Venezuela tottering on the brink

Hopes for a smooth transition in Venezuela after the opposition prevailed in national elections have been quickly dashed. Despite President Nicolas Maduro’s promise to respect the results, his embattled government and its supporters have waged a determined battle to undermine the opposition’s victory. The result is a political deadlock that could easily descend into violence and worse.

The Democratic Unity Roundtable, a coalition of center-right forces united primarily by opposition to the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (USVP), won a supermajority — two-thirds of the seats in the 167-member National Assembly — in December’s vote. The results did not merely herald the end of 17 years of socialist domination of the Venezuela parliament; the supermajority means that the opposition could rewrite political rules that had entrenched the “Bolivarian Revolution” of the late former President Hugo Chavez.

After the election Maduro said his party would honor the outcome, but those words have proven empty. Instead, shortly after the vote, the outgoing crop of legislators voted in 13 new judges to the Supreme Court in an attempt to stack that institution. Then, days before the swearing in of the new assembly, the Supreme Court blocked four of the new parliamentarians from taking office; while one of the four was a member of the ruling USVP, the loss of the three other seats denied the coalition the supermajority that allows it to rewrite the constitution and replace Supreme Court judges. Finally, last week that same group of lame-duck assembly members approved new government spending bills while Maduro transferred oversight of the Central Bank from the parliament to the president.

It is not clear how the new majority will respond to the last-minute power grab. The swearing in of the new legislature was a raucous affair, with socialist legislators eventually walking out in protest when the new leadership sought to make a speech, an apparent violation of precedent.

The public’s tolerance for the socialist government is running short. The election results reflected widespread anger at economic mismanagement, which resulted in shortages of basic materials and food in a country with the world’s largest petroleum reserves. Plummeting oil prices are part of the problem, but the real issue is the failure to manage the industry infrastructure and the readiness to loot petroleum revenues to pay for shortfalls in the budget, primarily to shore up social programs designed to buy support for the government.

Hopes that Maduro might wake up to the scale of the problem were dashed this month when he appointed Luis Salas, a hard-line socialist, to be his new vice president of economics. Salas has claimed that “inflation does not exist” and has called entrepreneurs “an economic tumor.” That mentality fits nicely with that of the president, who believes that his country’s economic woes are the result of an “economic war” being waged by the United States against his country.

Yet if a majority of Venezuelans have lost faith and patience in Maduro, a hard core of supporters has not. They continue to back the USVP, and are prepared to take to the streets to prove it. Even though they represent a minority in Venezuela, their grievances are real. Chavez tapped a wellspring of discontent to take power and any government, whether right or left, must understand and respond to them.

Peace may well depend on the reaction of the armed forces to the political standoff. The defense minister and head of the armed forces, Gen. Vladimir Padrino, reiterated that the president “is the highest authority of the state and we reiterate our absolute loyalty and unconditional support for him.” In another indication of the armed forces’ inclinations, Padrino denounced the new majority’s decision to remove portraits of Chavez and 19th-century independence hero and “father of the nation” Simon Bolivar from the National Assembly, calling it an outrage to military honor and an affront to the doctrine of Bolivarianism.

Padrino is also credited with forcing Maduro to sign a document in late October that committed the president to respecting the election results in the name of peace and democracy. Other senior officers were reportedly behind a plan to secure observers to ensure that last-minute fraud would not steal the December vote. And, finally, Maduro after the election ordered the army back to the barracks and out of many jobs that they had taken over the years that gave them a stake in businesses and the bureaucracy. That move puts more distance between the military’s economic interests and that of the government, reducing its stake in the Maduro regime.

In this situation, the international community must pay close attention to developments in Venezuela. The Organization of American States has repeatedly called for “dialogue and peace” — other regional governments and organizations must follow suit. Other Latin American states will have the most influence in Caracas. The victory of a conservative president in Argentina and the distractions of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff could herald a shift in regional support for Maduro. He must not believe that he can flaunt the majority’s will with indifference. A civil war could too easily result.