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December 14, 2017

COVER STORY

Friday, July 28, 2017

Maduro nears the point of no return

Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela, holds up a copy of the Venezuelan Constitution during a press conference in Caracas.
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With tensions running close to breaking-point in the Latin American country, President Nicolás Maduro will this weekend lead a move to block the opposition from practically any say in how the country is run and rewrite Venezuela’s Constitution, installed in 1999 under the late Hugo Chávez. With pressure from the Mercosur, the US and the international community failing to make a breakthrough, is Venezuela on the verge of becoming a dictatorship?

CARACAS — Tensions in Venezuela were running at breaking-point last night as the government slapped a last-minute ban on protests that could “disturb or affect” Sunday’s controversial vote to elect members of a new Constituent Assembly who will rewrite the nation’s Constitution. The new developments came on the back of a brutal 48 hours of unrest in which five people died.

The five-day ban, which was introduced by decree and will run from Friday to Tuesday — though it is unlikely to be heeded — came after a strike organised by the opposition in protest against the election, which government critics say will mark the end of democracy in the Latin American country. Interior Minister Néstor Reverol said yesterday that those who break the ban on protests will be handed prison terms of between five and 10 years.

Many streets remained barricaded and deserted yesterday, as the nationwide work stoppage entered its second day. Plenty of rural areas and working-class urban neighbourhoods were bustling, however, and the strike appeared less well supported than a one-day shutdown last week. With Venezuela already brimming with shuttered stores and factories, amid a blistering four-year recession, the effectiveness of any strike can be hard to gauge. Many Venezuelans live hand-to-mouth and say they have to keep working.

In Barinas, home state of former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, only about a third of businesses were closed according to Reuters, as opposed to the opposition’s formal estimate of 92 percent participation nationally.

“I am opposed to the government and I agree we must do everything we can to get out of this mess, but I depend on my work. If I don’t work, my family does not eat,” said Ramón Alvarez, a 45-year-old barber at his shop in Barinas.

The latest stoppages were called to heap further pressure on Maduro to scrap Sunday’s vote for the proposed 545-member Constituent Assembly, which will have power to rewrite the 1999 Constitution introduced under late former president Chávez and likely shutter the existing opposition-led National Assembly.

In a push to underline the increasing international pressure on the government in Caracas, the Mercosur yesterday issued another statement, led by Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie, calling for dialogue between both sides. The declaration came 24 hours after the Donald Trump administration in Washington slapped sanctions on 13 senior Socialist government officials for corruption, undermining democracy, and participating in repression, freezing US assets and blocking US entities from doing business with them.

The news of five deaths on Wednesday and yesterday now means that at least 108 people have died in anti-government unrest convulsing Venezuela since April, when the opposition launched protests demanding free and fair elections to end nearly two decades of Socialist Party rule.

MORE DEATHS

The protests began following a Supreme Court ruling that stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its remaining powers. Though quickly reversed, the decision ignited a protest movement against Maduro fuelled by anger over existing triple-digit inflation, hours-long lines to buy basic food items and deadly medical shortages.

The state prosecutor’s office said yesterday a 49-year-old man had been killed during a protest in Carabobo state and a 16-year old died in the middle-class area of El Paraiso in Caracas yesterday. That added to the previously announced deaths of a 23-year-old man and a 30-year-old man killed in western Merida state and a 16-year-old boy killed in the poor Caracas neighbourhood of Petare during clashes on Wednesday. Five people were also killed in unrest during last week’s one-day strike.

Over 190 people were arrested during the stoppage on Wednesday, said local rights group Penal Forum. Since April, authorities have rounded up nearly 4,800 people, of whom 1,325 remain behind bars, the group said.

Most of the dead in anti-government protests that began in early April have been young men killed by gunfire. The toll also includes looters, police allegedly attacked by protesters and civilians killed in accidents related to roadblocks set up during demonstrations.

The count by the county’s chief prosecutor has been highly politicised, with the opposition and other government agencies reporting varying tolls and causes of death that focus blame on the other side. The chief prosecutor’s office has officially released little information about the victims of the unrest, but at least 44 are believed to have been shot while participating in protests. Many of those deaths are blamed on armed motorcycle gangs of government supporters known as colectivos who are often seen shooting indiscriminately at protesters while police and soldiers stand by.

Many Venezuelans are nervous about further violence over the weekend, and some have been stocking up on food and staying home.

Voters on Sunday will choose 364 constitutional representatives distributed across municipalities and state capitals and another 181 “sectoral” candidates from demographic groups ranging from students to farmers and fisherman.

The opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition says it will boycott the vote, saying the ruling party wants to consolidate the “dictatorship” with its move. The MUD says the use of sectoral candidates, who had to collect signatures and file them to the government-leaning elections council for approval, was a way to weed out anti-government aspirants. Critics have also noted the lopsided representation of rural areas, where the Socialist Party has historically been strongest, at the expense of the opposition-leaning cities.

The country’s least-populated state of Amazonas, for example, will elect eight representatives to the assembly while the capital of Caracas will choose only seven, according to a document about the vote posted on the National Electoral Council’s website.

State demographics agency INE data shows Amazonas having a population of 188,000 and the municipality of Caracas 2.1 million.

‘CAMPAIGNING’

Government officials and candidates for the Constituent Assembly wrapped up campaigning yesterday with a rally in Caracas led by Maduro. Addressing a multitude of government supporters dressed in red, the president called on Venezuelans to vote. He posed the election as a choice that Venezuelans must make between being either “a free country or a colony of the empire” — the PSUV’s term for the United States.

The leftist leader reiterated the assembly was the only way to bring peace to Venezuela, blasted threats of further sanctions from “emperor Donald Trump,” and hit back at accusations he is morphing into a tyrant.

“The usual suspects came out to say Maduro had become crazy,” he told cheering red-shirted supporters in Caracas. “Of course, I was crazy! Crazy with passion, crazy with a desire for peace.”

Amid rumours of 11th-hour attempts to foster negotiations that have ran throughout the week, Maduro reiterated an invitation to dialogue with the opposition, although such talks have flopped in the past.

“I propose to the Venezuelan political opposition that it abandon the road to insurrection... and that in the coming hours, before the election and installation of the constituent assembly, we begin a roundtable dialogue,” Maduro said in comments reported by the AFP news agency.

The president said, however, that any talks must happen “before the election and installation of the Constituent Assembly.”

The MUD, however, appeared to be firmly against the idea of dialogue, using the government’s newly announced ban as a call to protest. The coalition’s leaders are urging Venezuelans to boycott the vote, saying the election rules are rigged to guarantee Maduro a majority and introduce a single-party authoritarian system.

“The regime declared we can’t demonstrate... we will respond with the TAKING OF VENEZUELA,” the MUD posted on its Twitter account, reiterating that it will again take to the streets today.

Attempting to escalate the pressure on the government this week, former Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero held talks with opposition leader Leopoldo López in Caracas on Monday.

At the meeting, members of the opposition coalition opposing Maduro demanded the vote to select delegates to rewrite the Constitution be halted, a move they say would be a long step toward autocracy.

“Zapatero was told about the people’s demand that the constituent assembly be withdrawn,” opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara said. “They talked about the grave conflict that could emerge, and we made it clear that the only one responsible for that is Maduro.”

Zapatero has frequented Venezuela in recent years to push for a dialogue between the government and opposition. While he played a role in López’s release after three years in a military prison earlier this month, his involvement in efforts to start a dialogue has been criticised by many opposition supporters. Maduro has so far been unwilling to make many concessions.

Reports suggested that Zapatero met Maduro on Tuesday night, after he had spoken with ruling Socialist Party officials to speak about postponing the election. Maduro over the weekend said the government had held talks with the opposition and that postponing the vote had been on the table but that the opposition did not follow through.

By Tuesday, however, he was showing no sign that he was planning to alter the vote’s timeline.

“On July 30, the constituent (assembly) will go ahead with the vote of the people,” he said in a televised broadcast.

The opposition have attempted to hold their own democratic exercise to pressure the government recently. Over seven million people voted against the establishment of the new assembly in an informal referendum organised by the opposition on July 16.

Maduro has acknowledged publicly that the government is pressuring public employees to vote in favour of his proposal. At a rally with public energy workers earlier this month, he said: “Take the lists of workers from all the state institutions and businesses to create a constituent committee. For each business, call all the workers and organise how they’ll vote on July 30. At the end of the day check the list. If there are 15,000 workers, there have to be 15,000 votes, with no excuses.”

SHOWDOWN

Once the richest country per capita in Latin America due to its vast oil reserves, Venezuela was scorched by vast disparities that kept an elite in luxury while the poor languished in slums.

The result was Chávez, a working-class military officer who won the presidency in 1999, changed the Constitution and used the nation’s petroleum wealth to launch massive social programmes, even as he concentrated power around himself and his close allies. He remains much beloved by millions of Venezuelans, although many others — especially those in the middle and upper classes — loathe him.

Maduro’s approval rating, on the other hand, is hovering around 20 percent, with opponents calling this weekend’s vote the only way for him to remain in the presidential palace.

As the political situation deteriorates, the desperate state of the country’s economy is also beginning to bite even deeper for many Venezuelans. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates, gross domestic product is expected to shrink by 12 percent this year, following on from a 18-percent contraction the year previously. Inflation is expected to top 720 percent. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s currency reserves have dwindled to under US$10 billion.

The country’s economic isolation was underlined again this week when Avianca, a major Colombian carrier, said it was ending flights to and from Venezuela immediately, moving forward a suspension originally announced for mid-August. US airline Delta is also expected to suspend services from September.

The most recent political protests have been fuelled in large part by the disastrous state of the economy, Maduro’s refusal to even consider altering his course of action and the government’s resistance to early elections.

The country’s electoral council ruled against the opposition when it sought a referendum in 2016 that could have cut short Maduro’s six-year term. The council also pushed back elections for governors, scheduled for 2016, to December of this year. Critics fear that the new Constituent Assembly will cancel those too, as well as presidential elections in 2018.

Scenarios for what happens next range widely. Some observers suggest that social unrest and international sanctions will worsen, prompting, perhaps, a military coup or fuelling an anti-government guerrilla movement. Others say the government, likely with the aid of Russia and China and the moral support of Cuba, will somehow manage to hold on, as the country becomes an international pariah.

With the ban on protest actions beginning this morning and the opposition calling for a mass demonstration in Caracas today, the scene is now set for another major showdown.                              

Herald with agencies

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