- - Sunday, January 28, 2018

BUENOS AIRES — Venezuela’s economy is imploding, the country has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, and a number of top officials, including the vice president, face sanctions from the U.S. and European nations.

But embattled President Nicolas Maduro may be cruising to a second six-year term after his regime’s abrupt decision last week to move up the coming election, catching an already battered opposition off guard.

Amid widespread food and medicine shortages and five-digit hyperinflation, the socialist president’s approval ratings hover in the mid-20 percent range. But if the opposition fails to unify behind a common strategy and viable challenger ahead of the vote — now expected before May — the heir and protege of anti-U.S. populist Hugo Chavez will likely cling to power and extend the political crisis that has gripped the country.

Mr. Maduro and the ruling elite maintain a tight grip on the military, so beyond the ballot box, hopes for regime change would hinge on new street protests, a risky proposition since security forces and pro-Maduro paramilitary groups are blamed for the deaths of more than 200 citizens during last year’s demonstrations.

But student leaders such as 19-year-old Luis Gonzalez, who had his left leg amputated after he was hit by a bullet at a protest in July, say the crackdowns and last week’s electoral gambit will only strengthen their resolve.

“I would return to the streets, fighting for what’s right,” Mr. Gonzalez said in an interview. “Even though the opposition betrayed us, disappointed us, we — those who have been in streets from the beginning — maintain our strong convictions.”

But even in his weakened position, Mr. Maduro has mixed defiance of the Trump administration with an unexpectedly deft hand at keeping his domestic critics divided.

The demonstrators’ trust in their onetime allies in the opposition-controlled National Assembly was shattered when leaders of the Democratic Unity Roundtable, after their stunning defeat in the Oct. 15 gubernatorial elections, opted to take part in talks with the regime held in the Dominican Republic.

“To call for a dialogue is totally absurd; the truth is that there are no conditions to go ahead with it,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “The only thing that could be negotiated with the government is its ouster — now!”

Human rights groups have suspicions about the expedited election calendar, which calls for a national vote by April 30. For one, the National Constituent Assembly, which is loyal to Mr. Maduro and has been set up to challenge the opposition-dominated national legislature, was the body that approved the date. The date change also appears to contradict an article of the Venezuelan Constitution prohibiting any change in the electoral law “in the period between election day and the six months immediately preceding it.”

The Lima Group — a bloc of at least a dozen Latin American nations that formed last year to promote democracy in Venezuela — issued a statement last week saying the decision would undermine a “transparent and credible” election.

“We demand that the presidential elections be convened with adequate anticipation, with the participation of all Venezuelan political actors and with all the corresponding guarantees,” said Chile’s foreign minister, Heraldo Munoz, according to the Voice of America.

Several leading opposition figures reached by The Washington Times declined to comment on their strategy in light of the expedited electoral calendar. On social networks, the Democratic Unity Roundtable merely said it had embarked on “consultations” given the “transcendence of decisions to be taken.”

The startling disarray within their forces, which just months ago seemed poised to finally oust the leftist clique that has governed Venezuela for 19 years, is at least partially self-inflicted, said Harold Trinkunas of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Finding a unifying platform beyond their opposition to Mr. Maduro has been difficult, he said.

“The underlying composition of the opposition, in terms of their ideological perspectives, runs the gamut from former ‘Chavistas’ to people who are pretty [conservative] on economic issues,” Mr. Trinkunas said. “This means that when elections no longer matter in Venezuela — because the government can change the rules whenever it wants — there is not a lot there to glue them together.”

No clear challenger

Worse, Mr. Trinkunas said, Mr. Maduro’s election date ploy means that nearly half a dozen little-known candidates are now jockeying to become the opposition’s standard-bearer, without much time to make their case.

“Now that presidential elections are on the horizon, they all want to imagine themselves as president,” he said. “And the government has been very adept at playing on these internal fissures within the opposition, especially with the promise of allowing some to compete but not others.”

Two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, popular political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez and exiled former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma are among those sidelined by the government’s tactics, said Yorelis Acosta de Oliveira of the Central University of Venezuela’s Institute of Political Studies.

The moved-up elections have “torpedoed the opposition’s cohesion,” she said. “The opposition is fragmented and seems almost depressed as it doesn’t appear, doesn’t respond. Those who are left seem backbenchers. It would seem we’ll have to choose among the least-bad ones.”

Overall voter registration, coupled with the fact that the vast number of Venezuelans depend on government handouts for sheer survival, makes Mr. Maduro the clear favorite despite the government’s dismal record.

“Right now, scarcity is such that the worries of Venezuelans of all social strata are basic: ‘What do I eat? How do I get it? How do I come by cash?’” Ms. Acosta said. “Electoral fraud is not just how the votes are counted. The ‘Chavismo’ has many mechanisms to pressure public officials and the lower classes.”

And the incumbent makes no effort to hide the arm-twisting.

“I want a central campaign commando for the working class that has the addresses of all workers, and for them to commit in writing to vote for the homeland’s candidate, Nicolas Maduro,” Mr. Maduro said on Wednesday.

In the streets, a Maduro victory could draw fierce resistance, though the regime’s tightly controlled security apparatus makes it unlikely that Venezuela would disintegrate into all-out armed conflict, Mr. Trinkunas said. Still, the national election brings with it a level of unpredictability, he noted.

“If there’s violence in Venezuela, it’s [likely] going to be random and low-level. It’s the looting the supermarket, it’s the improvised protest,” he said. “But at the margins … is a situation which has no escape valve. And that is the kind of pressure cooker that makes you wonder whether we’re seeing a risk for some other kind of more-anarchic outcome.”

Part of the problem, analysts say, is that Mr. Maduro and his allies have few options on a personal level but to cling to power.

“The risk … that they could be held accountable for corruption, for human rights abuses, for drug-smuggling seems very high,” Mr. Trinkunas said. “They feel like they have to stay in government because the alternative is not safe for them, their families [and] the money they’ve looted.”

Also, the opposition is divided over the feasibility of a potentially distasteful “exit package” for an administration that many Venezuelans decry as dictators, Ms. Acosta said.

“[Some want] to guarantee the people in power some benefits so they can leave with certain privileges,” she said. “But part of the opposition doesn’t understand how a government that’s been this bad … could leave with its money, and for us to simply trust in divine judgment.”

Younger Venezuelans like Mr. Gonzalez, though, who have never known a government not led by ‘Chavistas,’ continue to clamor for change as they veer between hopefulness and resignation.

“If these elections happen, we will never move past this government, this dictatorship,” he said. “But if there are countries like Germany, which was destroyed in World War II and now is a global power, then why shouldn’t we be able to move past an oppressive government?”

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