Publicado en economist.com
“WE ARE the 80%!” declared Henrique Capriles, governor of the Venezuelan state of Miranda and a leader of the opposition to the country’s autocratic left-wing government. He was one of a parade of speakers who took to a makeshift stage at the Miranda sports complex in Caracas on September 26th to rail against the regime. The week before it had taken steps that will make it far more difficult to remove the president, Nicolás Maduro, by constitutional means.
Protests will start immediately, said the opposition Democratic Unity alliance (MUD). October 12th will be “a special day of national mobilisation”. It will be followed by the “real conquest of Venezuela”, on October 26th-28th. Those are the days fixed by the national electoral council (CNE) to record public support for launching a referendum to recall Mr Maduro.
Mr Capriles is right. Venezuelans have been driven to near-desperation by shortages of food, medicines and other basic goods and by inflation of around 700%. Millions are having to skip at least one meal a day. According to one recent poll, 84% would vote to remove Mr Maduro from office. But the regime is manoeuvring to ensure they do not get that chance, or that it happens too late to trigger a fresh presidential election. Despite economic catastrophe and popular rage, the government is finding ways to cling to power.
The most blatant is its control of institutions that should be independent. The opposition rally was a response to a decision by the CNE on September 21st to put up every obstacle it could think of to an early recall referendum. Under the constitution, 20% of the electorate must register their support for the initiative. The CNE ruled that this must take place on three days at polling stations that will be open for seven hours a day (they will close for lunch). It will make available less than a third of the 19,500 voting machines the opposition asked for. People will have no more than 90 seconds to cast their votes, if the threshold is to be crossed in the time allocated.
Although the 20% bar set by the constitution is a national one, the CNE insists that the opposition meet it in each of Venezuela’s 24 states. The biggest hurdle thrown up by the CNE is its ruling that the referendum, if it takes place, will be held in the middle of the first quarter of 2017 at the earliest. If Venezuelans vote Mr Maduro out of office after January 10th the vice-president will serve out the rest of his term, which ends in January 2019. That job is now held by Aristóbulo Istúriz, who may be marginally less dogmatic than Mr Maduro. But Mr Maduro, or factions in the regime that may prove to be more powerful than he is, can change the vice-president at any time. The opposition’s plan to hold a referendum this year never had a chance, sneer senior officials.
The regime shows no desire to correct policies that have wrecked the economy, such as price controls and artificial exchange rates. But it is finding ways to stop a horrible situation becoming worse, at least for a while. Despite a fall in oil production, a recent modest recovery in its price helps. The heavily indebted state oil company, PDVSA, is trying to stave off the threat of default by offering to swap $5.3 billion-worth of bonds held by investors for new bonds with longer maturities. China, which has lent Venezuela at least $50 billion in return for oil, is thought to be accepting later deliveries.
After widespread looting in June, the regime found enough money to import more flour. It has partly reopened its border with Colombia after shutting it last year (largely to stop smuggling of fuel and other subsidised goods into Colombia). Thousands of Venezuelans have crossed over to shop in Colombia’s relatively well-stocked stores. The army took over the distribution of essential goods in July, putting one general in command of toilet paper, another in charge of potatoes and so on. Bizarre though it is, the “Great Mission of Sovereign Supply” may be reducing the leakage of goods to the black market. Bimonthly deliveries of subsidised goods are now arriving on time in many states. Queues still snake outside bakeries, but supplies of bread now sometimes last until those at the back reach the tills.
None of this has assuaged the anger of ordinary Venezuelans or of the organised opposition. “This government is going to fall,” proclaim graffiti daubed on city walls. That slogan is chanted by participants in small sporadic protests that have broken out across the country. The MUD, while united in wanting to end the ruinous reign of chavismo, which began under the late Hugo Chávez in 1999, has been divided on how to bring that about. Luis Vicente León, a pollster, identifies three “clusters” of opinion within the opposition: those who want to pursue the referendum despite the CNE’s intransigence, those who want to boycott it and a smaller group that calls for a mass uprising.
The plan put forth by the MUD has the assent of all three tendencies but no one pretends it is a blueprint for the “real conquest of Venezuela”. Protests big enough and prolonged enough to rattle the regime require sacrifice and staying power from beleaguered Venezuelans. Many are too caught up in the struggle for survival to fill the streets for weeks on end. Selective repression frightens many. Some opposition supporters admit that the government will survive at least until 2019.
That does not preclude change. The embattled president is hinting that he may become a bit more pragmatic. At the signing of an accord to end Colombia’s war with the FARC guerrilla army on September 26th, he invited the American secretary of state, John Kerry, to visit Venezuela this year. Mr Maduro said that he hoped this would lead to a “new era of good relations” with the country he (falsely) blames for Venezuela’s economic woes. José Luis Zapatero, a former Spanish prime minister, has been a frequent visitor to Caracas. He is trying to broker a dialogue between the regime and the opposition, the release of political prisoners and measures to safeguard the powers of the opposition-controlled national assembly.
Mr Maduro might not be the one to preside over such an arrangement. Even if the referendum to topple him fails, chavistas may replace him with a less discredited figure well before the next election. His enemies “are coming from inside”, says Mr León. But it will take more than a new figurehead to win over the 80%.