The current Venezuelan conflict is similar to Aikido, the Japanese martial art where you overcome your opponent by using his own strength against him. In October 2016, when a consensus of the masses and the international community had been reached for holding a recall referendum as a means to resolving the political crisis, some opposition spokespersons attended an improvised roundtable discussion which left them with the idea that the government would call an early general election. Taking advantage of the tactical error of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), the government managed to blow the confidence of the latter’s support bases and to spread disillusionment. A few months later, as a punishment to the National Assembly which had approved a declaration supporting the application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the government formalized the substitution process of the powers of the Assembly with two rulings by the Constitutional Court, the country's highest legal authority. Although the neutralizing of Parliament had actually been a fait accompli for more than a year, with very little political cost to Miraflores (the presidential palace in Caracas), its formalization sparked a wave of rejection which included the Attorney General of the Republic, Luisa Ortega Díaz. The opposition political parties, taking advantage of Chavism’s blunder, managed to revamp their voters’ confidence, and launched a wave of protests which is currently ongoing.
But the weakening of the Bolivarian government in 2017 has to do more with its blind arrogance than with the political agenda of the opposition. At the international level, a clumsy diplomacy, headed by Delcy Rodríguez, has undermined the support of those who, until recently, wavered between ambiguity and caution towards the Venezuelan situation. Uruguay is a case in point. In early April, Nicolás Maduro accused the country's chancellor of agreeing with the US attacks on Venezuela, an untenable proposition for a president coming from the ranks of the Left. "If (Maduro) does not correct himself, he is admitting that he has no evidence, and if he does not have any evidence, then what he said is a lie", declared President Tabaré Vázquez. Uruguay's change of stance on Venezuela not only fueled the process of activating the Inter-American Democratic Charter, but also cleared the way for starting a similar diplomatic move within Mercosur, where decisions, according to its statutes, are taken by consensus. The credibility of the Venezuelan head of state, on the other hand, is being eroded after each statement of his, steeped in fantasy. On April 19, addressing a support rally in Caracas, he reckoned the number of people there was "three million”, though the avenue where the rally took place, if full - which was not the case this time -, holds no more than 200.000 people. In 2017, the root cause of the government's communication shortcomings appears to be the same that had been pointed out by the opposition in late 2016: its lack of a nose for correctly reading reality.
The current wave of protests is not, however, a simple extension of the anti-Chavist mobilization cycles of previous years. After Bolivarianism’s worst defeat while in power – at the 2015 parliamentary elections, when it got almost two million votes less than its opponents -, Chavism made the decision to go for an even more authoritarian model of governance. Its corner stone was the substitution of the Constitution for a legality conferring the president absolute powers, by means of a State of Emergency Decree. Following its enactment, the country's electoral arbitrator, the National Electoral Council, irregularly suspended the recall referendum against the president and cancelled indefinitely the elections which were due to be held in December 2016 for the 24 regional governorships. Then the government progressively removed power from the National Assembly through the Supreme Court of Justice, until the legitimizing of this process by means of court rulings prompted the Attorney General of the Republic to publicly voice her discontent, calling them a "rupture of the constitutional thread”- and this opened up the Pandora's box.
The emergence of fractions within the government’s block has been taken advantage of by the opposition, and “the Attorney said this is a coup” has become one of the most popular slogans at the mobilizations. All of this has been happening, moreover, with the backdrop of one of the worst economic crises Venezuelans can remember, with inflation soaring above 600%, food and medical drug shortages and the withering out of the wage-earners’ purchasing power. According to official data, the percentage of people now in poverty in Venezuela is higher than when Hugo Chávez was elected president for the first time. Almost half of the population is suffering social exclusion.
The authorities’ response to the wave of protests recalls the worst patterns of abuse of power witnessed in previous mobilization cycles. In addition to prohibiting mobilizations from reaching Caracas city centre – where the different ministries and the main public administration buildings are located -, there has been a disproportionate use of toxic gas – which his explicitly prohibited by the Constitution – and also short-range bird-shot firing, the use of firearms, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, demonstrators being robbed by police officers and the military, as well as due process violations. As this article was being completed, more than 1.200 people had been detained throughout the country for taking part in protests, according to the Venezuelan Penal Forum. Also, according data offered by Provea (the Venezuelan Education-Action Programme on Human Rights), 29 people had lost their lives in the demonstrations. Boosting the tension, United Socialist Party of Venezuela congressmen Diosdado Cabello and Pedro Carreño appeared on tlelvision showing a pamphlet containing names, pictures and addresses of opposition political and social leaders. The pamphlet, they said, had been distributed to the rank-and-file of the ruling party, so that "the people know where to go".
Paramilitaries of “the Left”
The situation is deteriorating further following Nicolás Maduro’s decision to activate the so-called "Zamora Plan", a military strategy for the occupation of the territory which explicitly counts on the contribution of armed civilian groups. Chavists call them "collectives", but human rights organizations define them, quite plainly, as "paramilitary groups". During the first day of coming into operation, on April 19, the presence of these groups was documented in 16 out of the 22 regions where the Zamora Plan was deployed. The videos show them moving about on motorcycles, wearing hoods and firing guns.
The “collectives” actions take place in a context of violence and insecurity which places Venezuela among the top most dangerous countries in the region, and can only worsen the country’s already tricky human rights situation. On the night of April 20, in eight zones of Caracas, including some considered until recently “Chavist territory”, battles against the authorities flared, and shops were looted.
The least traumatic way out of the current crisis would be for Nicolás Maduro and his clique to let elections be held. The Aikido into which the Venezuelan situation has turned requires, however, one additional element: the public dissociation of the international leftist intellectuals who have been giving their support to the Bolivarian project for a long time. Some have made a first step (Noam Chomsky, Raul Zibechi, Edgardo Lander, Clifton Ross), but many of those who know that things are not going well for the Caribbean country have chosen to remain silent. Will they let the symbolic weight of their opinion to be used by those who seek to take Venezuela to a different historical moment?
Open Democracy | Rafael Uscátegui