A Crackdown in Caracas

Last week’s arrest of the mayor of Caracas marks a dangerous new escalation of Venezuela’s political crisis.

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Last week, Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma received an unexpected visit from the Venezuelan political police. After being taken into custody from his office without a warrant, Ledezma was charged with conspiring to overthrow the government of President Nicolás Maduro. He is now being held in the Ramo Verde military prison, where Leopoldo López and several other opposition leaders are also in detention. (The photo above shows Ledezma supporters demonstrating outside the headquarters of the domestic intelligence service in Caracas on Feb. 19.)

Ledezma’s imprisonment marks a dangerous new watershed for Venezuela’s escalating political and economic crisis, one whose solution becomes more difficult to visualize with each passing week. The polarization in the country, caused by the government’s harsh treatment of the opposition, makes it practically impossible for Venezuelans to address their country’s challenges on their own. The tragedy is that there seem to be no honest brokers left to help usher in a peaceful solution.

The decision to crack down on Mayor Ledezma is a curious one. For the past few years, he has been the odd man out in Venezuela’s opposition. Though he’s one of the few old-guard politicians who remain electorally relevant, he has very little in the way of real power after much of it was stripped away by the central government. Ledezma is an important figure in the opposition, but he doesn’t have anything like the leadership role to which his post would normally entitle him.

So why did the central government suddenly decide to go after him? Ledezma’s real “crime,” it seems, was signing an open letter demanding that Maduro resign to pave the way for a “transitional” government. By doing so, he clearly struck a nerve.

The reasons for wanting change now are clear. Venezuela’s economic situation is rapidly deteriorating: a recent devaluation of the currency has brought the minimum wage to less than $50 per month, according to one of the many official exchange rates. Opinion polls show that large majorities of Venezuelans have turned on the government.

How can this mess be sorted out? Given that most of the opposition leadership is now behind bars, and that the government does not even acknowledge them as legitimate political rivals, it’s hard to imagine how the country can find a way out. Everyone in Caracas seems to be pondering when, not if, a coup will occur. In fact, the government claims to have foiled one in recent weeks, though they have yet to show any evidence.

As popular frustration builds, the potential for violence is increasing. The best way to avoid a violent outcome is through dialogue — dialogue that produces tangible results. Venezuela’s government needs to reach some sort of power sharing arrangement with the opposition. This would entail overhauling institutions such as the courts, the prosecutor’s office, and the electoral council.

Some moderate members of the ruling Socialist Party have broached the idea of sharing power, but this looks unlikely to come about. It would require a trustworthy, independent arbiter — presumably a group of foreign governments — willing to push negotiations. But the international community’s response to the recent crackdown has been lackluster, with most countries expressing “concern” over Venezuela’s increased polarization while stopping short of condemning the government outright. As a result, foreign governments have lost much of the opposition’s trust.

Latin American governments in particular have lost almost any claim to act as honest brokers, choosing instead to turn their backs on the Venezuelan drama. They do not seem to grasp the severity of the situation. Aside from the usual platitudes about “fostering dialogue,” there is currently little effort under way to bring the two sides to the negotiating table.

An agreement on power sharing presents other challenges. Those who control power in Venezuela — above all the military, many of whose members are allegedly involved in illegal activities — would rather chew nails than see an independent judiciary take hold. They are not interested in sharing power because they will only have something to lose. The opposition would probably be pushed to offer some form of amnesty.

The chances of this happening are slim to none. As a result, the possibility of a democratic solution to the crisis is shrinking fast. Meanwhile, as Ledezma adjusts to prison life, the government is threatening to fill the jails some more. Even if a dialogue were to take place, the government will have a hard time finding anyone in the opposition who isn’t in jail and who will still be willing to talk.

The parties in the Venezuelan conflict need to come together and discuss their differences. Not unlike a group of unruly children, they need someone responsible to force them to sit down and reach an agreement. Failure to do so is likely to result in outcomes that will be much harder for the international community to untangle.


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