A peaceful end to the crisis has never felt so distant, and the stench of dictatorship has never felt so putrid.
This past Sunday, Maduro named newly-appointed vice-president Tarek El Aissami head of the Comando Nacional Antigolpe [National Anti-Coup Command] (NACC). The NACC is made up of a collection of high-level PSUV officials, including Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino Lopez, PSUV vice-president Diosado Cabello, Minister of the Interior, Justice and Peace Nestor Reverol, and Major General Cesar Vega, Commander of the National Militia, among others.
While Maduro was sparse on details, he did say that the NACC’s goal was to “defeat and put a definitive end to all vestiges of the right-wing oligarchical coup d’etat“. He also said that the NACC would “dedicate itself 24 hours a day” to fight the right-wing terrorists trying to overthrow him.
In a matter of four days, the Maduro regime hit new heights of authoritarian repression. The NACC locked up at least six opposition figures in just four days, a depressing sign of things to come.
National Assembly deputy of the Voluntad Popular (VP) party Gilber Caro was arrested, despite having parliamentary immunity. So were Roniel Farias, Irwing Rocca, Jorge Luis Gonzalez and Rosmer Rubio, all regional VP members. Officers from the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional [SEBIN] visited the home of human rights activist Lilian Tintori, who is also the wife of imprisoned VP leader Leopoldo Lopez, and later accused her of having been involved in a plot to assault the Miraflores Palace and break Lopez out of jail. High-profile Chavez critic Raul Baduel was re-arrested, and the Comptroller General’s Office revealed that it had an open investigation against Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles.
In the upside-down system of “justice” that Chavez and Maduro built, all are guilty until proven innocent. El Aissami already promised on television that Caro – who has yet to be formally charged – will be punished “by the full weight of the law”. Trials are merely a formality, an only half-serious attempt to stamp some legitimacy on the process.
In order to make sense of why the NACC exists and why it has been so busy in its first few days of operation, two points must be made clear.
First, anyone who opposes the Maduro regime is by definition a terrorist, an ultra-right wing fascist and an enemy of the Bolivarian Revolution. The regime’s worldview does not include legitimate political opposition. This is true for all dictatorships. On Thursday, El Aissami called Voluntad Popular an “anti-democratic” terrorist group. This, despite the fact that VP is one of the largest opposition parties in the country, enjoys widespread support and has never been formally charged or otherwise targeted by the Venezuelan justice system for being a “terrorist group”. The reason for this is that, despite El Aissami’s assertion, VP is in actuality not a terrorist group. It is a legitimate, democratic, non-violent political party that opposes the PSUV. But, for the Maduro regime, no such thing exists: any opposition is by definition fascist, terrorist, violent, criminal.
Second, El Aissami’s ascendance to the position of vice-president and head of the NACC signals a troubling turn to hard-line authoritarianism for Venezuela. El Aissami has long been suspected of being a high-level drug trafficker, and while he was once a shoe-in to replace Chavez, he allegedly fell out of favour with the leader for being too ambitious and involved in illegal activities. The fact that Maduro chose him as his vice-president may be a sign that he is deliberately surrounding himself with individuals who have extremely high “exit costs”. In other words, Maduro appears to be giving top-level positions in government to people who, because of their involvement in the drug trade and other illicit endeavours, simply cannot afford to let the regime fall. These are the kinds of people who will stop at nothing to ensure the survival of the regime, even if it means ruthless crackdowns on political opponents. In this respect, El Aissami is the right man at the right time in the right place for Maduro, which for the rest of Venezuelans makes him the wrong man at the wrong time in the wrong place.
If there was any hope that 2017 would see a change for the better in Venezuela, the NACC dashed it in a mere four days. El Aissami’s appointments – first as vice-president and then as head of the regime’s newest and evidently formidable machinery of repression – has made it clear that Maduro and the PSUV are going for broke.
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