Venezuela’s di­vi­sive vote

Here’s why the elec­tion to fa­cil­i­tate a new char­ter has drawn protests

Los Angeles Times - - NEWS - By Mery Mo­gol­lon and Chris Kraul Maduro in­sists he needs Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dents Mo­gol­lon and Kraul re­ported from Caracas and Bogota, Colom­bia, re­spec­tively.

CARACAS, Venezuela — De­spite polls show­ing that a ma­jor­ity of Venezue­lans think a new con­sti­tu­tion is un­nec­es­sary or un­de­sir­able, vot­ers head to the bal­lot box Sun­day to elect mem­bers of a new con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly.

Op­po­si­tion lead­ers see it as yet an­other move to side­line dis­si­dent voices, and in­ter­na­tional lead­ers have re­pu­di­ated the move by Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro as un­demo­cratic.

The U.S. an­nounced Wed­nes­day that it is im­pos­ing a new set of eco­nomic sanc­tions against 13 gov­ern­ment fig­ures, say­ing the vote is an abuse of power. An­tic­i­pat­ing pos­si­ble vi­o­lence — Maduro’s gov­ern­ment banned protests in days lead­ing up to the vote — the U.S. State Depart­ment or­dered fam­i­lies of diplo­matic per­son­nel out of the coun­try.

The vote comes amid na­tion­wide protests that as of Fri­day had claimed at least 108 lives, left 3,000 in­jured and led to 4,500 ar­rests. A ma­jor­ity of Venezue­lans blame Maduro for food scarci­ties, ris­ing crime and an in­creas­ingly au­to­cratic gov­ern­ment. What will Sun­day’s vote ac­com­plish?

Venezue­lans will elect 537 mem­bers of a new con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly that will be charged with draft­ing a new magna carta for the once pros­per­ous na­tion. The last such assem­bly in 1999 took six months to com­plete its work. Dur­ing that time, the sit­ting congress, the Na­tional Assem­bly, was shut down. Maduro has not made it clear whether the new char­ter will be put to a na­tion­wide vote.

The turnout is likely to be low, as the op­po­si­tion is boy­cotting the elec­tion, say­ing it is rigged to en­sure Maduro loy­al­ists con­trol the body. Vot­ers will se­lect 364 mem­bers, with the re­main­der elected by seven dis­crete so­cial groups, in­clud­ing re­tirees, indige­nous groups, peas­ants, stu­dents, farm­ers and the dis­abled.

The last con­sti­tu­tional re­draft was pushed through by the late Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez. In that case, vot­ers ap­proved an “au­tho­riz­ing” ref­er­en­dum, which al­lowed work on the con­sti­tu­tion to pro­ceed. Maduro has not sought such a ref­er­en­dum, prob­a­bly fear­ing re­jec­tion, fur­ther di­min­ish­ing the new assem­bly’s le­git­i­macy in the eyes of many Venezue­lans. His ap­proval rat­ing is 20%. Why did Maduro call for a new con­sti­tu­tion? a new char­ter to pro­vide sta­bil­ity and end the protests that have convulsed the na­tion since March 30. A new con­sti­tu­tion, he says, will help him fight drug traf­fick­ing, guar­an­tee the sus­tain­abil­ity of the so­cial projects — called “mis­sions” — launched by Chavez and cre­ate a “post-petroleum econ­omy” mod­eled af­ter Cuba’s com­mu­nal sys­tem.

The new con­sti­tu­tion would pro­vide a fresh start in com­bat­ing an eco­nomic cri­sis caused by low oil prices, triple-digit in­fla­tion, plum­met­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity and an “eco­nomic war” waged by the op­po­si­tion with U.S. help, Maduro says. He was a pro­tege of Chavez, and the Chav­is­tas — those who sup­ported the late leader’s so­cial­ist vi­sion and poli­cies — re­main a dom­i­nat­ing pres­ence.

Whereas Maduro blames out­side forces for Venezuela’s cratered econ­omy, which is ex­pected to shrink by as much as 12% this year, many econ­o­mists blame his mis­man­age­ment and that of his pre­de­ces­sor, Chavez, for crip­pling do­mes­tic in­dus­try by na­tion­al­iz­ing many busi­nesses and in­hibit­ing in­vest­ment. Why is the op­po­si­tion boy­cotting the elec­tion?

Polls show a ma­jor­ity of Venezue­lans see the new con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly as an il­le­gal seizure of power — the lat­est and most se­ri­ous at­tempt by Maduro to marginal­ize the op­po­si­tion while per­pet­u­at­ing his ten­ure as pres­i­dent. Crit­ics fear the new assem­bly will re­place the demo­crat­i­cally elected Na­tional Assem­bly, which is con­trolled by op­po­si­tion deputies.

The con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly, which has only can­di­dates put for­ward by the gov­ern­ment, “would mark the end of what­ever is left of Venezuela’s democ­racy and rule of law,” said Fran­cisco Monaldi, an econ­o­mist and fel­low in Latin Amer­i­can en­ergy pol­icy at Rice Univer­sity’s Baker In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Pol­icy.

The ex­ist­ing Na­tional Assem­bly al­ready has been neutered by a se­ries of de­ci­sions by the Maduro-con­trolled Supreme Court, in­clud­ing the dec­la­ra­tion that the assem­bly is in con­tempt and thus all laws it passes are null and void. Ef­forts to mount a re­call elec­tion to boot Maduro from of­fice have been blocked by loy­al­ists on the Na­tional Elec­toral Coun­cil.

The op­po­si­tion demon­strated its dis­gust with Maduro with its own un­of­fi­cial plebiscite on July 16 in which 98% of 7.6 mil­lion vot­ers re­jected the new assem­bly while fa­vor­ing the for­ma­tion of a new gov­ern­ment of “na­tional unity.”

“This elec­tion is clearly il­le­git­i­mate,” said David Smilde, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor and Venezuela ex­pert at Tu­lane Univer­sity, cit­ing a “stacked” elec­toral scheme and “co­erced vot­ing” of gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees. “The 1999 con­sti­tu­tion says only the peo­ple have the right to call a con­stituent assem­bly, pre­sum­ably through a ref­er­en­dum, and Maduro is as­sum­ing that power for him­self.” Do other coun­tries op­pose the elec­tion? Yes, quite a few. In ad­di­tion to sup­port from the U.S. gov­ern­ment, the op­po­si­tion is backed by the Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can States, the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment and civil so­ci­ety groups, in­clud­ing Amnesty In­ter­na­tional. Sev­eral Latin Amer­i­can lead­ers have called on Maduro to can­cel the vote. Mex­ico has said it would sup­port U.S. eco­nomic sanc­tions against Venezuela.

On Thurs­day, Venezuela’s Ro­man Catholic bish­ops de­clared the new assem­bly “un­con­sti­tu­tional, as well as un­nec­es­sary, in­ap­pro­pri­ate and dam­ag­ing to the Venezue­lan peo­ple.”

Ef­forts by for­eign gov­ern­ments and the Vat­i­can to me­di­ate di­a­logue be­tween the deeply an­tag­o­nis­tic sides so far have come to naught. What will hap­pen af­ter Sun­day’s vote?

Demon­strat­ing Venezuela’s po­lar­iza­tion, Maduro will pro­ceed with plans to re­form the state, while the op­po­si­tion has an­nounced plans for an in­def­i­nite strike sim­i­lar to one staged last week. The strike was ob­served by 90% of the pri­vate sec­tor, ac­cord­ing to la­bor unions, and brought much of this coun­try of 31 mil­lion to a stand­still.

As­sum­ing Maduro wins on Sun­day, the con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly will con­vene Aug. 30 to be­gin draft­ing a new char­ter. But few ex­pect any overnight im­prove­ment in Venezue­lans’ daily lives, which have been marked by scarci­ties of ba­sic food­stuffs. Near-term un­cer­tainty and the prob­a­bil­ity of on­go­ing vi­o­lence prompted Venezue­lans to empty su­per­mar­ket shelves of what lit­tle house­hold items were avail­able in re­cent days.

The un­cer­tainty caused the black mar­ket value of the U.S. dol­lar to sky­rocket Fri­day to as high as 10,300 bo­li­vars, the na­tional cur­rency, a 90% loss in value from 1,010 bo­li­vars a year ago, ac­cord­ing to Caracas traders.

More chaos could be in store. With the price of oil ex­pected to re­main low for the fore­see­able fu­ture, Venezuela’s econ­omy could re­main on life sup­port. Mon­e­tary re­serves are run­ning low, and the na­tion is at risk of de­fault­ing on for­eign debt.

Sch­ney­der Men­doza AFP/Getty Im­ages

OP­PO­NENTS see the vote to elect a con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly as an­other move by Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro to side­line dis­si­dent voices in Venezuela.

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