elections, and right at a moment so critical for Venezuela, Maduro has proposed a Constituent Assembly as an ostensible solution for the crisis. This has occurred out of the blue, with little support from significant parts of his own coalition and absolutely no trust whatsoever from the opposition. Furthermore, the government is seeking to withdraw Venezuela from the OAS, denouncing it as an “imperialist” body, rather than engaging with the accusations leveled against it. More importantly, the protests have been met with a gross display of force, earning the government strong criticism from other governments and human rights organisations. This has further alienated opposition supporters, who feel that the current situation might be a turning point that could shut the door for political reform.

The collective impression, held by more than 70 per cent of Venezuelans, is that Maduro’s government is a dictatorship. This is not a mere rhetorical expression but an actual description of the regime’s essential feature: a government that has deliberately eliminated or limited all meaningful channels for political opposition, including the electoral route. However, as the escalating protests and the growing international pressures show, the deliberate descent into authoritarianism is not cost-free and might well push Venezuela towards regime change.

As I mentioned in a recent interview, in all processes of this nature it is difficult to predict with certainty what will happen, when and how. The regime still enjoys full control of the state’s (dwindling) financial resources and support from both the military and a security apparatus doing what it can to contain growing opposition demonstrations. More importantly, elite polarisation is extremely high, increasing the costs of defection from the Maduro-led Chavista coalition. However, many signs point in the direction of regime change: these include the persistent presence of mass demonstrations in the street; the opposition’s unified front against the regime; and apparent rifts within the regime with respect to calling a constitutional assembly, holding elections and the role of the military.

While the long-term impact on Venezuela’s political system remains uncertain, the prospect of increasingly violent conflict remains worryingly high.

Dr Raul Sanchez Urribarri is a lecturer in crime, justice and legal studies at the Department of Social Inquiry, La Trobe University. His scholarly work focuses on democracy, rule of law and comparative judicial politics.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.

Published May 16, 2017