Francisco Toro is executive editor of the Caracas Chronicles news site and a contributing columnist for Post Opinions.
Those of us who spend our time trying to explain Venezuela to outsiders usually end up frustrated. The country’s current crisis is so mind-boggling that foreigners can hardly be blamed for feeling bewildered when confronted with the details.
So here’s a simple thought experiment: What if Venezuela were the United States? Here’s an idea of how it would look.
The start is easy enough to imagine: Picture a disastrously incompetent government that doesn’t hide its contempt for the usually accepted norms of democratic political life. No great stretch there.
November 2018 comes, and the voters are enraged. They vote out the Republican majority in Congress by a wide margin. As the results come in, the president is stunned: The Democrats have taken both houses of Congress, including a staggering 290 of the 435 seats in the House. They’ve won a massive two-thirds supermajority, an unprecedented rebuke to the president.
But he isn’t quite ready to give up just yet. He still has a Republican majority in Congress for a few weeks until the new majority is sworn in. He decides that he can’t be shy about the lame-duck session. And so a plan is hatched.
Using the FBI to threaten and intimidate them, the president forces three Supreme Court justices to resign. After Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor leave, a lame-duck session of Congress rushes through the appointment of Roger Stone, Kellyanne Conway and Anthony Scaramucci to the court. The liberals kick and scream, but there’s nothing they can do. Scaramucci becomes chief justice.
As soon as the Democratic majority takes control of Congress, it moves to question the appointments of the new justices. But before it can do so, Chief Justice Scaramucci fast-tracks a case about voter fraud in the Senate election in Vermont and quickly rules that Sen. Bernie Sanders was elected illegally. The court orders the Senate to eject Sanders.
Citing 220 years of precedent establishing that Congress has the ultimate say over its own members, Sen. Chuck Schumer, the new majority leader, refuses. The Scaramucci court shoots back by declaring the entire U.S. Congress in contempt. Writing for the court, Justice Conway rules that all future acts of Congress will remain invalid so long as Sanders remains a member. When Sanders angrily relents in order to clear the logjam, Justice Stone rules that he did not follow the proper procedure to resign and the contempt measure remains in place. In the meantime, the Supreme Court rules that it will “solve the legislative vacuum” by approving budgets and regular legislation on its own.
The president is not out of the woods yet. He’s still massively unpopular, protests rock the streets of Washington every day, and he still has to face the voters in November 2020. Realizing he can’t win — his approval rating hovers around 20 percent — he opts for a radical course of action: He invokes Article V of the Constitution to convene a Constitutional Convention, and signs an executive order setting out an unprecedented method for selecting members of that convention.
The Democrats, of course, howl in outrage: The constitution has never empowered the president to do any such thing, but a rushed decision by the Scaramucci court ratifies the president’s executive order. Mass protests escalate in cities across the United States against the president and his kangaroo Supreme Court. But with all legal challenges batted down by that same court, there’s nothing anyone can do.
The rules for electing members of the Constitutional Convention the president imposes mean most delegates will be chosen on a one-county, one-delegate basis. That means that every county has the same weight in the election, regardless of population. Everyone can see this will grotesquely over-represent the rural areas where the president retains some support and ensure he can keep control of an “elected” convention even though 70 percent of the voters tell pollsters they don’t want a Constitutional Convention in the first place. The Democrats boycott what they see as a blatantly absurd vote, ensuring the president’s loyalists will take all seats in the convention.
Now, if this little reverie has given you the chills, let me spell it out for you. In Venezuela, none of this is fiction. What you’ve just read is the broad outline of the news in Venezuela over the past 20 months: President Nicolás Maduro has pursued a merciless campaign to strip away democratic checks and balances, culminating in a monstrous Constitutional Convention rigged so only his supporters can win.
That election, in fact, is happening. It is happening today.