- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2017

Venezuela’s partisan divide is so deep and bitter that even the ID requirements for voters in Sunday’s critical elections have sparked controversy.

Critics who fear the government of leftist President Nicolas Maduro wants to use the vote to push through a new constitution to keep him in power are questioning not just the motive but also the method of the national vote.

When Venezuelans vote on Sunday to elect members of a constituent assembly, they will use special government-issued ID cards that have two numbers on the back. Plugged into the electoral system database, the numbers generate the identities of two people, said Gabriela Febres-Cordero, a former minister of trade for Venezuela.

“I have no answer to why this is the case, but I worry,” said Ms. Febres-Cordero, addressing a briefing at the Washington-based Hudson Institute this week. “I worry because the trend we’ve seen in the last several years [in the Venezuelan government] is deceiving and unethical.”

The vote will be watched closely in Washington and across Latin America, where the economic and political implosion of one of the world’s energy superpowers has caused tension and instability far beyond Venezuela’s borders. The vote could also determine whether Mr. Maduro, the hand-picked successor to the late anti-U.S. populist Hugo Chavez, can hold on to power even after his formal term ends in October 2018.

The assembly vote has drawn millions of Venezuelans to protest in the streets this week, heightening political tensions that have led to thousands of arrests and injuries and more than 100 deaths since April.

The Trump administration added to the tension by sanctioning another group of current and former top Venezuelan officials this week, warning that more severe measures may be in the works if Mr. Maduro proceeds with the constitutional rewrite.

Mr. Maduro contends that the unprecedented assembly will restore stability in the country because battles with the opposition-dominated national parliament have paralyzed the political process.

“We need order, justice, peace, a country that is united,” he said in a recent television interview. “We have only one option, and it is the National Constituent Assembly.”

The president said he reached out to the opposition to join in the effort to write a new constitution but was rebuffed.

“They have gone to the radical right,” he told RT Spanish, the Spanish-language arm for the Russian-owned news service RT. “They have become prisoners of strategies of local violence, not giving the way to even those groups of people who voted for them.”

Many observers, however, predict that the assembly will cement Mr. Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian hold on power.

“There’s no question that a new constituent assembly would lead to the consolidation of authoritarian dictatorship in Venezuela,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Pro-government candidates for the 540-member assembly are almost certain to dominate the vote. Rejecting rules that they claim will favor the Maduro government, the Venezuelan opposition — known as the MUD — says it will boycott the election.

Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, recently transferred to house arrest after being sentenced in 2015 to 14 years in prison for inciting anti-government violence, backed a nationwide protest strike this week and called on the Venezuelan military not to deploy for Sunday’s election.

“We are on the brink of their trying to annihilate the republic that you swore to defend,” Mr. Lopez said in a 15-minute video message to supporters. “I ask you not to be accomplices in the annihilation of the republic.”

Unclear path forward

Once installed, the assembly is expected to abolish the opposition-led National Assembly and draft a new constitution. Mr. Maduro has been vague about what changes he would seek to the 1999 constitution, although delegates could postpone the presidential election scheduled for next year, thus prolonging Mr. Maduro’s presidency indefinitely.

Though the Venezuelan Constitution allows for the formation of the assembly, it demands that a referendum vote be held first, a requirement that critics say Mr. Maduro has cast aside.

In protest, the opposition organized an informal referendum vote for the constituent assembly on July 16. More than 7 million voters went to the polls to overwhelmingly reject the assembly. Polls show strong opposition to the idea of overhauling the constitution.

From the opposition’s point of view, the election caps a mountain of offenses from Mr. Maduro, a onetime bus driver and trade union leader, since his election in 2013. Mr. Maduro’s government has imprisoned opposition leaders and politicians and repeatedly revoked the National Assembly’s powers.

As political turmoil persists, economic conditions have worsened as well. A drastic drop in the price of oil — the linchpin of the Venezuelan economy — caused inflation to reach 800 percent in 2014, according to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations. Government-mandated price controls then worsened the problem by creating severe shortages of even basic consumer goods, the report said.

Meanwhile, currency controls have created a black market for currency. The government has also taken control of much of the private sector, and imports fell by nearly 73 percent from 2012 to 2013.

“The economy is in a free fall, regardless of what Maduro can do,” said Dany Bahar, a Venezuelan economist and fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Maduro is unwilling or unable to fix the economy.”

The government has been using whatever revenue it can collect to pay off debts on Wall Street rather than channeling it to help the people, Mr. Bahar said.

“This government has shown they are willing to do whatever is necessary to stay in power, even if it means starving the people,” he said.

A failing Venezuelan economy limits options for pressuring Mr. Maduro’s government to reform. Many worry that U.S. economic sanctions would only hurt the Venezuelan people, but Gustavo Coronel, a founding member of the board of directors of Petroleos de Venezuela, told the Hudson Institute event that the situation is so bad that it can hardly get worse.

“I say the suffering of the Venezuelan people can hardly be greater, no matter the actions of the U.S.,” he said Wednesday.

Winning bipartisan praise from Congress, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on 13 more Venezuelan government officials on Wednesday, freezing their assets and banning them from the U.S. This tactic — which the U.S. has employed for years — might have some effect, but across-the-board economic sanctions or sanctions on the oil sector would deepen the nation’s poverty and benefit Mr. Maduro politically, Ms. Arnson said.

“They would allow the Maduro government to shift blame to the United States for the suffering of the Venezuelan people,” she said.

Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Latin America studies program, pointed to Cuba as an example where U.S. economic sanctions failed to force the regime to change its ways. The U.S. has also stopped short of cutting off oil imports from Venezuela despite the rising tensions.

“Just because you can cause economic hardship doesn’t mean you can bring down a government,” she said.

International military intervention, meanwhile, is not an option, Ms. O’Neil said.

Left without effective economic pressures, the Venezuelan opposition is scrambling to find effective ways to turn its popular support into real pressure on the government to change course. Observers say that more than 100 people have died in street protests and a government crackdown since April, The Associated Press reported Thursday. Most of the dead are young men killed by gunfire, but the toll also includes looters, police attacked by protesters and civilians killed in accidents related to roadblocks set up during demonstrations.

Deep divide

Phil Gunson, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group with extensive reporting experience in Venezuela, said he regularly sees clouds of tear gas from battles outside his home in Caracas. He told a briefing this week at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, that it’s hard to see a peaceful, quick solution to Venezuela’s deep political and social divide.

Possible interventions in the situation include financial default, civil war in the army and a negotiated solution, Mr. Gunson said. Civil war is unlikely, he said, in part because the armed forces are seen as loyal to Mr. Maduro and the government.

“A negotiated solution is obviously the desirable one,” he said. “It’s better that the reconstruction of Venezuela should take place by consensus and not by rupture.”

A transitional government with a framework and external guarantors would be an ideal way to work toward democratization, said Mr. Gunson, acknowledging that he is not sure how such a resolution will come about. International intervention — from the Organization of American States or the United Nations, for example — might help, but other countries are sensitive to whatever happens in Venezuela, he said.

“If Venezuela implodes, the outside world will feel an impact,” he said.

U.S. gas companies, for example, rely heavily on Venezuelan oil for their products, importing as many as 700,000 barrels per day, said Ms. O’Neil. Russia and China also trade heavily with Venezuela, and Venezuela owes billions of dollars to both nations.

Mr. Maduro has denounced international intervention, however, accusing the U.S. of supporting the opposition and worsening Venezuela’s turmoil.

Washington is activating measures at the request of Venezuela’s fascist right, who are emboldened by the coup in Brazil,” he said in a televised address last year.

Jorge Martin, a Spanish scholar and secretary of the “Hands off Venezuela” campaign, argued that international intervention would be destructive. Western media coverage of opposition protests is one-sided as well, he argued in an interview for Investig’action in May, claiming that many of the protest-related deaths were not at the hands of the government and that protests have not been as widespread as portrayed.

In an interview with Telesur, Mr. Martin said an opposition takeover would be an “unmitigated disaster” and that public funding and social programs aiding the poor in Venezuela’s sharply unequal economy would disappear.

While acknowledging flaws in the opposition, the government’s critics fear that it will be Mr. Maduro’s continued power that is the bigger threat to Venezuela’s recovery. Mr. Gunson was uncertain about what will happen if and when the constituent assembly meets but is pessimistic that the corruption and abuse of power will be dealt with.

“Restraints will be purely de facto,” he said. “Whoever has the guns will call the shots.”

Mr. Coronel expressed optimism in the resistance of young Venezuelans, predicting national strikes and a parallel government rebellion if the election occurs.

“The situation in Venezuela is far from being hopeless,” he said. “The new generation of Venezuelans is magnificent, and I am convinced that Venezuela will resurrect.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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