When Hugo Chávez became president in 1998, Venezuela had experienced 40 years of sustained democracy and boasted features like alternation in government, separation of powers, rule of law, economic and individual freedoms, and, most importantly, civilian rule. Needless to say, this is not the case anymore. Today, Venezuela is a country where elections are an act of civil disobedience, where separation of powers is “a thing of the past,” with a civil-military government that rules by law; a country stripped of economic liberties with a population that is the victim of a brutal military regime. Today, democracy no longer exists in the government, but it is alive in the people’s hearts, minds, and desires.
Last Sunday, Venezuela experienced the biggest event of civil disobedience in its history, when civil society organizations and unified opposition forces organized an unofficial, unapproved plebiscite in which more than 7.5 million people voted. The election was organized in only 13 days, despite the fact that there was no public information campaign, the government censored the words “election,” “plebiscite” and “referendum” from the media, and the courts declared participation in the referendum illegal.
Why did this act occur now? After all, Nicolás Maduro’s socialist regime has violated Venezuelans’ human rights, destroyed the country’s economy, corroded the culture through terror and propaganda, and shut down all avenues of political representation for at least three years. What has inspired this new wave of protest?
The answer is that the Venezuelan regime is dangerously close to implementing a Soviet-style political model a la cubana. The final stage of this process—which has been in preparation for at least 15 years—will begin on July 30 with the elections for a new National Constituent Assembly, or constitutional convention. President Nicolás Maduro is seeking to dissolve Venezuela’s parliament, the National Assembly, and write a new constitution that will establish a single-party political system. Yet his plans are supported by only eight percent of the population, and firmly rejected by more than 80 percent. It was to allow citizens to speak out against Maduro’s constitutional convention that the Venezuelan opposition held their referendum.
Sunday’s vote—and the last 110 days of rebellion—have proved that Venezuelans won’t allow the country to become another Cuba. Venezuela’s organized, rebellious civil society and its united opposition forces present a formidable obstacle to the government’s aims. But given Maduro’s plans, this is one of Venezuela’s last windows of opportunity to avert tyranny. If the 30th of July really does bring about the dissolution of Venezuela’s political system, the opposition will lose an important public forum in which to do politics. The rising alternative leadership could fade away in front of our eyes. There is also reason to believe that the government will accelerate their jailing of dissidents, shutting down all opposition. And that is the ultimate step of Cubanization.
The beginnings of this process go back to the early 2000s—even to Hugo Chávez’s 1994 visit to Havana. Hugo Chávez and his successor Maduro have implemented the Cuban recipe in all areas of society. Political police are set in place to persecute and intimidate the opposition, trying to disrupt any coordination on the part of citizens. Economic misery is carefully aimed at maintaining poor people busy in long queues and away from demonstrations. Media is set to brainwash the population and instill terror of the possibility of a political change. Political power is carefully shared by the military elite and communist radicals. The Supreme Court of Justice is reduced to a lackey of the regime. And economic power is placed in the hands of the military.
By this point, Venezuela’s regime has erased private property, human rights, political freedom, and due process from the country. The economy is collapsing, with an inflation rate over 900 percent. Social disintegration is appalling: drug-trafficking is ubiquitous, and the country suffers from the world’s highest rate of murders, 95 percent of which go unpunished. The media and educational system is saturated with communist propaganda.
Yet at least 7.5 million Venezuelans out of a population of almost 30 million are actively resisting and in rebellion against the regime. Youth are fighting to get back their future. Parents are fighting to feed their children. Patients, young and old, are fighting against a government so chaotic that it cannot guarantee basic medications. Most importantly of all, people are fighting to get back liberty.
The National Assembly will take up their new popular mandate in multifaceted ways: by escalating the demonstrations through nation-wide strikes and mobilizations, by appointing new judges to the Venezuelan Supreme Court and directors to the electoral board, and by sharing with the public a consensual political plan for a transitional government. The people of Venezuela are clear about the future they want—one with democracy, liberty, development, and the rule of law. Maduro’s regime is also clear about what it wants—unaccountable power and an undemocratic, Cuban-style system. It is as close to a good vs. evil story as world events provide. In this situation, the international community will need to be determined and resolute if goodness is to win. There is no space for complacency or naivety. The opposition is strong, united, and ready to form a transitional government. The international community must support it.