Outsiders should push Nicolás Maduro to hold a recall referendum this year
TIME was when Hugo Chávez was immensely proud of the new constitution he gave Venezuela in 1999, at the start of his 14 years of rule. He had it printed in a little blue book, and would hand out copies to everyone he met. Now the government of Chávez’s chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, is tearing it up.
That process began after an election in December in which the opposition won control of the National Assembly with 7.7m votes (56% of the total). That is a bigger (and fresher) mandate than Mr Maduro’s own. The regime has illegally neutered the assembly. The supreme tribunal, packed with chavista puppets, threw out an amnesty law for political prisoners approved by the assembly, which has the constitutional right to grant one. The assembly has twice used its constitutional power to reject Mr Maduro’s decrees granting himself emergency powers. The president has pressed on regardless. “It’s a matter of time” before the assembly “disappears”, he said this month.
Article 72 of the constitution declares that all elected officeholders are subject to recall via referendum after the halfway point of their terms. This article is part of Title 4, on political rights. Yet this month Mr Maduro, who won a narrow and disputed victory in a presidential election in April 2013, said that the recall referendum against him, which the opposition demands, was merely “a constitutional option”, not an “obligation”. “There won’t be a referendum” this year, insisted Aristóbulo Istúriz, the vice-president. The timing matters. If the president is recalled in year four of his term, a new election follows; if it is later, the vice-president, who is appointed by the president, serves out the term. The electoral authority, which in practice acts as a branch of the government, is stalling the referendum process.
Why is Mr Maduro ripping up Chávez’s little blue book? Venezuela is in desperate straits, because of the fall in the oil price and years of mismanagement. As it struggles to avoid a debt default, which would cut off credit to the oil industry, Mr Maduro’s government has applied a python squeeze to imports. Coca-Cola this week announced it would halt production in the country because of sugar shortages. Many Venezuelans spend hours queuing for the scarce food available at officially controlled prices. Patients are dying needlessly because of shortages of drugs.
The government knows it would almost certainly lose a referendum. Datanalisis, a pollster, finds that 64% want Mr Maduro to go. Electoral defeat would destroy the founding myth of chavismo: that it embodies a popular revolution. Mr Maduro would prefer to be pushed out by a military coup, which would make him a victim, argues Henrique Capriles, the opposition presidential candidate in 2013. Many analysts believe that the regime’s strategy is to hang on until 2017, in the hope that the oil price will continue its recent partial recovery and/or with a view to replacing Mr Maduro but keeping power.
In ignoring the demand for political change the regime is “playing with fire”, Margarita López Maya, a Venezuelan political scientist, told Prodavinci, a website. On the streets, desperation is mounting. Incidents of looting rose in March and April, to more than one a day. Although the security forces usually react swiftly, on May 11th a wholesale market in Maracay, about 80km (50 miles) west of Caracas, was looted for three hours.
Mr Maduro’s strategy depends on military support. Many officers are involved in business, legal and illegal. They and the president are “hostages to one another”, says Ms López. Some in the army are worried. Two retired generals who were close to Chávez recently called for the referendum to take place.
To deny Venezuelans a recall referendum in 2016, wrote Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organisation of American States (OAS), in an open letter to Mr Maduro this month, “would make you just another petty dictator”. Changes of government in Argentina and Brazil have deprived Mr Maduro of allies. Several countries in the region are calling for dialogue in Venezuela. But Mr Maduro has shown he is not interested in talks he cannot control. A diplomat from the Vatican this month cancelled a trip to Venezuela. According to a source in Caracas, that was because Mr Maduro rejected a five-point plan for mediation by the pope.
Mr Almagro has proposed invoking the OAS’s Democratic Charter, which could lead to Venezuela’s suspension from the organisation. He may not have the votes to make that happen. But absent a referendum, it is the right course. Latin America’s tacit acceptance of unconstitutional government in Venezuela sets a dangerous precedent.
The Economist | Bello