Venezuela in chaos

Pres­i­dent hang­ing on by sup­press­ing all op­po­si­tion

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - GWYNNE DYER

There are two sto­ries about the as­sault on Fuerte Para­macay mil­i­tary bar­racks in Carabobo state on Sun­day. The Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment says that half the 20 at­tack­ers were killed or cap­tured, and the rest are be­ing hunted down. Sgt. Giomar Flores, who de­fected from the Venezue­lan navy in June and now lives in Colom­bia, told The Guardian that the at­tack had been “a com­plete suc­cess.”

“We took four bat­tal­ions and one put up re­sis­tance,” he said, claim­ing to be in di­rect con­tact with the leader of the at­tack, Capt. Juan Caguar­i­pano. The rebels took “a large amount of weapons,” mostly as­sault ri­fles, and got away with no ca­su­al­ties.

Whichever story you be­lieve, wit­nesses agree that large num­bers of civil­ians liv­ing near the base in Va­len­cia, the cap­i­tal of Carabobo, spilled out onto the streets in sup­port of the rebels. Civil war in Venezuela is not yet a re­al­ity, but there is am­ple dry tin­der ly­ing around just wait­ing for a match.

The at­tack came just one week af­ter the elec­tion of a “con­stituent as­sem­bly” by the sup­port­ers of Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro’s be­lea­guered gov­ern­ment. It’s hardly sur­pris­ing that the op­po­si­tion boy­cotted the vote, be­cause the pur­pose of the new as­sem­bly is to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion and save Maduro from de­feat at the next elec­tion.

The con­stituent as­sem­bly, which Maduro cre­ated by de­cree, con­sists ex­clu­sively of 545 Maduro sup­port­ers. There is no time limit on how long it will sit, nor any re­stric­tions on what it can do. It can, for ex­am­ple, post­pone the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions that are due next year in­def­i­nitely. This matters a lot, since Maduro would cer­tainly lose in a fair vote — re­cent es­ti­mates put his pop­u­lar sup­port at around 20 per cent.

More im­me­di­ately, it can dis­solve the le­git­i­mate Na­tional As­sem­bly, in which the op­po­si­tion par­ties won a two-thirds ma­jor­ity in the De­cem­ber, 2015 elec­tion. And it has al­ready fired Pros­e­cu­tor-Gen­eral Luisa Ortega, a mem­ber of the So­cial­ist Party and for­mer ally of Maduro’s who broke with him over his in­creas­ingly ar­bi­trary be­haviour.

The most threat­en­ing thing Ortega did was to open an in­ves­ti­ga­tion last week into the vote on 30 July that cre­ated the con­stituent as­sem­bly. Since only Maduro’s sup­port­ers voted, that would seem ir­rel­e­vant — but in mid-July the op­po­si­tion had held an in­for­mal ref­er­en­dum in which seven mil­lion peo­ple voted against the con­stituent as­sem­bly.

Maduro there­fore felt the need to claim that more than eight mil­lion Venezue­lans had voted for the new as­sem­bly. Even that would not re­ally be a very im­pres­sive turnout in a coun­try of 30 mil­lion peo­ple — but then the com­pany that sup­plied the vot­ing ma­chines, Smart­Matic, said that the re­sult had been de­lib­er­ately in­flated. At least a mil­lion ex­tra votes had been added.

An­to­nio Mug­ica, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Smart­Matic, said that all pre­vi­ous elec­tions in Venezuela us­ing their ma­chines had been con­ducted fairly. “It is, there­fore, with the deep­est re­gret that we have to re­port that the turnout fig­ures on 30 July for the Con­stituent As­sem­bly in Venezuela were tam­pered with,” he said.

“This is a dic­ta­tor­ship,” Luisa Ortega said on Sun­day, and she is right. Maduro has con­cluded that he and his So­cial­ist Party can only stay in power by sup­press­ing all op­po­si­tion, and he is prob­a­bly right.

The street protests against Maduro have lasted four months now, and at least 120 peo­ple have been killed. In­fla­tion is 1,600 per cent, food and medicines are scarce, and the mur­der rate is among the high­est in the world. The gen­er­als are richly re­warded for serv­ing the regime, but rank-and-file sol­diers earn a cou­ple of dozen dol­lars a month.

Venezuela is a tin­der­box. There are hun­dreds of thou­sands of de­voted sup­port­ers of the “Chav­ista” regime, and the gov­ern­ment has dis­trib­uted weapons to them. If the re­port that most sol­diers did not re­sist the at­tack on the Va­len­cia bar­racks is true, the army may be about to split.

The vi­o­lence in the streets is mu­tat­ing, with more po­lice ca­su­al­ties as well as the daily toll of de­mon­stra­tors.

There is no worse dis­as­ter for a coun­try than a civil war, but Venezuela is drift­ing to­ward one.

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

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