Venezuela's Deadline

The opposition has until Sunday before President Nicolas Maduro’s regime begins rewriting the constitution.

Supporters of opposition leader Henrique Capriles face off against riot police in Caracas.
Christian Veron / Reuters

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro will take the first step at the end of the week to reorganize the government. Voters will select a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, and because the opposition has refused to participate, the outcome likely means the end of the opposition-led National Assembly, the only remaining institution outside Maduro’s grasp. On Wednesday, the opposition began a 48-hour strike, one of the last desperate steps it can take before Venezuela becomes a Cuba-style dictatorship.

Maduro has been plotting this move possibly since last October, when his Socialist government shut down a recall referendum, a constitutional right developed by Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor and political mentor. He has definitely had the move in mind since at least March, when he tried to dissolve the National Assembly through the country’s supreme court—a move he later reversed amid international outcry. Sunday’s vote would elect 364 members of the constituent assembly; the remaining 181 would be elected by members of seven different sections of society, including students, farmers, and businesspeople. This system, even if the opposition weren’t boycotting, favors government supporters, because it gives equal weight to sparsely populated rural areas that are more likely to favor Maduro’s government. But after the near collapse of the Venezuelan economy, the scarcity of basic staples like food and medical supplies, Maduro is deeply unpopular with the country’s 20 million voters, 85 percent of whom are reportedly against redrafting the constitution. This week’s hard deadline puts the opposition in a tough spot. Once the constituent assembly is created, the opposition will likely lose all legitimate political power. So in the following days the opposition must strike a balance between putting enough pressure on Maduro, and making sure the country doesn’t descend into mass violence.

The coalition of opposition groups, called the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), has planned massive protests for months. Many times these have turned violent, and about 100 people have been killed in clashes with national guard troops. The protests have helped fuel criticism of Maduro, but they haven’t yet swayed the president.  The largest repudiation of the government came July 17 when the country held a non-binding, opposition-organized referendum vote. The vote asked three questions, most importantly if people rejected creation of the new assembly. More than 7 million people—of 20 million voters—voted and nearly all favored the opposition’s stance. The symbolic vote was a show of force against chavismo, as the political movement founded by Chavez is known, but it also set up the opposition’s next move: the creation of a parallel government.

Last week, MUD opposition lawmakers appointed 13 supreme court judges and 20 substitutes judges. Again, it was purely symbolic. But it has so far been one of the most radical moves by MUD. The current supreme court justices were named on the fly in 2015 right before chavistas ceded the National Assembly to a two-third opposition majority. These judges have acted as Maduro’s cudgel, and have also lent a veil—however thin—of democracy to his orders. The government hasn’t taken the appointment of this parallel government lightly. Juan Jose Mendoza, president of the supreme court’s constitutional chamber, said the opposition was “undertaking crimes against the independence and security of the nation, in particular, in terms of crimes of treason … .” Most recently, it’s rumored the government arrested Angel Zerpa, one of the opposition-appointed justices. The idea of the parallel may have no true power, but it was largely done to appease the more radical elements of MUD, who are pivotal if the opposition wants to oust Maduro.

David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told me there’s constant worry within MUD that more radical elements will break off if they feel tactics aren’t working. “Their idea of fighting the government is shutting down the whole city,” Smilde said of the radical contingent. The reason the recent opposition force has been more successful than in the past, specifically in 2014, is because MUD hasn’t splintered. Three years ago, Leopoldo Lopez led radicals to the streets in protest while Henrique Capriles and the more moderate element largely dismissed the marches as a mistake. Going forward this week, and undoubtedly in the weeks to come, if the constituent assembly is formed, cohesion between these groups could determine the outcome in Venezuela.

Last week the opposition’s 24-hour strikE was mostly successful. Many city centers shut down, and MUD said 85 percent of the country participated. Maduro called its effect minimal, saying, “Today, work triumphed.” But what the oppositions risks in a protracted economic siege against the government is alienating the country’s poor. The opposition is seen as a mostly middle-class revolt, and many of the country’s poor were once—if they’re still not now—supporters of chavismo because of its populist appeal and emphasis on social programs. But much of the country is in dire economic shape, and many people are can’t risk losing their jobs. “It’s unfair,” Maria Sandoval, a 27-year-old medical secretary told the Associated Press. “The government jails the people who protest and those who are protesting are caging the rest of us.” This same feeling could be intensified if, in the coming days, more radical elements of the party take to what’s called guarimba, a tactic used in the past of tearing up whatever is around on the street and blockading neighborhoods.

This could also be the regime’s best weapon, handed to it by the opposition. In the past, MUD supporters have stationed themselves at these, almost like checkpoints, shaking down people who don’t support the shutdown. But not everyone can participate in strikes, especially the poor. A contributor to the Caracas Chronicles, a Venezuelan news and analysis site, wrote recently about the need to “overcome the guarimba instinct” by saying: “We need to keep protesting. But we also need protests to work. We need every Venezuelan on board for the long run if we expect to build the inclusive, fair and democratic nation we are protesting for.”

Destroying property and setting fire to barricades could also lend the government the excuse it needs to unleash soldiers on protesters. And in that fight, the guns win.

Many analysts marked July 30 as the Zero Hour, the time when either MUD or Maduro would prevail. But as that date nears, people are thinking about the weeks after. Much hope is being placed in the international community. Smilde, from WOLA, said that if all the countries in the Americas could speak with one voice it may cause Maduro to take a step back. Previously, when Maduro tried to abolish the National Assembly through the court, it was international reaction that was partly credited with creating pushback within his own party. But so far, the Organization of the American States has failed to pass a unanimous rebuke of Maduro. For now, outside forces aside, the opposition’s best hope may be to focus on sticking together, and to keeping relative peace on the streets.