- By Jesse Chase-LubitzJesse Chase-Lubitz is an American Society of Magazine Editors intern at Foreign Policy. She is currently studying history and evolutionary biology of the human species at Columbia. Before that, she worked as a professional ballet dancer in Chicago and Austin.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro raised the stakes this week in his showdown with political opponents, ordering all state employees to vote July 30 for his new constituent assembly meant to write a new constitution and essentially crown him leader for life.
The latest arm-twisting by the government promises to heat up a more than three-month-old confrontation between the Maduro regime and thousands in the opposition, and which has already claimed 90 lives.
Maduro’s ballot-box demands came just a day after government forces allowed pro-regime thugs to storm into the National Assembly, the last bastion for the anti-Maduro opposition, and beat up opposition lawmakers.
In his attempt to remain in office, Maduro is looking to his base of state employees, and lower income Venezuelans, for support. But he’s not asking, he’s telling.
“If there are 15,000 workers, all 15,000 workers must vote without any excuses,” Reuters reported him saying in Bolivar on Thursday. The state workforce, which makes up about 10 percent of Venezuela’s population, has been coerced by the government before. In 2016, Maduro ordered a purge of employees at five key government ministries who signed a petition backing a referendum to recall the President from office. This time around, it seems state employees are once again being pressured politically.
“In theory, the vote will be ‘secret, direct, and universal,’ but there are always ways that the government can game the system,” says Moises Rendon, an associate director and associate fellow studying public policy issues in Latin America at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Government employees, the largest workforce in the country, are already threatened when they show signs of dissent.”
The big question now is whether the violence and tension in Venezuela will boil over into even more open conflict. Police and regime security forces have been clashing with protesters since the beginning of April. But the regime has also been eating its own: More than 100 soldiers have been jailed so far, AP reported, while Maduro’s own attorney general has defied the government.
On July 16, the opposition will hold its own informal referendum on Maduro’s planned new constitution, which could spark an even bigger crackdown from the regime. By the end of the month, with Maduro’s own vote, some experts worry Venezuela’s government could shatter into a pro-Maduro, new-constitution rump and an opposition-led National Assembly.
Unrest in Venezuela began on April 1 after the government-appointed Supreme Court essentially tried to take over the functions of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Though that move was mostly reversed, it galvanized fears that Maduro was dragging the country even closer to an outright dictatorship.
The contrast with Venezuela’s own past — or the present of some once-struggling neighbors, like Colombia — is stark. In the 1960s, Venezuela was a beacon of transparency and democracy — and wealth. With democratic presidents Rómulo Betancourt, Raúl Leoni, and Rafael Caldera, Venezuela became a role model subsequently copied throughout Latin America, and one that offered refuge for political exiles seeking freedom.
But years of economic mismanagement under former president Hugo Chavez and then Maduro, aggravated by a slide in global oil prices, have poleaxed Venezuela’s economy, giving it the world’s highest inflation and a dearth of food, medicine, and other basic goods.
Despite all the violence unleashed by the regime and the heightened political turmoil, it’s an unequal battle.
“We are not in a civil war, because of the fact that the opposition is not armed,” Rendon said.
Photo credit: LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images