Venezuela's opposition appears to be losing its battle for democracy as that once-prosperous nation moves along a natural path from populism to dictatorship.
President Nicolas Maduro has instructed the members of his government and the military to go ahead with the constituent assembly on Sunday, despite this week's 48-hour general strike. He was not deterred by U.S. sanctions imposed against 13 high ranked public officials, including the Minister of the Interior, the Ombudsman, and the President of the National Electoral Council. Nor has growing international pressure from regional organizations (e.g. Mercosur, Organization of American States) and human rights NGOs (e.g. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International) done anything to stop him.
In fact, both U.S. sanctions and the regional declarations have been received as symbolic actions by Maduro, who now appears more determined than ever to take the final step of the populist path: Dictatorship.
Populist governments may be relatively new in American politics, but they are well known in Latin America, and they tend to operate in a uniform manner. Their first step is usually to get rid of the media and opposition leaders by using a wide range of methods, varying from country to country depending on the respect for the rule of law. Next, populist governments direct all their efforts toward controlling the judiciary, either through strategic appointments or laws that diminish the judiciary's constitutional powers.
Third, when populist speech can no longer dilute reason and alter constituents' perception of reality, these types of governments use their most popular actions to favor those who can help them remain in power. Later, when the consequences of such actions appear, they go after the law itself, casting a dramatic change and consolidation of power as the ultimate solution to the country's various problems. By this stage, the frog has been slow-boiled, and dictatorship results.
Based on the "social revolution" promised by his predecessor, President Hugo Chavez, Maduro offered the simple solution of nationalizing the entire economy to redistribute its wealth among the population as the solution to Venezuela's most complex problems — unemployment, inflation, corruption, famine, inequality. In the end, however, such redistribution only took place among those close to the government, leaving most Venezuelans facing widespread corruption, human rights violations, starvation, and redistribution of poverty.
Today, the economy and the rule of law in the country are almost non-existent. Each side of the confrontation (i.e., opposition and government) has followed its own interpretation of Venezuela's 1999 Constitution, which has led the country to its most serious constitutional crisis in its 216-year history. During the last six months, the country has simultaneously had two attorneys general, two Supreme Courts, and, apparently starting this Sunday, two National Assemblies.
The opposition in Venezuela had found no other way than to create a parallel legal structure to confront the most powerful government in one of the soon-to-be one of the poorest countries on the continent. Venezuela faces not only starvation but one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, with a growing refugee population seeking protection mainly in the United States, Colombia, and Brazil.
What is more, Venezuela's economy contracted more than 20 percent last year while its currency, the bolivar, lost 99.8 percent of its value in just 5 years. The country's inflation rate has passed the mark of 1,000 percent, and its foreign reserves are now worth only $10 billion, with an outstanding debt of nearly $7.2 billion. Venezuela's oil production, which accounts for 95 percent of the country's export earnings, remains at record lows.
The most dangerous interpretation of the populist narrative is that it is never intended to solve people's problems, but to use those problems to attain power. After all, populism is not built upon reality but emotions. As such, the most skilled populist leader is the one who knows how to stoke those emotions and alter voter's perception of reality as long as possible.
America is still learning about populism and how it begins. Venezuela is at its tail end. Having lived under a populist government for many years, it has become a palpable example of its end-stage, and the final destruction of societal pillars the people once took for granted: law, justice, liberty, and democracy.
Jose Mauricio Gaona is an O'Brien Fellow at McGill Center for Human Rights, a Saul Hayes Fellow at McGill University's Faculty of Law, and a Vanier Canada Scholar.
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