Thousands of protesters were fighting running battles with riot police in Caracas yesterday when President Nicolás Maduro went on TV with a dramatic announcement. His voice rising to a shout, he called on “the working class and the people” to convene “a National Constituent Assembly.”
The announcement poured fresh fuel on the already raging fire of political conflict consuming Venezuela. Under Venezuela’s current constitution, a constituent assembly would have unlimited powers to rewrite the constitution and remake the state in any way it sees fit. But Maduro kept qualifying it, calling it a “communal constituent assembly” or a “constituent assembly of the working class.” That gives away the game: The plan is to rig the election to the assembly to make sure that Maduro supporters dominate it.
Maduro’s announcement was vague, but his strategy is clear. He called for half the members of this new assembly to be elected through county-by-county elections, while the other half will be chosen from specific social groups, such as the “working class,” beneficiaries of social programs, communal councils, senior citizens, “social movements” and so forth.
Both aspects are worrying. “County-by-county” elections could end up meaning that each county chooses one assembly member. That would vastly over-represent traditionally pro-government rural areas, where counties often have just a few thousand residents, to the detriment of the opposition-leaning cities, with their much more populous counties.
The rest of the plan is even worse. Half of the new assembly will specifically represent vaguely defined “sectors” described with terms picked straight out of the government’s propaganda lexicon. “Social movements,” “communal councils” and “the working class” are regime-speak for government-controlled “grass-roots” groups.
The system Maduro has in mind for picking the constituent assembly’s members bears no resemblance to a normal democratic election. Instead he seems to want an assembly with a built-in government specifically to replace Venezuela’s regular legislature, the National Assembly, where his opponents won a resounding two-thirds majority of seats in democratic elections just 18 months ago.
It’s brazen stuff, but not surprising. In the wake of an economic cataclysm that has left much of the country struggling to feed itself, Maduro’s approval ratings have fallen to 20 percent to 25 percent. A normal democratic election would be an extinction-level event for his political movement.
Some in Caracas see this call for a communal constituent assembly as the culmination of a long-standing plan to bring Venezuela to Soviet-style communism. Remember those “communal councils” that feature so prominently in Maduro’s plans? The Russian word for them is “soviets.”
In fact, the USSR was governed very much along the lines Maduro appears to be envisioning. Nominally autonomous (but, in fact, government-controlled) local bodies would “elect” (but not really) representatives to a technically all-powerful national council that, in fact, was completely subservient to the ruling clique.
In Russia, they called that top-level council the “Supreme Soviet.” In Venezuela, they’ll call it the Communal Constituent Assembly. Maduro, in other words, looks set to formalize Venezuela’s long-term flirtation with old-style communism.
Can he succeed? It’s extremely doubtful.
The government has never been weaker. Maduro is reviled by the vast majority of the population. Street protests, often violent, have become a daily occurrence. A power grab this blatant will galvanize his opponents, leading to even more intense confrontations. If the goal of yesterday’s announcement was to quell the protest movement, it looks almost certain to backfire.
Internationally, the move could hasten Venezuela’s slide into outright pariah-state status. Already every large country in Latin America has expressed deep concern about the trajectory of the Venezuelan crisis. Even countries such as Mexico, which is deeply committed to non-intervention in its neighbors’ affairs, are now taking a tough line against the increasingly isolated Maduro regime.
Internally, the move could push the military beyond limits of its tolerance of Maduro’s authoritarian drift. Though the military has so far remained steadfast in its support of the president and many officers are part of the Maduro inner circle, others are understood to be quietly aghast at the government’s turn toward outright authoritarianism. Tensions in the barracks are said to be rising.
What’s clear is that Maduro is going for broke. Far from pivoting toward conciliation and meeting some of the protesters’ demands, he’s doubling down on a hard-left vision of the future that the vast majority of Venezuelans vehemently reject.
Venezuela’s long-running political crisis is coming to a head. Our embattled pro-democracy movement has proved its staying power, pushing back bravely again and again against authoritarian encroachment by a ruthless and determined regime.
Venezuela’s democracy activists now need all the friends that we can get — in Venezuela and beyond. Is the region listening? Is the United States? Are you?