Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has further provoked international criticism and enraged his political opponents by pushing for a special National Constituent Assembly (NCA) to rewrite the troubled South American nation’s constitution.
The election of delegates to the NCA was held on July 30, after nearly four months of continuous turmoil which has resulted in at least 124 deaths and left thousands injured and detained.
Maduro has talked about the role of the NCA only in fuzzy terms, characterising it as a lofty solution for Venezuela’s long list of political and economic woes. But allies of the socialist President say that the NCA will target opposition leaders, stirring warnings that Maduro will use it to install an autocratic regime.
Aside from rewriting the constitution, the NCA could function as a sort of super-body that assumes the powers of the National Assembly, the only government branch not controlled by Maduro.
First lady Cilia Flores, who Maduro calls Venezuela’s ‘First Combatant,’ says the new body will create a peace and justice commission that will ensure those responsible for the current political upheaval “pay and learn their lesson.” Diosdado Cabello, first vice-president of Venezuela’s socialist party, says the assembly will strip legislators in the opposition-controlled National Assembly of their immunity from prosecution.
Venezuela’s National Electoral Council put the number of people who voted to grant President Maduro’s ruling socialist party virtually unlimited powers with the NCA at over 8 million — a turnout more than double the estimates of both the government’s political opponents and independent experts.
Council president Tibisay Lucena announced that the turnout was 41.53% or 80,89,320 people. The count was met with mockery and anger from members of the opposition, who said they believed between 2 and 3 million people voted. According to one well-respected independent analysis, 3.6 million appeared to have voted.
The US State Department has officially condemned the Venezuelan government for holding a vote to elect the powerful NCA, calling it a step towards authoritarian rule. In a statement, the State Department stated the new body seems designed to “undermine the Venezuelan people’s right to self-determination.”
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley tweeted that the vote was a “sham election”, which takes Venezuela “another step toward dictatorship.” The Trump administration also announced it was freezing any US assets Maduro might possess and barring any American from doing business with him.
The European Union says it is concerned about the future of democracy in Venezuela after the widely-criticised vote to elect a powerful constitutional assembly. Such an assembly “elected under doubtful and often violent circumstances cannot be part of the solution, has increased division and will further de-legitimise Venezuela’s democratically elected institutions,” European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva says.
But leaders of Venezuela’s ruling socialist party are brushing off criticism from foreign governments. Cabello says Venezuela has decided to be free from foreign meddling. In his words: “What do we care what the world thinks?” He called the election “an ethical and moral victory over Venezuela’s right.”
A rising number of foreign nations are vowing not to recognise the constituent assembly that Maduro and his allies have promised will remove opponents from power. The US, Peru, Argentina, Canada, Spain, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico have announced they would not recognise the results.
Since April, Venezuela has been rocked by a wave of anti-government protests, amid a severe economic downturn caused by low oil prices and government policies that have scared away private investment.
Oil is the primary source of income for the country and crashing oil prices have wrecked its economy. More than 90% of Venezuelans now cannot even afford their food. In fact, income in the country is back to the level of the 1950s whereas inflation is expected to beat the 1000% mark shortly. The US dollar now sells in the country at 900 times its rate and necessities such as food and medicines are in huge short supply. The demand-supply gap has also meant huge corruption to lay hand on the meagre resources. The Central Bank of the country has stated that it has foreign exchange reserves of only about $10 billion.
The country’s bonds are one of the few ways the current government is able to raise money to support its collapsing economy. But as the country’s political crisis worsens, the bonds issued by the government as well as state-owned oil company PDVSA have turned a concern for investors who increasingly worry they are supporting an oppressive regime as well as a country that is at great risk of defaulting on its debts.
Goldman Sachs came under political pressure earlier this year for buying a reported $2.8 billion in Venezuelan bonds on the open market at a significant discount. Last Thursday, Credit Suisse Bank said it banned trading in Venezuelan bonds over what it said were “recent development and the climate” in the country.
In a time where political stability was badly needed, the country is split down the middle among Chavistas, who follow the socialist policies of late President Hugo Chavez and his hand-picked successor Maduro, and those who blame the 18-year rule of the United Socialist Party for ruining the economy and systematically throttling democracy.
The Chavistas claim Chavez and Maduro have intelligently leveraged Venezuela’s oil to reduce inequality to take many Venezuelans out of poverty and opted for Cuba-style communism as the way forward. But in the Parliamentary election held in December 2015, the opposition won two-thirds majority and since then Maduro has just focused on holding on to power, especially owing to the loyalty of the army.
The NCA took over the halls of the endangered, opposition-controlled congress on August 1 and decreed itself superior to all other branches of government. The decree also bars anti-government lawmakers in congress from taking any action that would interfere with the laws passed by the newly installed assembly, Delcy Rodriguez, the super-body’s leader, declared to unanimous approval.
“We are not threatening anyone,” said Aristobulo Isturiz, the constitutional assembly’s first vice president. “We are looking for ways to coexist.” But since its installation, the assembly has ousted the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor, established a “truth commission” expected to target Maduro’s foes and passed decrees pledging “support and solidarity” with the unpopular President.
Since the disputed election, security forces have stepped up their presence. A recent report from the UN human rights commissioner has warned of “widespread and systematic use” of excessive force, arbitrary detention and other rights violations against demonstrators.
Opposition lawmakers said they were barred from entering the gold-domed legislative palace after security forces led by Rodriguez broke into congress late last Monday. “This government invades the spaces that it is not capable of legitimately winning,” Stalin Gonzalez, an opposition lawmaker, wrote on Twitter of the assembly’s takeover of the chamber, the opposition has controlled since winning 2015 elections.
Before the assembly met, Venezuela’s pro-government Supreme Court sentenced a Caracas-area mayor at the centre of recent protests to 15 months in prison for not following an order to remove barricades set up during anti-government demonstrations. Ramon Muchacho is the fourth opposition mayor ordered arrested by the high court in the past three weeks. The court also ordered an investigation into another prominent Caracas-area mayor, David Smolansky, for the same alleged crimes.
Opposition lawmakers have vowed to hold onto their only government foothold — the country’s single-chamber congress — despite threats from the constitutional assembly to strip them of any authority and lock up key leaders. Lawmakers have voted unanimously not to recognise any of the new super-body’s decrees.
Now at a crossroads, opposition parties are facing a rapidly approaching deadline to decide whether to take part in regional elections scheduled for December. The National Electoral Council announced that the nation’s largest opposition coalition was barred from entering candidates in seven of Venezuela’s 23 States, citing ongoing court proceedings. In recent years, the government has also taken action prohibiting high-profile opposition leaders from running.
While Maduro’s popular support is estimated to be no higher than 20 per cent, some opposition leaders are sceptical of running in regional elections they fear could be rigged. It’s a scenario where hope is running thin.