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Death or Democracy in Venezuela

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CARACAS – Venezuela’s democratic institutions are in ruins, its coffers are empty, and its citizens are searching for food in garbage dumps. Its people are dying from starvation, from preventable and curable diseases (at much higher rates than the Latin American average), and from violence – including, in some cases, gunshot wounds inflicted by their own government.

More than three quarters of Venezuela’s 31 million people want to free themselves from the stranglehold of their rulers, a small group of no more than 150 mafia-like figures (mostly military) who have hijacked the country’s democracy, robbed it blind, and created a devastating humanitarian crisis. The 18-year-old regime – established by Hugo Chávez, and now led by President Nicolás Maduro – would rather hold an entire country hostage than lose power and potentially have to answer for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court. But how long can it hold on?

Venezuelans have actively pursued a change of government. In the December 2015 parliamentary election, two thirds of voters lent their support to the democratic opposition. That outcome should have loosened the regime’s grip on the state and helped to re-establish the checks and balances envisioned in the constitution that Chávez himself drafted.

But the regime has systematically undermined the National Assembly through rulings from a Supreme Court that it packed with loyalists, using the outgoing legislature. At the end of last March, the Supreme Court went a step further, taking over all of the Assembly’s powers – a move so blatantly illegal that even the chavista Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega Díaz denounced it as a “rupture of the constitutional order.”

With that, desperate Venezuelans took their opposition to the streets. On April 1, they began holding almost daily protests demanding another general election, despite the mortal danger of public opposition. Indeed, since the protests began, the regime’s security forces have killed 85 demonstrators and wounded over 1,000 more, including by throwing tear-gas canisters into crowds and launching pellets at people’s chests, at close range. More than 3,000 protesters face criminal charges, simply for exercising their democratic rights.

Cornered, the ruling clique has become defiant. Maduro recently announced that if the regime cannot muster the votes needed to stay in power, it will use its weapons instead. But he is also taking more extreme political action to protect the regime: he has now ordered, by presidential decree (rather than by referendum, as the constitution requires), a constituent assembly, to be chosen on July 30, to draft a new “communal” constitution.

The demonstrations have now become what is essentially a popular uprising, with Venezuela’s people calling on the armed forces to evict the regime from power. Ortega, for her part, has called on the Supreme Court to annul the regime’s push to rewrite the constitution, but the court declared her request “not receivable.”

Venezuelans recognize that a Marxist-Leninist constitution approved by regime-appointed deputies would complete Venezuela’s transformation into another Cuba within a month. The question is whether the rest of the world will stand by idly.

Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), has called its member states’ attention to the Venezuelan regime’s grave constitutional and human-rights violations. At last month’s OAS General Assembly in Mexico, 14 countries (Argentina, Brazil, Bahamas, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Jamaica, Mexico, the United States, Peru, St. Lucia, Uruguay, and Paraguay) proposed a draft resolution on how to initiate a dialogue with the Venezuelan regime – to no avail.

Such a dialogue would have focused on pushing Venezuela’s regime to comply with the commitments mediated by the Vatican last autumn, including holding free and fair elections this year, releasing political prisoners, restoring the National Assembly’s constitutional powers, and accepting humanitarian assistance. But, though 20 OAS member states supported the resolution, ten did not, owing to their dependence on Venezuelan oil and financing. That left the resolution three votes short of the required two-thirds majority.

Emboldened by what it perceived as a victory, the Venezuelan regime has ramped up its violence against protesters and organized a bogus coup against itself. During the recent siege of the Legislative Palace, an officer of the National Guard assaulted Julio Borges, the president of the National Assembly – the only institution with any legitimacy left. The regime is also set to appoint a tame new deputy prosecutor general to replace Ortega, who has had her bank accounts frozen and is barred from leaving the country.

The opposition is firing back, organizing via the National Assembly an official referendum, on the basis of articles 333 and 350 of the constitution. Venezuelans will be able to weigh in on Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution and the opposition’s push for new elections, the restoration of all checks and balances, and the formation of a “national unity” government. The vote will take place on July 16, in all churches in Venezuela, and with international observers.

Having lost all legitimacy, Venezuela’s kleptocratic and murderous regime is hanging on by a thread. Already, individual OAS member states have imposed targeted sanctions on officials affiliated with the regime’s aggressive drug-dealing faction – the sub-group responsible for murdering young people in the streets and torturing some 300 political prisoners. (The European Union has yet to join the effort.)

By rejecting a democratic transition, the regime is only prolonging its own agony and creating higher costs for Venezuela. While the ruling clique is not eager to negotiate, a deal offered via the OAS or at the United Nations Security Council could prove difficult to refuse in the current context.

Such a deal would require an immediate general election and the cancellation of the constituent assembly, and could be implemented relatively quickly and easily, according to the existing constitution. If successful, it could help reinvigorate international trust and cooperation. More immediately, it would give the desperate, starving, and repressed Venezuelan people their country back.  Enrique ter Horst, former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in El Salvador and Haiti, was UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.

By Enrique ter Horst

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