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Pictured on left is Diosdado Cabello, newly appointed to Venezuela’s inaugural Constituent Assembly. President Nicolas Maduro created this new authority to consolidate power and subvert opposition influence. Photo: Credit Juan Barreto/Agence France-Presse

When I last wrote about Venezuela in May, protests raged across the country. They derived from the ruling regime-controlled Supreme Court attempting to wrest power away from the National Assembly, Venezuela’s federal legislature and last vestige of opposition voices in the government. The move was met with harsh criticism at home and abroad, and President Nicolas Maduro quickly abandoned the maneuver, although protests and discontent lumbered on in the spring and summer.

Yet by mid-August, protests dwindled significantly in both in number and size. Was this because the opposition, and supporters of democracy in Venezuela, accomplished its goals making protests unnecessary? Unfortunately this was not the case, and the reason for the decline in demonstrations is far more sinister: Maduro and his political supporters found a way to make them obsolete.

In July, Maduro spearheaded the creation of a new governing body called the Constituent Assembly. The regime mandated that this group would have authority to rewrite the country’s constitution, and, according to the New York Times, “govern Venezuela with virtually unlimited authority.” On July 30 Venezuelans elected members of the Constituent Assembly. While the candidates did represent different occupations and every region of the country, they all had one thing in common: every single one was considered a trusted ally of the ruling regime. There were no opposition legislators on the ballot, and voters could not reject the creation of the assembly.

What’s more, the regime made no efforts to hide the fact that an express goal of this new authority it created was to wipe away the last remaining presence of the opposition in government. Maduro granted the Constituent Assembly the power to fire any official it considered to be disloyal, and to disband the National Assembly altogether. Diosdado Cabello, a former military chief and one of the new group’s most powerful members, said on television, point blank, “There is no possibility that the opposition will govern this country…Mark my words — no possibility.”

On August 18, only 2 weeks after it began operating, the Constituent Assembly gave itself the power to write and pass legislation. Nicholas Casey of the New York Times reported that this move “essentially nullifies the opposition-led legislature and puts [Maduro’s] party firmly in control of the country.” Casey further states that this latest power grab “is a decisive step in the quest by Mr. Maduro’s allies to dismantle the country’s legislature.” While Maduro has often acted to suppress his critics in the past, it seems that now his government isn’t even trying to maintain the appearance of adhering to the democratic process.

Beyond the political maneuvering, Venezuelan citizens continue to suffer under crippling economic conditions. And one definitely affects the other. Largely in response to the actions described above, on Aug, 25 the U.S. government placed new sanctions on Venezuela restricting trading of Venezuelan bonds in American financial markets. While not expected to have a significant impact, it may further hinder the Maduro’s regime ability to address its massive debt and pay off its loans.

And as if often the case in authoritarian regimes, those who are in the most need are those who are not getting help. The value of Venezuela’s currency continues to shrink while prices keep rising. Many cannot afford basic necessities, and many turn to the black market for goods and currency which further strangles the economy. The value of minimum wage earnings has plummeted by an astounding 88% in the last 5 years.

Has Maduro achieved checkmate in Venezuela? Has he eliminated the possibly of being removed from power? Just as those critical of his rule seemed to be gaining momentum, he found a way to pull the rug out from under them. Let’s hope the opposition is taking this opportunity to regroup and develop a new approach. International pressure should continue to be brought to bear, and aid to the Venezuelan people must be provided. More attention needs to be paid to the immense hardships facing them.

And democracy must make a comeback. It is long past due.

 

Author

Scott Bleiweis
Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

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