As I sat down to type this, I read over my “Final Thoughts” post for 2016. I want to take a different tone with this year’s “Final Thoughts” iteration 2016 ended with lots of uncertainty on many questions, including that of the nature of the Maduro regime. I can imagine a distant observer, when presented with the facts on the ground at the end of last year, struggling with the question “is the Maduro regime an authoritarian dictatorship?”. While my own position on the matter was clear (yes!), a distant observer might reasonably have concluded that Venezuela was a democracy–a deeply flawed one, perhaps, but a democracy nonetheless.
At the end of 2017, I believe that no matter how distant, an observer cannot but conclude that Venezuela is an authoritarian dictatorship. Looking back on the events of this year, two in particular stand out as evidence par excellence of this fact: the Supreme Court decisions of late March, and the Constituent Assembly election.
The Maduro regime appeared to have struck a decisive victory against the opposition-controlled National Assembly in March with a pair of decisions that stripped the legislature of all of its power and granted it to the PSUV-controlled Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ), the country’s Supreme Court. The March 29th decision dealt the killing blow: it ruled that the National Assembly was in contempt, and that for as long as it remained in that state “all parliamentary powers” would be exercised by any committee chosen by the Supreme Court. The ruling sent shockwaves throughout the country for how ruthlessly effective it was. Hidden between the lines was the fact that since the Supreme Court was the one to decide whether the National Assembly was in contempt, the National Assembly would always be in contempt.
The ruling unleashed a fury unlike anything the country had seen in over a decade, sparking three months of daily protests that saw the streets of Caracas and small towns alike turned into battlefields. 135 people died in the protests in a campaign that is sure to be remembered in Venezuelan history books as a testament to a people’s endurance and determination against tyranny.
So overwhelming was the reaction against the Supreme Court’s March 29th ruling that on April 1 the top court issued a new ruling, this time rescinding its previous one. However, the damage was already done. The regime had shown its hand. Maduro, through his Supreme Court, had proven unequivocally that it was ready and willing to eliminate a branch of government in order to consolidate power in the hands of the PSUV. On March 29th, the Maduro regime crossed the Rubicon.
If the Supreme Court’s rulings in late March gave rise to this year’s anti-government protest movement, the July 31 Constituent Assembly election ended it. Announced on May 1 as a solution to every one of the country’s problems. the Constituent Assembly would be tasked with drafting a new national constitution. The protest campaign–which by May 1 was entering its second month–would set it sights on stopping the Constituent Assembly vote from taking place.
What terrified regime critics, and what made the Constituent Assembly such a powerful tool, is its supra-legislative power. Because the Constituent Assembly is tasked with writing a new constitution, it cannot be subject to the current constitution. In other words, the Constituent Assembly’s word is law, and no institution or individual, not even the President, can overturn its decisions.
Despite the near-superhuman efforts of a weary and bloodied people, the Constituent Assembly vote took place on July 30 amid widespread allegations of voter fraud and other electoral irregularities. While my updates at the time include more details on these allegations, it is worth repeating here that the company that provided the voting machines for the elect released an unprecedented statement days after the vote stating unequivocally that the Maduro regime had falsified the election results, and that the vote had been rigged. The Constituent Assembly election was arguably the most brazen act of electoral fraud in Venezuela since the Marcos Perez Jimenez reign.
With the Constituent Assembly in power, Maduro got what the March 29 Supreme Court decision could not give him: full control over the country. To the surprise of no one, the Constituent Assembly has not done any work on drafting a new constitution, and has instead devoted its time to using its supra-legislative powers to act as the legislature that the opposition took from the PSUV in 2015. Through his control of the Constituent Assembly and the Supreme Court, Maduro dictates.
2017 was an appalling year for Venezuela. It was the year that the country’s opposition movement was brought to its knees, and left to teeter on the point of collapse. It was the year that so many more hard-working, hopeful Venezuelans made the difficult decision to leave the country for greener pastures. It was also the year that Maduro cemented his dictatorial rule over a bloodied, anemic people.
They say that dictatorships fall just as they appear to be strongest. If that is true, then I would expect the Maduro dictatorship to fall any before 2018 draws to a close.
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