Venezuela: The Death of a Democracy

On 1 October, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro criticised Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for his attempts to suppress Catalonia’s independence vote. Whether Maduro’s comments were justified or not, they seemed highly hypocritical given the erosion of representative democracy which he has presided over in Venezuela, demonstrated above all by the convocation of the National Constituent Assembly in July to supplant the opposition controlled Parliament.

Image courtesy of Voice of America via Wikimedia, ©2017, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Voice of America via Wikimedia, ©2017, some rights reserved

Major opposition protests

To understand the authoritarian slide in Venezuela, it is necessary to go back to 30 March when the Venezuelan Supreme Court, packed with government supporters, stripped the democratically-elected National Assembly of its legislative powers. Since elections in 2015, La Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD), the coalition of parties opposed to Maduro’s rule, has held a majority in the National Assembly, the Venezuelan legislature. While this was not the first blow to Venezuelan democracy suffered under during Maduro’s presidency, the ruling by an institution which is supposed to uphold the rule of law was particularly dangerous as it meant that all three branches of government would, in effect, be under the control of the governing United Socialist Party. The Supreme Court’s ruling was widely condemned, including by Attorney General Luisa Ortega, who denounced it for violating the ‘constitutional order.’

Maduro, facing daily popular protests against his rule after the Supreme Court ruling, issued a presidential degree to convoke the Constituent Assembly to restore peace and justice to the country. Undoubtedly, the convocation of the Constituent Assembly was illegitimate since, like the Supreme Court ruling in March, it was an attempt to usurp the democratically-elected National Assembly. Hence, 40 countries, including regional powers like Brazil and Argentina, announced that they would refuse to recognise the Constituent Assembly’s authority. To make matters worse, it seems that the elections for the Constituent Assembly, held on 30 July, violated democratic norms. Indeed, reports suggest that some public-sector workers were threatened with the sack if they failed to vote, whilst the CEO of Smartmatic, the company which supplied the voting systems, claimed that the turnout for the vote was exaggerated as the voting systems were ‘tampered with’, thus calling into question the National Electoral Council’s credibility. In any case, the turnout (according to official figures) was just 41.5 per cent, compared to a turnout of 74.3 per cent in the 2015 elections for the institution it replaced, the National Assembly. Immediately, this makes any claim that the Constituent Assembly represents the Venezuelan people tenuous at best.

Since its first meeting in August, the Constituent Assembly has shown itself to be a tool of the Maduro regime, designed to crack down on dissent. Its first action was to dismiss the Attorney General, Ortega, who took legal action to prevent the Assembly from meeting over its violation of the Constitution. The replacement of Ortega – who was trying to uphold and maintain the rule of law – by the regime loyalist Tareck Saab demonstrates the Constituent Assembly’s contempt for democracy. Moreover, in August, the Constituent Assembly decreed that it would open a ‘historic trial for betrayal of the fatherland’ against opposition leaders and other dissidents, which mirrors strategies adopted by totalitarian regimes throughout history to delegitimise the political opposition, for instance the establishment of the Revolutionary Tribunal during the French Revolution to identify ‘enemies of the people.’

In addition to targeting opposition to Maduro’s rule, the Constituent Assembly, a body invested with supreme powers, awarded itself legislative powers on matters relating to sovereignty and security, as well as on financial and budgetary issues, which are clearly the preserve of the last democratically elected institution in the country, the National Assembly. The Constituent Assembly also failed to fulfil its expressed purpose of drawing up a new constitution to restore peace, as the deputies did not debate a single article of the new constitution in the Constituent Assembly’s first month of existence. This demonstrates that the Constituent Assembly’s convocation was a self-coup d’état – a desperate attempt by Maduro to cling on to power by usurping the opposition-controlled legislature in the context of rising unpopularity, caused by the erosion of democracy, high levels of unemployment and inflation.

The recent report carried out by the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) has shed further light on the worrying authoritarian drift in Venezuela. The UNCHR revealed abuses committed by the Venezuelan security forces, for which Maduro must take responsibility, being the Head of State. The report found that in the protests against the government between April and July, the security forces, through the use of weapons and tear gas, were directly responsible for at least 46 of the 124 deaths of civilians. The UNCHR warned that the violence perpetrated by the security forces possibly amounted to extrajudicial execution. Moreover, in nearly all cases, the security forces subjected the detainees, including children, to violent or inhumane treatment. Some detainees were forced to listen to pro-governmental songs or slogans for hours, suggesting they were being treated as political prisoners. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Husein, lamented on the basis of this report that democracy in Venezuela ‘is barely alive, if still alive’, for although Maduro was democratically elected, he has since spearheaded an assault on Venezuelan democracy.

The MUD’s response to the authoritarian slide in Venezuela has been incoherent. The MUD opposes the Constituent Assembly and maintains that the National Electoral Council – stacked with government supporters – is fraudulent. Yet, rather than boycotting the electoral process in protest, it has announced that it will still contest the regional elections on October 15, which means that it will be complicit in their result regardless of similar reports of corruption, such as the Electoral Council allegedly tampering with the voting machines during the Constituent Assembly elections. Furthermore, the on-off talks between the opposition and Maduro’s government to bring the political and economic crisis to an end seem futile as the mediator, former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, stated that Maduro should remain in power until 2018 when his presidential term ends. The clear problem with allowing Maduro to stay in office is that when, and on what terms, the next presidential elections take place is now the decision of the Constituent Assembly, an illegitimate institution that has marginalised democratically-elected opposition. This sad state of affairs leaves the impression that there is no clear end to the destruction of Venezuelan democracy.

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