Bello: Will Venezuela’s dictatorship survive?

Publicado en Economist

HUGO CHÁVEZ owed much to Raúl Baduel. When in 2002 Chávez was forced to step down as Venezuela’s president following a massacre of protesters in Caracas, it was General Baduel, an old political ally, who restored him to power after an opposition junta had illegally suspended the constitution. In gratitude, Chávez made General Baduel defence minister. But in retirement the general dared to oppose Chávez’s drive to abolish term limits. He was accused of stealing $10m and jailed. Two days before completing his sentence, this month General Baduel was charged with treason.

His treatment shows how cornered the government of Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s chosen successor, feels. Mr Maduro has an approval rating of just 18% according to Datanálisis, a pollster. The economy is in freefall because of mismanagement and lower oil prices. To service its foreign debt, the government slashed imports to a third of their level in 2012.

Venezuelans are suffering privation previously unheard of in what was once South America’s richest country. According to a study by three universities, 82% of households now live in poverty. That compares with 48% in 1998, when Chávez came to power. The rise in poverty follows Venezuela’s biggest-ever oil windfall. Of the $1trn the regime received in oil revenue, perhaps a quarter was stolen by insiders, according to the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. Infant mortality is rising, and Venezuelans are needlessly dying because of the shortage of medicines. Those who can, leave; perhaps 2m Venezuelans now live abroad.

To remain in power, Mr Maduro’s state-socialist regime is extinguishing democracy. The opposition won a big majority in a legislative election in 2015. Since then, the government has used its hand-picked supreme court to nullify parliament. The similarly tame electoral authority blocked the opposition’s drive for a recall referendum. It failed to call an election for mayors and regional governors, due last year. The authority is now requiring the re-registration of opposition parties, a process whose rules are so impractical that it appears designed to abolish many of them.

Talks between the opposition and the government, brokered by the Vatican and the South American Union, collapsed in January because Mr Maduro showed little interest in freeing political prisoners or restoring constitutional rule. Instead he is becoming more repressive. His new hardline vice-president, Tareck El Aissami, heads a “national anti-coup command”. This has kept General Baduel in prison and jailed several other army officers along with members of Popular Will, an opposition party whose leader, Leopoldo López, has been a prisoner since 2014. It is one of the regime’s fantasies that it faces constant coup plots. Another is the quasi-religious official cult of Chávez, who died of cancer four years ago this week.

What can be done to halt Venezuela’s implosion, organise a humanitarian rescue and achieve a return to democracy? Radicals in the opposition trusted in a popular uprising. But repression has worked: people seem too scared and preoccupied with survival to sustain mass protests. A negotiated solution remains the most plausible option. But it will take pressure from both within and without.

The United States has tightened the screws a little. Donald Trump met Lilian Tintori, Mr López’s wife, at the White House last month, and called for his release. The United States Treasury has blacklisted Mr El Aissami, accusing him of drug-trafficking (which he denies). But sanctions are of doubtful effect and are likely to make officials even less willing to yield power. Some Republicans would like the United States to stop buying Venezuelan oil; that would cause disruption but provide a pretext for repression.

The best option is for the United States to join other Latin American countries in pressing the regime to accept talks. Last year Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organisation of American States, invoked the group’s democracy clause to call for Venezuela’s suspension. He failed to get sufficient backing. Now he may try again. Political change in South America, combined with Venezuela’s move to open dictatorship, has left Mr Maduro more isolated than in the past.

Diplomatic pressure alone will not be enough to shift him. But it will help. Needed, too, is a more effective opposition: it is high time that its squabbling groupuscules united in a single party with one leader. The alternatives are stark: the consolidation of a Latin American dictatorship, or the possibility of large-scale bloodshed. The region should do its utmost to avoid both.


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