Venezuela crisis: a country on the edge

What President Nicolás Maduro claims is an exercise in democracy is nothing of the sort

 

Venezuelan voters are being called to the polls on Sunday to elect an assembly to re-write the country’s constitution. But what President Nicolás Maduro claims is an exercise in democracy is transparently nothing of the sort. Rather it’s a desperate move by an increasingly autocratic leader to override the legislature and strengthen his grip on power.

Venezeula’s economy is on the verge of collapse, and so is its 60-year-old democracy. When the opposition won a majority in the national assembly in 2015, it opened the possibility that the unpopular Maduro could be impeached. But before the new legislators were sworn in, the president stacked the Supreme Court with his supporters to block any impeachment attempt. Gridlock ensued. Now Maduro is seeking to install a sympathetic so-called constituyente that would sit atop all other branches of government, allowing him to circumvent parliament. The opposition is boycotting the vote and has called a general strike.

The political crisis has exacerbated an economic disaster that has brought Venezuela, once Latin America’s richest country, to its knees. Corruption, heavy debts and the state’s abandonment of farmlands it declared state property over the past decade left the economy vulnerable to swings in the price of oil. A 50 per cent drop in the price of a barrel since 2014 means Venezuela’s income has halved in three years. With Maduro printing money at speed, the bolivar has plunged in value and unemployment has been soaring. Food and medical shortages have become a daily reality.

The Trump administration sanctioned 13 senior Venezuela officials this week, and has threatened “strong and swift economic sanctions” if Sunday’s vote goes ahead. US sanctions would impose huge additional suffering on ordinary Venezuelans, and could even serve to shore up the Maduro regime. They’re not the answer. The best chance of ending the crisis lies with Latin American powers, who could help broker an agreement that would include an exit route for Maduro while recognising that Chavismo ideology retains considerable support among Venezuelans.

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