South American governments pledge to help Venezuela out of crisis
Fears that country headed for collapse as political tensions escalate and violence flares
Venezuelan security forces break up opposition protests heading to the supreme court. Photograph: Miguel Gutierrez/EPA
Amid increasing signs of chaos in Venezuela, South American governments have offered their help in finding “an exit from the grave political, social and humanitarian crisis the country is passing through”.
Concern is increasing across the region that the oil-rich country, already suffering from food and medicine shortages during a severe economic crisis, could be heading for a political and social collapse as political tensions between the Chavista government and opposition continue to spiral.
In making the mediation offer, members of the regional trade bloc Mercosur, which suspended Venezuela’s membership last year, called on the country’s increasingly embattled government “to put an immediate end” to any actions that could increase political polarisation.
The call came after the invasion earlier this week of the national assembly by members of pro-government militias, who beat up members of the opposition-controlled body.
The deepening crisis has already led to an increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, which fear further deterioration could result to a mass exodus among a population already victim to worsening shortages and some of the highest rates of violence in the world.
The crisis is expected to be one of the main items on the agenda when Mercosur heads of state meet in the Argentine city of Mendoza on July 17th.
But Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, who claims he is facing an armed insurrection, is pushing ahead with plans to elect a new constituent assembly on July 30th with powers to reform the constitution, which was only drafted in 1999 under the auspices of Mr Maduro’s deceased predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez.
The opposition say the proposed new assembly is a thinly disguised attempt to undermine its control of the national assembly, won in a crushing midterm election victory in 2015, and will formalise a Chavista dictatorship. Opposition leaders are calling instead for an election to replace Mr Maduro. They hope to hold an unofficial election next Sunday to ask voters their views on the president’s plans to rewrite the constitution.
The president’s plan has exposed some divisions among Chavismo. The country’s chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega, petitioned the country’s Chavista-dominated supreme court in an effort to halt the assembly election, while one high-ranking general, Alexis López Ramírez, resigned in protest at the move, saying it was unconstitutional and would only lead to further unrest.
As expected, the supreme court rejected Ms Ortega’s petition. She lambasted the court as illegitimate. Her opposition was unexpected as during 10 years in the post she was a regime loyalist, and her husband played a key role within Chavismo during the secretive final months of Chávez’s illness.
With discontent against the government running high, Mr Maduro has ordered all state workers to vote in the official poll in order to avoid a low turnout that would undermine his new body’s legitimacy.
About one in 10 of Venezuela’s 30 million population has a state job.
At least 90 people have died in three months of anti-government protests, itself merely the latest round of unrest to hit the country since Chávez died of cancer in 2013. The administration has been battered by the collapse in the price of oil, practically the country’s only foreign currency earner. That has left it unable to afford imports of food and medicine as it struggles to service billions in foreign debt run up by Chávez during his 14 years in office.
Despite the rising chaos that has seen sporadic looting, attacks on police and soaring levels of crime, for now the country’s military has continued to support Mr Maduro.
But in a sign of the potential strains the crisis is putting on the armed forces, Reuters reported this week that at least 123 members of the rank-and-file have been arrested since the latest round of unrest started in April. They are being held on charges that range from theft to rebellion. Despite this, observers warn the military high command will be reluctant to abandon Mr Maduro because senior officers have been put in charge of large swathes of the national economy.