For Venezuelans, 2017 continues to crawl by at a snail’s pace. Every day is a challenge to survive under Nicolas Maduro’s dictatorship. This August though—after several months of demonstrations and the deaths of 150 protestors since the start of the year—the Venezuelan people seem to be going through a sort of break. No political protests have occurred during the past month.
While a democratic transition is expected at some point—either from within or through international collaboration, or a mixture of the two—the Maduro government’s collapse seems unimaginable.
In political analysis, a forecast is always risky business. From our point of view (that of Venezuelan academics), a political change in 2017 seemed possible if and only if the loyalty between Maduro’s administration and the armed forces was broken. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
And even when the Democratic Unity Roundtable—the opposition coalition or MUD in its Spanish acronym—drew up its political agenda for the year, Maduro’s power remained strong. Past the first quarter of 2017, the administration has controlled everything from public finances to the armed forces and the judicial system, leaving no space to check the government’s authoritarianism.
Facing a raging wave of protests, Maduro called for a National Constituent Assembly on May 1st, and, despite widespread domestic and international outcry, he went through with the assembly, marking a new, unconstitutional political era. In an attempt to legitimate his act, Maduro used the Supreme Court he controls, but violated the constitution in force (yes, the one enacted by Hugo Chavez in December 1999).
As I highlighted in my July article for El Estímulo, the political course of the country has been set for the following decades. From that moment on Maduro’s Chavismo was defined by three key components: 1) a cruel and sustained repression, supported by the military’s highest chain of command; 2) complete absence of a space for reforms; and 3) the transformation of Maduro from a brutal—though democratically elected—leader to a dictator.
Even though most of the people killed in street protests were victims of shootings from security forces, the intense wave of repression and political assassinations did little to tear apart the dictatorship and the forces that support it. On the contrary, the repression helped to strengthen the ties among those in power. For example, in July Maduro decorated several National Guard soldiers participating in repression efforts.
On the other hand, collective action outside Venezuela has also fallen short. Not even U.S. sanctions against high government officials seem to have made a dent in the strength of Maduro’s dictatorship, at least publicly. After President Maduro’s addition to the Office of Foreign Asset Control’s (OFAC) list, his public discourse—and that of his subordinates—blazed with anti-imperialist rhetoric. President Trump’s announcement that he would not rule out a military option in Venezuela helped to justify and reinforce his tirades.
So where are we now and what could Venezuela’s future possibly look like? August started with the newly installed Constituent Assembly controlled by Maduro, charged with the purpose of undermining the legitimately elected National Assembly dominated by the opposition. Political persecution also remained a constant, highlighted by the removal of Attorney General Luisa Ortega by members of the Constituent Assembly. It’s clearer now more than ever that Venezuela is living under a dictatorial regime.
But hope dies last. Although the case of Attorney Ortega will serve as an example to avoid other defections from top government leaders, it could also backflip on Maduro, as Ortega holds privileged and confidential information she managed while being loyal to the regime. It is early to know exactly the consequences of Ortega’s possible collaboration with foreign governments, included the United States, but she does hold a precious asset in her hands.
On the other hand, the courage of Venezuela’s youth—undoubtedly the main player during the wave of protests—is growing, and social unrest could erupt at any time. Nevertheless, Venezuela also has learned to counteract peacefully, as demonstrated this past July 16, when more than 7 million Venezuelans participated in the opposition’s popular consultation. Although the initiative lacked official endorsement by the country’s pro-government electoral commission, the opposition’s organizational capacity extended beyond the country’s borders to cities around the world to mobilize voters and organize balloting. Without violence, Venezuelans delivered the most powerful message of rejection to the regime. It is a fact: the country wants a peaceful, democratic and electoral solution soon.
The message also got the world’s attention. Finally (and possibly a bit late) the international community started the ball rolling for change. Governments in both the Americas and Western Europe have condemned the dictatorial nature of Maduro’s regime and the fraudulent Constituent Assembly.
But as important as international condemnation is, collective pressure thus far has failed to have a critical role in triggering a democratic transition and will continue to do so, especially if political will in Venezuela remains challenged by just a few in power. The international community has limited influence over an autocratic regime that has no intentions of democratizing or yielding its absolute control of national wealth, at least not in the remainder of 2017.