The encouraging news from Latin America is that the leftist populists who for 15 years undermined the region’s democratic institutions and wrecked its economies are being pushed out — not by coups and juntas, but by democratic and constitutional means. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina is already gone, vanquished in a presidential election, and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff is likely to be impeached in the coming days.
The tipping point is the place where the movement began in the late 1990s: Venezuela, a country of 30 million that despite holding the world’s largest oil reserves has descended into a dystopia where food, medicine, water and electric power are critically scarce. Riots and looting broke out in several blacked-out cities last week, forcing the deployment of troops. A nation that 35 years ago was the richest in Latin America is now appealing to its neighbors for humanitarian deliveries to prevent epidemics and hunger.
The regime that fostered this nightmare, headed by Hugo Chávez until his death in 2013, is on the way out: It cannot survive the economic crisis and mass discontent it has created. The question is whether the change will come relatively peacefully or through an upheaval that could turn Venezuela into a failed state and destabilize much of the region around it.
A democratic outcome seemed possible in December, when a coalition of opposition parties won two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. Rather than concede or negotiate, however, the Chavista government, now headed by President Nicolás Maduro, dug in. At its direction, a constitutional tribunal stacked with party hacks has issued annulments of every act by the new assembly, including an amnesty for scores of political prisoners.
Gangs of regime thugs now roam the streets on motorcycles and attack opposition gatherings. Meanwhile, the government is essentially shutting itself down: Last week Maduro ordered that state employees, who make up more than 30 percent of the workforce, would henceforth labor only two days a week, supposedly in order to save energy.
Remarkably, most of the Western hemisphere is studiously ignoring this meltdown. The Obama administration and Washington’s Latin America watchers are obsessed with the president’s pet project, the opening to Cuba. As it happens, the Castros turned Venezuela into a satellite state, seeding its security forces and intelligence services with agents. Yet now that it is decreasingly able to supply discounted oil to its revolutionary mentor, Venezuela appears to have become an afterthought even in Havana.
Last week a delegation of senior Venezuelan lawmakers traveled to Washington to make one more effort to call attention to their crisis. They had a simple message: “Venezuela will end with a political change, because there is no other possibility,” said Luis Florido, president of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs commission. “But the government will decide how this change happens.”
At the moment, the slim remaining hopes for a democratic solution rest on a constitutional provision allowing for a referendum to remove Maduro. The obstacles to its success are almost comically steep: The opposition must first persuade some 200,000 people to appear at a government office (now open two days a week) to vouch for their signatures on a petition, then collect the signatures of 20 percent of the electorate, or about 4 million people. If the referendum is held, the vote to remove Maduro would have to be higher than the total reported number of votes he received in his 2013 election.
All this has to happen in the next nine months if a new presidential election is to be triggered. Yet just extracting the necessary forms for the first petition from the regime-controlled electoral commission cost the opposition six weeks. On Wednesday, Venezuelans massively departed from their perpetual lines in front of grocery stores to sign the petitions — the opposition claimed it collected more than 1 million signatures in a day. But, said Carlos Vecchio, an exiled leader of the Voluntad Popular party, “The crisis is moving at 2,000 kilometers an hour, but the potential solution is going at 2 kilometers an hour.”
The Venezuelan lawmakers had some practical and specific requests for the Obama administration, starting with the public release of the names and alleged offenses of top Venezuelan officials included on a confidential U.S. sanctions list. They’d also like help finding the $300 billion to $400 billion they estimate has been stashed in foreign bank accounts by the Chavista elite; the money is desperately needed to import food and stave off a foreign debt default.
Most of all, however, Venezuelans hope for U.S. leadership in pushing Maduro to accept an election. Said Vecchio: “The moment has arrived when you can no longer ignore this. Because what happens in Venezuela is going to affect the whole region.”