On January 10, Nicolás Maduro took another step in perpetuating and expanding his power, carrying out a masquerade in the form of a presidential investiture that will initiate a new mandate, a move that has been regarded as illegitimate by a large part of the international community. It would keep him in charge of Venezuela (supposedly) until 2025.
With a country in ruins and an increasingly isolated regime, the inauguration, which many consider a point of no return in the very serious economic and institutional crisis the country is suffering, does not mean anything new in practice for the citizens. But with this, the regime, which controls all levels of political and judicial power, is consummating a seemingly insurmountable fracture in its diplomacy with the international community.
Maduro took the presidential oath before the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) rather than before the National Assembly, as required by the Venezuelan constitution. The reason for this is that the opposition-majority parliament, elected in 2015, was declared to be in disobedience, and despite it still running independently from and parallel to the “official” government, it no longer exists for the regime.
That same court stripped it of its functions, and in July 2017 after three months of protests that left hundreds dead in the streets, a fraudulent vote was held on a National Constituent Assembly that accumulated all the political control of the nation, in which no representatives critical of the ruling party had a seat. In practice, this new assembly is a legislative branch—presided over by number two of the Chavista hierarchy, Diosdado Cabello—at the service of executive power.
The legacy Maduro leaves to himself has broken all known records of economic and political disaster in the region. Venezuela has lost 53 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), spurring the third-worst inflation in history (prices increased 830,000 percent last year). The prisons are now filled with almost 300 political prisoners. Venezuela has been denounced by Amnesty International for mistreating and torturing prisoners and allowing extrajudicial executions of its most vulnerable citizens.
The lack of food, shortage of basic commodities, and the collapse of health care have become commonplace in the nation. This profound humanitarian crisis has already destroyed the lives of millions of Venezuelans and destabilized the region. About three million citizens have already fled the country, seeking refuge in neighboring countries. This represents more than 7 percent of the population. It is a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions in the recent history of Latin America.
Venezuela has descended into a new circle of authoritarian drift. Everything points to the fact that Maduro’s onslaught against his critics, hundreds of whom are held in the regime’s prisons, will only worsen, without any solution to the economic, political, and social crisis that is eating away at the country’s foundation. According to the Venezuelan human rights organization Foro Penal, more than 12,800 people have been arrested because of their links to protests against the regime, many of which were taken from their homes without warrants.
Power Will Not Be Abdicated Any Time Soon
Maduro has shown he has no pretense of relinquishing this apex of control, much less of accepting an electoral defeat that could lead to his departure from power. With the opposition neutralized by the regime and the subsequent division and exile of the dissident forces, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about this situation.
With internal resistance cut off, the international chessboard is becoming more important than ever. Most of the democratic nations have condemned the dictatorial path the Venezuelan regime has taken. The Organization of American States (OAS) recently passed a resolution disregarding the legitimacy of Maduro’s new mandate and calling for economic, political, and diplomatic sanctions. Even the European Union qualified Maduro’s elections as “undemocratic.”
In this context, the Lima Group, which includes the major Latin American powers—formed in 2017 to facilitate a negotiated solution to the crisis—was called upon to play an important role. Recent political shifts in the region, however, threaten to ruin this instrument. Mexico refused to adhere to the joint position of the other 13 members at the last meeting, which called for non-recognition of Maduro’s regime, among other measures. This is the first change in the Latin American giant’s foreign policy since Andrés Manuel López Obrador became president. Without Mexico, the influence of the Lima Group could, in effect, be diminished.
How Much Longer Will This Last?
Although the socialist regime is more isolated than ever, it would be a mistake to underestimate the potential longevity of its power. Maduro may, to the contrary, be asserting himself in the plane of international conflict in a game of powers. The speed at which Russia recognized the legitimacy of the new government and accused the US of conspiring to overthrow it says it all. Recently, the presence of Russian Tu-160 nuclear bombers in the Venezuelan capital suggests the world may be entering a new chapter of the Cold War. For the Russians, it’s not about the oil—it’s about influence in Latin American politics disputed with the US.
China is also a heavy player, mainly for economic reasons. Venezuela owes the country billions of dollars in accumulated debt and pays them at the rate of thousands of barrels of oil a day. Who wouldn’t take care of a debtor of that magnitude?
It is clear that the longevity of the regime now definitely depends on the loyalty of the military, to whom Maduro does not stop owing “such loyalty and discipline,” rewarding them with vast powers in the government and economy. This is because he knows he sails with his generals on the same raft, and his dictatorship would sink overnight if they decided as much.
Nevertheless, no evil is eternal, and it is very unlikely that Maduro can repeat the disastrous experiment of a long-standing dictatorship as happened in Cuba because Venezuelans today think about how to survive famine. They don’t believe in utopian ideologies. The only uncertainties are how long it will take for the inevitable to happen and how the suffering Venezuelan people will be able to recover from the dark moments they have been experiencing.
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This piece was originally published at FEE