For nearly a month, protesters in Venezuela have clashed with the military. Thousands march daily in the streets against the government and are met with volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets fired by police. About 30 people have been killed so far. The country has seen protests like this before, most recently in 2014. But this one is different. In less than a month, President Nicolás Maduro openly and repeatedly violated the constitution after he tried to rewrite an oil law, and his disregard for even pretending to maintain the appearance of a democracy has unified the typically squabbling opposition. Now, as David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, told me, the opposition “could run a stray dog and it would probably win the presidency.”
The unraveling of the late-Hugo Chavez’s political legacy has been dramatic, beginning shortly after his death in 2013. The country had seen massive demonstrations during Chavez’s presidency, but he had charisma and massive support, and knew when to back off. Maduro does not. During protests in 2014 over inflation and a lack of security, Maduro ordered his air force jets to fly low over the heads of demonstrators in San Cristóbal. The national guard rode motorcycles into the city and fired tear gas and shotguns at them. There was increasingly the sense that the left-wing Chavista government was more concerned with staying in power than fighting for the common man.
“Look,” one protester told The New York Times at a 2014 rally. “I’ve got a rock in my hand, and I’m the distributor for Adidas eyewear in Venezuela.”
The opposition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), consists of about 15 fractious political organizations. Now that this is not a problem, and with growing international support, the MUD must figure out the best way to remove Maduro from power. The military and its weapons are on Maduro’s side, so violence is not an option. With food scarcity growing, the opposition is in a bind to focus and sustain the momentum of its protests, and the government knows this. Maduro, in an attempt to placate public opinion, announced Sunday a 60 percent increase in the country’s minimum wage—the third such increase in 2017 and the 15th since he assumed the presidency in 2013. The handouts withstanding, many of the reasons for the anger against the government haven’t changed: Inflation is expected to reach 2,000 percent by 2018—up from 720 percent this year. And, as The Associated Press reports, even with the new wage increases and mandatory subsidies in place in Venezuela, the minimum take-home salary has risen to the equivalent of $50 per month.
Opinion against Maduro went from flagging to hostile in March. The Supreme Court, which is seen as controlled by the president, passed an order to strip congress off its powers. The decree was partially meant to give Maduro sole power to set up oil ventures, but a sentence in the order would have centralized power in the executive, essentially eliminating congressional authority. The order was widely criticized, even by Maduro’s own party. Amid the criticism, Maduro quickly reversed the decision. “The controversy is over,” Maduro said of his failed maneuvering, “the constitution has won.”
Under Chavez, the illusion of democracy was carefully pruned—though he still had a wide base of support among the country’s poor and middle class. But Maduro has struggled to maintain the facade. For the past year, the opposition has used almost every political tactic to oust him, and each time the socialist government has sidestepped it, bending law until it’s unrecognizable. Maduro jailed Leopoldo López, the opposition leader, for organizing anti-government protests in 2014. More recently, the courts banned Henrique Capriles, a current governor and past presidential candidate, from running for office for 15 years. “When the dictatorship squeals,” Capriles said after the decision, “it’s a sign we’re advancing.”
Now the opposition has put itself in a prime spot to remove Maduro, and the best way to do this, Smilde told me, is to to maintain pressure on the government by continuing massive demonstrations. “Right now the opposition is enjoying a very rare moment of unity,” Smilde said. There is, however, dissent about what the focus of these protests should be. On the radical—or perhaps optimistic—side of the spectrum, the opposition wants to re-initiate the recall referendum. This would almost certainly end in Maduro’s dismissal. Part of Chavez’s legacy was a move to a six-year presidential term, with the caveat that in the third year citizens had the chance to recall their president. So when Maduro took away the opposition’s legal right to a referendum vote, he sullied a principal enacted by his predecessor and political mentor. The other major issue with fighting for a recall is that under Venezuela’s constitution Maduro would be replaced with his vice president, leaving the socialist party and its cronies in place. Smilde said the opposition also has tendency to overestimate its power.
Instead, Smilde says he supports those who believe the protests should concentrate on forcing the government to hold regional elections, which were scheduled for last December; Maduro postponed them until sometime in 2017. This is a central focus of a manifesto laid out last week by Julio Borges, speaker of the opposition-controlled national assembly. In his speech, Borges also called for the release of political prisoners, allowing foreign humanitarian groups to ease food scarcity, and to activate a constitutional provision that would force early presidential elections this year. Borges has also appealed to the international community to end funding to Maduro, which comes mainly from Wall Street—among the country’s sources of revenues is its approximately $7.7 billion in gold reserves—as well from China and Russia in the form of trade. The previous Chavez regime’s major source of revenue—oil—has all but dried up after years of mismanagement of the state-run oil company PDSVA, and the collapse in global oil prices.
Last week, Maduro announced the country would leave the Organization of American States, the pro-democracy regional coalition based in Washington, D.C. The OAS has been crucial in supporting the opposition’s cause, because it has lent international legitimacy to its grievances. In March, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who is also a respected Uruguayan lawyer, released a 75-page report that accused Maduro of widespread human-rights violations. When Maduro tried to extinguish congressional power later that month, he drew more criticism. Fourteen countries, including Brazil and Mexico, all called for Venezuela to hold democratic elections. Peru recalled its ambassador. This wave of condemnation has, in turn, emboldened the opposition, Smilde told me, because it sees that the protests haven’t gone unnoticed. What happens, he said, “is the opposition is feeding off the international contempt, and the international contempt is feeding off the protest cycle in Venezuela.”
It will be essential that this cycle keeps feeding upon itself if the opposition hopes to force Maduro to relent on elections. But even if the opposition can get Maduro to agree to elections, to ensure they’re carried out fairly, and then win those elections, there will be many in the socialist government who’d rather sink with the ship than relinquish power. This includes people like Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who is widely accused of being a former drug trafficker, including by the U.S. Treasury Department. It also includes senior military leaders, those with the firepower to keep Maduro in the executive office, regardless of election results. The opposition, Smilde said, needs to offer people like this a soft out. “Some kind of immunity or assurance. To say, ‘It’s time for elections and not be afraid what happens.’”
A military coup is unlikely, as my colleague Siddhartha Mahanta has reported, because generals and colonels make up much of Maduro’s inner circle. But if the opposition makes it known that if it took power, it wouldn’t retaliate against former Chavista leaders, these people may be more inclined to let the opposition’s momentum run its course. And the momentum is certainly there. The problem is that the opposition doesn’t enjoy the aid of a heavily armed military to back its legitimacy. Instead, it must work within the law, which the Maduro regime seems increasingly unconcerned with respecting.