There is a deadly struggle in Venezuela. The government of Nicolas Maduro and the opposition have removed the gloves of democracy and are exchanging the bare knuckles of anarchism. Matters got to a head when this week, July 30, over eight million people, or 41.5 percent of registered voters, elected a Constituent Assembly that can amend the constitution.
The vote came amidst opposition protests and moves to “Takeover Venezuela”, an euphemism for a coup, and Maduro’s retort that: “If Venezuela was plunged into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian Revolution destroyed, we would go to combat. We would never give up, and what couldn’t be done with votes, we would do with weapons, we would liberate the fatherland with weapons.”
Events this week are the culmination of the opposition rejection of the 2013 general elections won by Maduro and its refusal to recognise him as the president. In the 2014 protests, 43 were killed and 3,689 arrested; the following year, one death was recorded and 410 were arrested; last year, a dozen were killed and 2,732 arrested, while in the first half of this year, 125 have been killed, 13,050 injured and 4,848 people arrested.
In 2014, the opposition decided to leave the democratic path and employ street protests to force the Maduro government to resign. Using counter mass protests, the government refused to leave. Then the former decided to amend the constitution to shorten Maduro’s five-year mandate. But the Supreme Court ruled that even if such an amendment passed, it would not be retroactive. Then the opposition decided on a new strategy – a recall referendum. But it had two major problems. First, the opposition had 1.8 million unverified signatures, not the four million signatories constitutionally required, and for an actual recall to be legal, it needed 7,587,580 votes because the recall votes must be higher than the votes that put the president in power. The second problem was time; if the recall was not done by early January 2017, the vice president would take over to complete the mandate.
Then the opposition decided to redirect its energy to forcing early elections which the government rebuffed. Its tactics of an outright impeachment was met by a Supreme Court decision that the National Assembly as composed was actually illegal and therefore stripped it of its powers to legislate. Within days, both sides, seeing anarchy in the horizon, decided to maintain the status quo.
The ‘crises’ in Venezuela began in 1998 when a new political entrant, Hugo Chavez won the December 6, 1998 presidential elections with 56.2 percent or 3,673,685 of the votes. He had intruded into national consciousness in 1992 when he carried out an attempted coup and was jailed.
In the on-going battles, the international community, especially those who eye Venezuela’s oil, are threatening sanctions against an elected government that has refused to fall.
The ‘crises’ in Venezuela began in 1998 when a new political entrant, Hugo Chavez won the December 6, 1998 presidential elections with 56.2 percent or 3,673,685 of the votes. He had intruded into national consciousness in 1992 when he carried out an attempted coup and was jailed. Nine months later, in November 1998, his followers carried out another unsuccessful coup. After two years in jail, he was granted pardon and decided to carry out the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ through the ballot box.
With the mandate, he redistributed land and wealth in favour of the poor, and introduced massive food, education, housing and health subsides. These were funded with the Venezuelan oil wealth, which he also used in furthering integration in Latin America. According to the United Nations, the Chavez administration reduced poverty from 49.4 percent in 1999 to 23.9 percent in 2012.
As expected, the rich were furious about such massive social spending, just as they are in the United States (US) over Obamacare, which they want to repeal or mangle. The opposition fought back; however in the July 30, 2000 elections, Chavez increased his win margin to 60 percent.
A frustrated opposition, with the assistance of the largest trade union, the CTV and the employers federation, the Fedecamaras, staged a military coup led by the Army Chief of Staff, General Efrain on April 12, 2002, which ousted the government. President Chavez was seized and taken to a military base on the coast, while the president of the employers association, Pedro Carmona was pronounced president. Despite it being a coup against a constitutionally and democratically elected president, the US immediately recognised the new regime. However, the next day, crowds marched poured on the streets, loyal troops retook the Presidential Palace and Chavez was returned to power.
Without doubt, the fall in oil prices, sabotage and crippling street protests have weighed down the country, leading to hype-inflation, high crime rates and challenges to the social project.
Next, the opposition gathered signatures to recall Chavez and in the August 15, 2004 recall vote, he won 58 percent of the votes. In the December 2006 elections, he widened his win to 7,309,080 votes or 62.8 percent of the votes cast.
In June 2011, he revealed he had cancer for which he had undergone surgery and chemotherapy. In February 2012, he had another surgery. A sick Chavez stood for the October 7, 2012 elections, winning 8,191,132 or 55.1 percent of the votes, while opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, won 6,591,304 or 44.3 percent.
Two months later, Chavez left for further surgery in Cuba announcing the then Vice President Maduro as his preferred successor. He was so sick that he could not return in early January for his swearing in. The opposition rallied for a new election. Chavez made it back but passed away on March 5, 2013. Special elections were called for April 14, 2013. The opposition felt the Chavez era and magic was gone and that their candidate, Capriles, a lawyer, would defeat Maduro, a former bus driver and trade unionist. The hotly contested election had a 79.268 percent turn out with 18,904,364 persons casting votes. Maduro with 7,587,579 or 50.6 percent of the votes won and Capriles with 7,363,980 or 49.1 percent votes was runner up.
Capriles asked for a vote verification and 54 percent of the votes were technically recounted with no discrepancy. But he asked for 100 percent recount which the National Electoral Council obliged, but he changed his mind. He knew that the Venezuelen election system is highly automated with electoral staff picked at random through an automated system. Instead, he turned to the Supreme Court, which upheld the results. Despite this, the opposition refused to acknowledge defeat; rather it took to street protests and sabotage.
Without doubt, the fall in oil prices, sabotage and crippling street protests have weighed down the country, leading to hype-inflation, high crime rates and challenges to the social project. Doubtlessly, also, none of those countries condemning Venezuela or threatening sanctions will tolerate an opposition that would not accept the democratic will of the majority, openly works for a coup, has made the country ungovernable for four years, has hijacked a helicopter, dropped grenades on a public institution, and would not accept dialogue. Even the intervention of the Vatican has failed. That the opposition has powerful countries backing it cannot legitimise its undemocratic tactics. A descent into anarchy will be injurious.
Owei Lakemfa, former Secretary General of African Workers is a Human Rights activist, journalist and author.