The situation in Venezuela appears to be deteriorating. Amid daily street protests, a steady stream of fatalities as police clash with protestors, rampant price instability and food shortages, and against a backdrop of a crumbling state, epitomised by rising infant mortality and malaria cases, Nicolás Maduro, the embattled president of Venezuela, has stepped up his confrontation with the opposition controlled legislature.
As I have written recently on this blog, although political machinations denied the opposition the two thirds majority needed to change the constitution, they have nonetheless been a thorn in the side of President Maduro, and at the end of last month, the Venezuelan Supreme Court announced that it would take over and assume the legislative powers of the opposition-dominated Congress. In the government’s battle with Congress, the Supreme Court has proven to be President Maduro’s best ally, striking down a number of opposition initiatives.
This move sent the opposition into overdrive and sparked a wave of street protests and international condemnation. Now, President Maduro has called for a new constitution, and requested that a constitutional assembly, or constituyente, be established in order to transform the institutional structure of the Venezuelan state. President Maduro issued a decree to begin the process of convening such an assembly. This move has sparked even more intense protests and to add to the chaos, President Maduro’s supporters have also taken to the street to defend the call for the assembly.
Given that presidential elections are due to held in December 2018, it seems likely that the purpose of the constitutional assembly would be to prolong or delay this election, and extend the tenure of President Maduro. At the same time, the existence of an alternative legislative body, could undermine the legitimacy and power of the current opposition dominated Congress. A similar tactic was employed by Rafael Correa in 2007.
But the last vestiges of the Venezuelan government’s international legitimacy appear to have ebbed away. Having been suspended from the Mercosur since December, today at a meeting in Buenos Aires, a group of current and former Latin American Presidents denounced what they termed the “descent into hell” of Venezuela. This group included President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, former Uruguayan president, Julio María Sanguinetti, former Chilean president, Ricardo Lagos, former Brazilian president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former Spanish prime minister, Felipe González. They specifically criticised President Maduro’s plans to rewrite the constitution.
Of course, what effect this will have remains to be seen. It doesn’t appear as if President Maduro has very many options. Given the depth of polarization in Venezuela and the anger of the opposition, any chance of a controlled transition seems improbable. In response to increasing opposition, the government has moved towards increasing authoritarianism. For the people of Venezuela, an end to this crisis still seems like a long way away.