You Say You Want a Revolution

In Venezuela, a Rebellion Is Taking Shape, but Where Can It End?

The unrest of recent weeks weakens the Maduro regime by the day, but it’s far from clear what can replace it, or how.

JUAN BARRETO/Getty

Hugo Chávez left some very hard shoes to fill for his successor, Nicolás Maduro. Not because the shoes were malodorous or had holes in them, which they do, but because they required certain talents President Maduro just doesn’t have and will not acquire in whatever time he’s got left in office.

Chávez’s showmanship, his ability both to dictate and distract, was unparalleled—skills that would come in handy now that brutal clashes between government security forces and protesters are gaining momentum in Venezuela, and as the world points at the Maduro administration for breaking the constitutional order.

Last week was, for Maduro, an unmitigated disaster.

On Tuesday evening, during the anniversary of an incident that ousted Hugo Chávez for a few days 15 years ago, and also commemorated the bicentennial of the battle of San Félix in Bolivar State, Maduro attended a military celebration where he gave a public speech to what should have been a carefully selected crowd—he wouldn’t do this in Caracas.

But the presence of tanks and heavy artillery couldn’t deter a small but feisty group of protesters that broke Maduro’s security ring while screaming questions, throwing rocks, and shouting “maldito,” damn you, at the president. The bodyguards and security force scrambled to get him out, but the damage was done. Videos of the episode soon went viral on social media, showing a weak, pathetic leader in what should have been a show of force and support.

The mounting Venezuelan discontent had reached a new crescendo on March 28 when the Supreme Tribunal, which was packed in 2015 with judges who don’t comply with the minimum requirements to hold their posts, ruled that they would take over the functions of the National Assembly so long as the legislature remains in rebellion against their authority.

See, in December 2015 the Venezuelan opposition took over the parliament in a landslide vote where they obtained the supermajority. After this, the Elections Authority and the Supreme Tribunal invalidated the election of enough deputies required for the opposition to lose that edge. Eventually the parliament complied, but the Supreme Tribunal insisted that wasn’t enough, and since then, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Tribunal has been ruling invalid every action by the parliament.

In broad terms so there’s no mistake: The Supreme Court, which was repacked in an illegal process attempted to nullify the Congress which was elected by a landslide vote a year ago and which does have the faculty to appoint or remove Supreme Court justices. Checks and balances gone haywire, it’s a massive institutional crisis.

The motivation? The executive branch needed a work-around to bypass the parliamentary approval needed for international loans, not to cover the deep humanitarian crisis in which the country is, but to pay bondholders of PDVSA, the state petroleum company. And there’s where the judicial branch decided not only to usurp the functions of the parliament, but to annul it.

Yes! Socialists at the service of Wall Street: The market is king.

The international backlash against the Supreme Tribunal’s blunt attack on the rule of law was, well, what would be expected when the judicial branch tries to terminate the legislative branch. After several heated diplomatic exchanges, the Organization of American States put in place resolutions aiming to re-establish constitutional order in Venezuela, and many countries all over the world recognized that the Venezuelan executive and judiciary had ganged up to stage a coup against the parliament.

Protests have been sparked all over the country, and the answer of the government has been brutal repression accompanied by a cynical call for dialogue. At the same time, Governor Henrique Capriles, one of the leaders of the opposition who sort of had an “untouchable” quality, was hit with a resolution from the Comptroller General barring him from public office for 15 years, in a process that also departs from the constitution and the legal requirements to penalize elected public officials.

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More and more, local and foreign politicians have been feeling comfortable using the “D” word around Venezuela, calling it a straight up dictatorship that is imposing a nonsensical system of government against the wishes of its people.

But even “dictatorship” may not be an adequate term.

The country is falling apart, children die of malnutrition, there are few medicines, there’s no sustainable job market, crime is rampant with a violent death rate that goes off the charts, and the military still has found ways to make a profit off of the crisis by hacking the food distribution chain.

Is there a way out?

The biggest challenge for the resisting opposition is being able to administer wisely the expectations of their followers. People are desperate, the situation is urgent, and there are no immediate solutions to the problem.

Right now the opposition is calling for elections and respect for the National Assembly. Regional elections for states and municipalities were due last December, and a constitutional referendum to depose Maduro was illegally blocked by the elections authority in October when the opposition was close to completing all requirements to put it in place.

If Maduro were to resign, or be removed by referendum, or even by trial, the vice president would be first in line to finish his constitutional term. The current Venezuelan veep is a man called Tareck El Aissami, who was recently listed under the drug kingpin act of the United States. For many Venezuelans, it would be tragic to get rid of Maduro and get stuck with El Aissami. He has been ruthless repressing opposition protests in the past, and whether true or not, his reputation has not been helped by rumoured connections to international terrorism.

So when the opposition calls for elections, it isn’t altogether clear whether they refer to regional elections or a general election including the president, which wouldn’t have a firm legal foundation.

Others seem to hope that the military might have a change of heart and force the government out and help re-establish constitutional order through a not-so-constitutional coup d’état.

Of course, this would be the fastest route to the end of Maduro and chavismo. But considering how things have gone with military adventurers and politics in the past, and considering that the military is a big part of the present problem, this seems a less desirable option.

On the other hand, so many irregularities have taken place since the opposition took over the parliament that perhaps a legal case could be made to dismantle some instances of the chavista government, and cobble back together a more gentle Frankenstein monster that could hold until a complete government overhaul can be made. But this would require some sort of transitional pact between the government and the opposition.

Meanwhile we are seeing defections from the chavista camp. Luisa Ortega Díaz, the general prosecutor, called out on the Supreme Tribunal for their constitutional violation, and her office has been refusing to prosecute protesters. (The military solution: Put the kids in front of military courts.)

But the truth is, that behind all the protests and the rage, more than the constitutional violations and coups and bans, there’s a true sense among Venezuelans that their future has been stolen and their day to day survival is imperilled. For a while, people commonly took to diving into trash bins, but even garbage is becoming scarce.

The repression by government security forces and pro-Maduro urban paramilitary groups has already produced five deaths, the latest being that of Tony Canelón, who was blasted in the gut at point-blank range while protesting.

Meanwhile, Nestor Reverol, the Venezuelan minister of justice, who’s also under investigation abroad for drug trafficking charges, has been tweeting that right wing terrorist groups linked to opposition parties are trying to oust Maduro. More alarming than a tweetstorm, however, are allegations that young protesters detained by Maduro’s secret police (SEBIN) have been tortured to get confessions that may incriminate opposition politicians in terrorist activities.

Venezuela’s long-brewing rebellion is pushing for constitutional order to be restored, but one fears that restoring it to where it was a few weeks ago won’t be enough.