The country that once birthed the great Liberator of South America, Simón Bolívar, is now once again the scene of great stirrings against a government that has lost its credibility with its people: that of Nicolás Maduro. It is likely Bolivar’s haughty Creole features would look upon the current state of his nation with the same contempt with which he viewed colonial Spanish rule.
Once the most power petro-state in South America, and considered a shining beacon of successful socialist governance by members of the left, Venezuela is described as being ‘on the edge’ of a crisis — the truth is that the nation is already bracing for impact.
Ironically, Bolívar’s face looks at the citizens of Venezuela every day — his picture is on the Venezuelan currency, which also bears his name. Yet the notes are now almost worthless. An economic collapse, caused by the falling price of oil, has caused a huge uprising of popular discontent against President Nicholas Maduro. The successor to the great Latin American socialist Hugo Chavez after his death in 2013, Maduro has overseen perhaps one of the worst economic crises of all time. Venezuela’s currency is so laughable, it is worth less against the dollar than digital gold in the game World of Warcraft. Venezuela’s economic issues are deep seated, but have been masked by a high oil price; since the price for crude has collapsed, so too has the Venezuelan economy.
With continued backing from the army and militias, Maduro stands not on the edge of crisis, but dictatorship. Riots and arrests have been sparked by opposition to Maduro’s attempt at forming a National Constituent Assembly, a body tasked with redrafting the Venezuelan constitution. This is, opposition politicians suspect, Maduro’s attempt to grant himself unlimited power. Over 120 have died in protests against the government, which have lasted for months. Maduro’s new powers will enable him to dissolve the National Assembly (the only body controlled by the opposition) or any other government body that disagrees with him, and to crack down even more harshly on protests. Maduro paints these reforms as essential to restoring Venezuela to its former glory. The truth is that Venezuela is rapidly becoming a one-party state, in the finest tradition of both Latin America and socialist governments.
Opposition supporters have called this “the end of democracy.” This may be a rather over-zealous description intended more to spark concern than anything else, but it is credibly evinced by Maduro’s actions. He has arrested opposition leaders. Voter fraud is highly likely. There has been a huge upturn in government persecution. The Venezuelan people have not been given a choice of whether they want a new constitution at all — Sunday’s vote was only to decide who represented them. All candidates offered were Maduro supporters — one has even been married to the president since 2013.
Nicholás Maduro is, quite simply, attempting to seize dictatorial powers. His bumbling handling of the attempt has made the situation seem less dangerous than it is, but the Trump administration has correctly recognised this assault on democracy. They have sanctioned Maduro personally and the administration appears to be taking the Monroe Doctrine seriously — the US is attempting to act as an arbiter in the country, with President Trump telling Maduro he holds him “personally responsible” for the safety of arrested opposition leaders and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson even floating the idea of regime change.
In order for Venezuela to be saved from dictatorship, Maduro must go. The increase in violence against protestors, particularly on the eve of an election, the obviousness with which he has subverted democracy, all stand as testament to his qualities as a fundamentally unpopular politician desperately clinging onto power without wide support.