On July 16, more than seven million Venezuelan citizens turned out to vote in a national referendum. With just two weeks until the election of a “special assembly”—a body tasked with re-writing the constitution—this referendum was called for by the opposition leaders to show public opposition for such a move. The referendum was hugely successful, with more than 98 percent of ballots cast siding with the opposition. The Venezuelan people have spoken, and are clearly against the formation of a body capable of dissolving the opposition-led National Assembly by a president who has increasingly demonstrated a desire to concentrate power upon himself.
The only issue is that the referendum was purely symbolic. Proposed by the opposition and not the government, it has no legal standing. What it does do, however, is clearly reveal to President Nicolás Maduro, and the rest of the world, the will of the Venezuelan people.
The world was waiting for the working-class to cast their vote, and now they have it. The strongest pillar of Maduro’s power has fallen.
But how did Venezuela reach this point? And why is a merely symbolic vote of any importance?
Venezuela has the largest oil reserves of any nation but is also riddled with corruption. Corruption didn’t begin with Hugo Chavez’ socialist administration, but military control of imports and oil revenue did. Due to its overreliance on, and mismanagement of, oil revenue, resource-rich Venezuela has been suffering economically for several years at the hands of its socialist government.
Three months ago the Venezuelan Supreme Court (which is stacked with government loyalists) moved to strip the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers, which proved to be the spark necessary to ignite the growing frustration of the Venezuelan people. Thousands came out to protest across the nation, and the opposition encouraged them to continue doing so. The Supreme Court decision was retracted just three days later, but the opening had been made and the damage done.
Nationwide anti-Maduro protests have been escalating since, and have now seen close to 100 deaths. With inflation levels potentially as high as 800 percent, many citizens not engaged in the protests instead spend much of their time rummaging through trash in the hope of finding something with which to feed their families.
The latest protests have sparked interest from the mainstream media, but they do not stem from a recent problem. They are arguably just the latest symptom in a problem that began almost two decades ago when Hugo Chavez came to power and changed the face of Venezuelan politics.
Yet, many saw their lives improve over the last two decades—the working class as well as the military elites—and it is important to put the current situation in its context to understand how some Venezuelans have continued supporting their government for so long, even as it drives their nation into the ground, and hence how Maduro has resisted violence, strikes, and protests thus far.
Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was democratically elected in 1998, though not before attempting a coup in 1992, for which he was imprisoned. Once Chavez’ “Bolivarian Revolution”—named after the famous South American libertador Simón Bolívar—began, Chavez wasted no time in re-writing the constitution, stacking the oil industry with government loyalists, and funneling vast sums of money into his misiones—social projects aimed at poverty reduction, housing subsidies, and free medical clinics for the poor, among other social justice and welfare schemes.
Chavez’ handling of the economy, outspoken hatred of the West, media restrictions, and constitutional changes made his regime very controversial. Thus, upon his death in 2013, responses around the globe were divided. Those on the right celebrated the opening to bring Venezuela out of a long, dark, authoritarian regime, while those on the left mourned the loss of a champion of the poor.
It should be noted that Chavez remains Venezuela’s most popular president by a huge margin. A recent poll showed that 79 percent of people surveyed said that Chavez was the country’s most beloved president, and a majority also perceived him to be the country’s most democratic and efficient president, as well as the president who cared most about the poor.
Chavez’ regime produced winners and losers. Most protesting against Maduro now saw their lot worsen under Chavez and are revolting against the evil that they perceived to infect their government when Chavez came to power. Most pro-government supporters are afraid of losing the gains they made under Chavismo—this includes the poorest as well as the military elites.
Most either demonize or venerate Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution. Very few take the time to see both sides. However, it is necessary to do so if one wishes to bring stability in this very polarized, violent situation, and unite this broken society.
It is also necessary, however, to recognize the reality of the current situation. Maduro is trying to continue the Bolivarian revolution with all its social expenditure, but without Chavez and without money, there are no longer social benefits. Instead, Venezuela has empty shelves in supermarkets, numerous victims of human rights abuses, widespread violence and crime, and a crisis driving Venezuela towards being a completely failed state. In his attempts to hold onto his dwindling power, Maduro has increasingly sided with the privileged classes who can keep him in power, and turned to increasingly authoritarian measures.
There aren’t any obvious solutions. Negotiations have been planned to go ahead numerous times, with the Pope offering to mediate, yet they have all been called off; the Organization of American States (OAS) has stated it will intervene, but hasn’t followed through.
In a seminar hosted by Providence, Enrique Altimari spoke of the “two pillars” upholding the Venezuelan government: military power and economic power. Altimari went on to explain these pillars’ interrelatedness, stating that “80 percent of Maduro’s cabinet are or were from the military”. He believes that, “If you tackle the economic issue [i.e. impose sanctions], you will severely fracture the political structure”. Likewise, during the same seminar Vanessa Alejandra Sánchez (a senior staff member of the Primero Justicia party, the largest party of the opposition coalition) promoted the imposition of an American oil embargo.
It is unclear, however, whether international sanctions would bring the downfall of the regime, or simply kick an already hurting people while they are down, and, despite their frequency and scale, the mass protests don’t appear to be enough to destabilize the government. It seems an ounce of legitimacy is all Maduro needs to maintain a tight grip on power, and convince the world to let him keep it.
However, there is a third pillar: the working-class. They provided Maduro’s only real source of legitimacy, and were arguably the strongest pillar upholding the regime and preventing international action. It is for this reason that the recent referendum, though unofficial, was crucial. It revealed to the world that Maduro’s strongest pillar is no longer with him, but now sees through his empty promises, and is crumbling.
Now that the undemocratic nature of the Maduro’s special assembly has been revealed to the world, international pressure against the July 30 vote, and for transparent presidential elections in the immediate future, will now increase.
A change of regime will not rid the government of the corruption that has existed for decades, nor will it solve all of Venezuela’s economic problems. These will both require huge additional efforts by the incoming government and international pressure and support. What a regime change would mean, however, is a likely return to Venezuela’s long history of free and fair elections, which are the best means to ensure the government allows its people to flourish, have their rights protected, and have a say in the restoration of their country. The alternative outcomes of letting Maduro drive his country further into the ground could be disastrous.
The next two weeks leading up to the potential election will see either a positive transition or continued turmoil. Now that the Venezuelan people have openly sided against Maduro, their hope is that international pressure will increase, and this status quo of continued suffering will cease. Recent statements by President Trump following the referendum are certainly encouraging. The United States has a strong role to play, as does the Church, in capitalizing on this small glimmer of positivity in what has been an increasingly hopeless situation for Venezuela.
Matthew Allen is an intern for Providence. Originally from Plymouth, UK, he is currently a student in Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, where he is working towards a B.A. in Public Policy and International Affairs. He is particularly interested in the promotion of human rights and advocacy for the poor, oppressed, and voiceless around the globe.
Photo Credit: Venezuela Flag. By Anyul Rivas, via Flickr.