CARACAS, Venezuela – The political crisis in Venezuela is deepening as the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) is calling on citizens to defy the State of Emergency decreed by President Nicolás Maduro to “prevent a possible coup.”
Maduro declared an indefinite State of Emergency that would “permit the Executive to recover the productive capacity of the country during May, June, July and the rest of the time that we are constitutionally allowed throughout 2016 and probably 2017.”
“I have decided to take such a measure, in which a State of Emergency and an economic emergency are included, that will give the government enough power to prevent a coup effort, defeat the economic war, to stabilize our nation socially and to face all the domestic and international threats that Venezuela is facing at this moment,” Maduro said from the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas.
In another dramatic gesture, Maduro said that he had also ordered the Armed Forces of Venezuela to initiate military exercises so that they can be ready for “any scenario” in reference to the “international threats,” i.e. an armed intervention by any foreign powers, most notably by Washington and Colombian paramilitaries.
The Venezuelan President announced that his government had also started the process of filing an international case against former Colombian leader Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), now a Senator, for urging foreign governments to take military action against the Maduro government. Uribe, a controversial figure with links to illegal right-wing paramilitary groups and sectors of the Colombian Armed Forces, made that statement last week while on a visit to the US capital.
The forces of Washington and Bogotá, along with the “fascist right-wing forces within Venezuela,” are seeking to unseat him, Maduro says, and they are acting now having been emboldened by the recent removal of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, which has been called a “coup” by most Latin American (and many non-regional) governments.
A State of Emergency could suspend constitutional guarantees and give power to the government in limiting public demonstrations and protests (and the use of communications mediums), among other measures, that it deems to be threatening the nation’s security and sovereignty. The economic segment of the measure allows the government mostly to force the re-opening of major factories (and to control the production and distribution of essential goods) that have unilaterally shut down in protest against the government in recent weeks.
The MUD said that this is essentially a “blank check” for the Maduro government that allows it to circumvent the law and act as it pleases with no repercussions.
The most notable development of the State of Emergency decree, and the most despicable, according to the opposition, is that the government is going to undermine the MUD’s constitutionally-protected effort to recall Maduro via popular referendum.
Three weeks ago, the recall effort officially began as the Venezuelan National Electoral Council (CNE) approved polling stations across the country. Citizens filed through and the opposition said they gathered 1.8 million votes in just three days, well over the 198,000 signatures (or 1 percent of the registered electorate) needed in order for an official plebiscite to be called.
The next step of the process is a repeat of the first step with a count of 20 percent (4 million) of the electorate instead of 1 percent of the electorate, but the signatures must be collected within 3 days. If enough signatures are collected during the second step, the CNE will then count and review the signatures. Once the CNE approves, the official referendum vote must be called within 90 days.
For Maduro’s mandate to be revoked, the votes in favor of a recall must surpass the number of votes he gathered in the 2013 election, which means that over 7.5 Venezuelans must vote against Maduro in order for the recall effort to succeed.
The primary issue of the recall effort, however, is timing: the MUD says that there is more than enough popular support for unseating Maduro (and their assertions are backed by several polls) but when this happens will have future consequences.
If the recall process gathers enough votes as expected to unseat Maduro before January 10, 2017, presidential elections would be called within a month. If Maduro is removed after that date, however, then current Vice-President Aristóbulo Istúriz of Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will take his place and finish the mandate as scheduled in January of 2019, ensuring no change in policy.
The opposition has already accused the CNE of purposely dragging its feet and delaying the recall effort, which the opposition estimates will last approximately seven months from start to finish. The recall petitions (and subsequent votes) must go through audit procedures that require time and manpower from government workers charged with carrying out the process and time is of the essence for the opposition.
With the State of Emergency declared now, the opposition said that this is even more evidence that Maduro is looking to evade being ousted by any means necessary.
Jesús Torrealba, the Secretary General of the MUD, said that his coalition is “seeking signatures to initiate a fair election while Maduro is seeking to obstruct democratic solutions and promote violence in order to enact a State of Emergency which will circumvent legal procedures.”
“Maduro is afraid to be scrutinized and measured by Venezuelans in a national election because he knows that he does not have the support of the people,” Torrealba said.
In the December 2015 election, the PSUV lost their majority in the National Assembly for the first time since 1999 (back when their coalition was known as the Fifth Republic Movement). On the other hand, the MUD won big and became the majority in the unicameral parliamentary chamber.
Maduro, through the TSJ, has passed certain laws and overruled bills created by the MUD in the National Assembly since the parliamentary election. Seeing no way around this clash of government branches, the MUD has now as a unit rallied around the goal of removing Maduro three years before his mandate expires.
Maduro’s predecessor, the popular Hugo Chávez, was elected for yet another term in the presidential election of late 2012. Following Chávez’s death in March of 2013, Maduro served as the interim leader until a new election was held a year later where he narrowly defeated Henrique Capriles Radonski of the MUD. This ensured that Maduro would finish the term for which Chávez was elected, which is scheduled to end in early February of 2019.
Capriles Radonski remains one of the main figures of the oppositon and he called on the Venezuelan public to “ignore and defy” the State of Emergency decree. “If Maduro wishes to apply this decree, then he might as well roll out the tanks of war because we will not accept any of this. We do not want violence of any kind or a military solution, but this is simply unacceptable,” he said on Tuesday night.
The next morning, followers of the MUD marched as planned on the CNE’s headquarters in Caracas to place pressure on the body to rapidly carry out the recall process.
In the last two marches on the offices, the crowd was held back by security forces and minor street battles followed. The same occurred this time as a minority of demonstrators began hurling bottles and rocks at police as the march was winding down. The security forces, acting as a buffer between the crowd and the CNE offices, then retaliated with tear gas. Maduro supporters were also gathered nearby, but there were no reports of skirmishes between the two sides.
Capriles Radonski, who led the march, changed his usual antagonistic tune toward security forces and urged members of the Bolivarian National Guard and the National Armed Forces to switch sides. “The hour of truth is at hand. You must choose if you are with the Constitution of Venezuela or if you are with Maduro,” the MUD man said through a megaphone.
Led by Chávez, the “Bolivarian Revolution” was immensely popular in Venezuela for well over a decade but a series of developments over the last several years severely damaged its popularity and reputation.
Fed up with issues like high inflation, shortages of essentials like food products and medicine, high crime rates, insecurity and what they deem to be political repression, the populace of Venezuela has been increasingly turning away from the PSUV, especially since the death of Chávez in March of 2013 and the subsequent worsening economic situation in the country, brought about mostly by the sharp fall of oil prices and other commodities.
For those same reasons, various anti-government groups and opposition leaders took to the streets on February 12, 2014, and the violent march that ensued ended in three dead and hundreds injured. The demonstrations, organized and led by opposition figure Leopoldo López, who remains jailed, intensified for several weeks thereafter and left 43 Venezuelans dead (mostly security figures) before calm returned to the nation.