Venezuela is drift­ing to­ward civil war

Maduro has been backed him­self into a cor­ner

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT -

“I am no Mus­solini,” in­sisted Venezuela’s be­lea­guered Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro on tele­vi­sion early this month, but if things go on this way he could end up like Mus­solini. That would be very un­for­tu­nate for him, and also for Venezuela.

The daily street protests against Maduro’s rule are now in their sec­ond month, and around 40 peo­ple have al­ready been killed, most of them by the po­lice. “Molo­tov cock­tails” (fire­bombs) are old hat; the new fash­ion is for “poopootovs” — con­tain­ers of ex­cre­ment that are thrown at the se­cu­rity forces. No­body knows when it will all end, but most peo­ple fear that it will end badly.

It didn’t be­gin all that badly. Hugo Chavez, a rad­i­cal for­mer army of­fi­cer who had led a failed coup at­tempt in 1992, was elected to the pres­i­dency quite le­git­i­mately in 1998. Venezuela was the rich­est coun­try in South Amer­ica be­cause of its oil wealth, but most of the 31 mil­lion Venezue­lans were very poor, and Chavez pro­posed to change that.

He had strong pop­u­lar sup­port — ma­jori­ties of around 60 per cent in the 2002 and 2006 elec­tions, and still 55 per cent even in 2012 — and he had lots of money to give to the poor. But he died of can­cer in 2013, and his suc­ces­sor, a for­mer bus driver called Ni­co­las Maduro, got barely 50 per cent of the vote in a spe­cial elec­tion later that year. He has not had a quiet mo­ment since.

The prob­lem is money. Chavez ran up mas­sive deficits to fi­nance his spend­ing on health, ed­u­ca­tion and hous­ing, which did trans­form the lives of many of Venezuela’s poor, but the bills only came in af­ter he died. The world price of oil col­lapsed, Venezuela’s in­come did too, and every­thing went sour.

Now Venezuela has the high­est in­fla­tion in the world (700 per cent this year), and the econ­omy has shrunk by al­most one-fifth. There are chronic short­ages of food and medicines: three-quar­ters of Venezue­lans say they are eat­ing less than two meals a day, and the child death rate is up by 30 per cent. And a lot of peo­ple, in­clud­ing for­mer Maduro sup­port­ers, are very an­gry.

To stay in power, Maduro must avoid an elec­tion, and the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is due next year. The op­po­si­tion won a twothirds ma­jor­ity in the Na­tional Assem­bly in 2015, so Maduro’s first move, in late March, was to have the Supreme Court (packed with his sup­port­ers) sim­ply de­clare that the Na­tional Assem­bly was “in con­tempt” of the coun­try’s laws and shut it down.

That was what brought the pro­test­ers out on the streets in such num­bers that three days later Maduro lost his nerve and the Supreme Court re­voked its de­cree. But the protests, fu­elled by the grow­ing short­ages of prac­ti­cally every­thing, just kept go­ing, and now the demon­stra­tors were de­mand­ing that the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion be brought for­ward from 2018 to this year.

Maduro is cor­nered. He could not win a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion this year, or in 2018 ei­ther. It’s not even cer­tain that the rank-and­file of the se­cu­rity forces can be re­lied on to de­fend him for­ever. So he has played his last card: a new con­sti­tu­tion.

The last con­sti­tu­tion was writ­ten by Chavez him­self and adopted in 1999. He said it was the best in the world and promised it would last for cen­turies, but on May 1st Maduro said the coun­try needs a new one. He is go­ing to call a “con­stituent assem­bly” to write it, although he was vague on how its mem­bers would be cho­sen. Some might be elected, and oth­ers would be cho­sen from “so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tions” (i.e. his cronies).

The Chavez con­sti­tu­tion does not give Maduro the au­thor­ity to do this, but the man is des­per­ate. He needs an ex­cuse to post­pone elec­tions he knows he would lose, and this is the best he can come up with. It won’t work, be­cause the op­po­si­tion un­der­stands his game and will not ac­cept it. The coun­try is drift­ing to­ward civil war.

“I don’t want a civil war,” Maduro said while an­nounc­ing his con­stituent assem­bly, but he is lay­ing the foun­da­tions for one. He might even win it, in the short term, if the army and po­lice stay loyal to him. But in the longer run he re­ally does risk end­ing up like Mus­solini: ex­e­cuted with­out trial and hang­ing up­side-down in a pub­lic square.

Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

GWYNNE DYER

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