Venezuela’s long-simmering political crisis boiled over on the streets once again, with hundreds of thousands marching against the government. Peaceful protest rallies around the country were tear-gassed as cops showered opposition marchers with rubber pellets and armed, pro-government paramilitaries terrorized protesters.
It might feel as though you’ve read all this before, and indeed Venezuela has been unstable for so long that I can see how it could all just blur together for outside observers. But policymakers ignore this crisis at their peril. This time it’s different — and much more serious than what we’ve seen before.
Last week, a government-dominated electoral commission canceled the opposition’s effort to recall President Nicolás Maduro through a referendum, as set out in the constitution. This is grave. The decision rules out the ballot box as a solution to the crisis, and when you deny people the chance to vote, pent-up anger and frustration spill out onto the streets.
The government’s decision is drastic but understandable. Trailing in some recent polls by a catastrophic 8-to-1 margin, the regime calculated that a referendum could turn into an extinction-level event for Venezuela’s experiment with 21st-century socialism. The regime knew there would be hell to pay on the streets for denying a recall vote but decided to take its chances anyway.
I think the government miscalculated. The decision to kill the recall vote has dropped the regime into the middle of a political storm whose scale it is only now beginning to fathom, not least because killing the recall vote achieved a political miracle: It united a famously fractious opposition.
For years, the Venezuelan opposition has been a byword for division and infighting, with a deeply entrenched split between moderates against radicals hampering its effectiveness.
The moderates argued that we should engage the regime, fighting it within whatever constitutional structures were left and winning back spaces and electoral credibility gradually. The radicals wanted a much more militant strategy. Alarmed at the regime’s none-too-subtle authoritarian drift, they argued for civil resistance, patterned on the anti-Milosevic movement in Serbia, taking the fight to the government first and foremost on the streets.
The big and unruly protest movement that shook Venezuela in early 2014 deepened the rift. Radicals took to the streets, setting up barricades and confronting the police, while moderates stayed home and tut-tutted at the radicals’ poor impulse control.
Moderates saw the protests as premature, especially given that the constitution held out the chance to recall Maduro after the halfway mark in his term, i.e., this year. They thought the opposition as a whole needed to go the extra mile, exhausting all institutional avenues before moving to a more militant confrontation.
Lack of moderate support doomed the 2014 movement, to the radicals’ immense bitterness. Protests petered out after a few months, as the regime arrested hundreds of radicals, including key leaders such as the charismatic Leopoldo López, who remains a political prisoner to this day.
The wounds of 2014 have taken a long time to heal. First, the radicals agreed to participate in the December 2015 elections that gave the opposition a massive two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, which is our Congress. For a fleeting moment, it looked as though the new assembly might become an effective counterweight to the government: point for the moderates.
Within days, though, the regime was back to its old ways. It used its lame-duck majority in the outgoing congress to ram a slate of hard-core regime supporters into Venezuela’s Supreme Court. From that point on, the court began acting less like a court than an appendage of the ruling party. Soon, the opposition’s huge elected majority in the congress meant nothing, with the court quashing literally every law it passed. The radicals’ contention — that trying to work from within the regime’s institutions was a fool’s errand — began to look prescient.
The two wings managed to keep it together this year to push for a recall, knowing perfectly well that the ultimate decision on whether to allow a vote or not rested entirely with regime die-hards. Last week, a government-controlled elections commission blundered: By killing the recall process, it effectively ended the opposition’s long-running split.
Now, we’re all radical.
On Wednesday, some of the opposition’s most influential moderates, including Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles and National Assembly chairman Henry Ramos, sounded distinctly like the radicals they used to tut-tut in 2014. Venezuelans could hardly believe our ears as we heard them call for the National Assembly to unilaterally vote to unseat Maduro and then march to the presidential palace to hand him his pink slip. It was simply unprecedented.
Make no mistake, the political crisis Venezuela is going through now is nothing like the ill-fated revolt of 2014. A properly united opposition went exactly as far as it was possible to go through legal channels. Now that those avenues have been closed off, it is united around the only alternative: civil resistance, marching on the streets, designed to face down an authoritarian regime with public opinion overwhelmingly on its side.
The government has never faced a challenge like this. Whether it can remain cohesive in the face of this onslaught is hard to tell. We’ll find out soon enough, I suspect.