Just under two days remain until Venezuela’s national vote to elect delegates for a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. The world is watching events in the embattled South American nation closely, and many diplomats around the world are cognizant that Sunday’s vote could be the death knell for democracy in Venezuela. The once vibrant state is on a path that could make it the next Cuba, and there is little the outside world can do about it at this point.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has ordered measures to ensure that the vote takes place with minimal domestic obstruction. The government announced Thursday night on state-run media a complete ban on demonstrations across the country for the next five days. The hope is that a ban will curtail opposition activity around the time of Sunday’s vote. On Sunday, Venezuelans will choose the delegates for the Constituent Assembly which will go about replacing the nation’s current constitution. Maduro’s opponents view the assembly as a move to effectively cement the president’s grip on power. There is no timeframe for remaking the constitution, it can theoretically take years. While it is underway, national elections would be cancelled, meaning next year’s presidential elections will not take place. This alone will give Maduro an extended stay in power until a new constitution guarantees him a leader-for-life status.
The US is beginning to take serious measures in regards to the situation in Venezuela. The State Department issued a travel warning on Thursday night. Dependents of US embassy staff in Caracas have been ordered out of the country, and restrictions on the movement of US diplomats around Caracas and the rest of the country were put into place. Earlier this week, President Trump announced a new round of sanctions on 13 Venezuelan officials. There is speculation that this is simply a precursor to a more comprehensive sanction program that will be put into place if Maduro goes forward with Sunday’s vote. Trump has stated that the US will not “stand by as Venezuela crumbles.”
The opposition movement in Venezuela has been energized by the results of Sunday’s unofficial referendum and are hoping it marks a turning point in its struggle against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Over 7.2 million Venezuelans cast votes, with the overwhelming majority were against Maduro’s plan to push forward with his plan to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. On 30 July voters will elect delegates for a constitutional assembly. The assembly will be given the power to rewrite laws and many observers view it as nothing less than a power grab on the part of Maduro.
Venezuela continues to descend deeper into economic, and political chaos. Maduro is desperately clinging to the plan for a constitutional rewrite as his cure-all. Three months of unrest, and daily clashes between protesters, and security forces have taken a toll. A new constitution that neuters the power of his opponents in the legislature will pave the way for him to contend with the opponents on the streets once and for all. In spite of the growing turmoil, anti-government feeling, and the results of the referendum yesterday, Maduro’s position is relatively stable for the time being. There are no imminent threats to his rule. Despite the efforts of anti-Maduro lawmakers and their supporters, the current president appears likely to remain in power at least through the end of the summer.
A primary reason for this has been the opposition’s disorganization and lack of unity. The opposition is comprised of people from every facet of Venezuelan society. Unfortunately, there is no fabric to mesh together. No individual leader, or leadership council to coordinate the various groups. In the absence of a cohesion, the opposition’s efforts have been restricted mainly to street protests. In their own right, the protests are powerful, but without a political element to guide and lead them, the throngs of people taking to the streets are little more than an unruly mob. Maduro’s bands of thugs have intimidated the political opposition to a large degree. Pro-government thugs regularly assault opposition lawmakers, and on one occasion Maduro even sent a group of them to the National Assembly where they entered and beat a number of lawmakers bloody.
The political chaos might end up being overshadowed by even more economic despair soon enough. Venezuela’s foreign reserves are now down to less than $10 billion. In short, the country is on the verge of going broke. If that happens, all bets are off as to what happens next.
The days of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his regime might finally be numbered. Massive protests were staged on Wednesday in Caracas and across the country. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to protest the government as the nation marked the 207th anniversary of the revolution that led to its independence. The anti-Maduro sentiment boiled over into violence with dozens injured and at least three people known to have been killed. National Guard and government-backed militias clashed with protesters in a series of running battles. More protests are expected to take place today and through the weekend.
Opposition groups in Venezuela were galvanized by the Supreme Court’s attempt to dissolve the opposition-dominated legislature. Venezuela’s Supreme Court is controlled by loyalists to Maduro. The move set off a firestorm of dissent, so much so that Maduro ordered the court to backtrack on much of its ruling. Since then, Maduro has continued to tighten his hold on power through other measures such as barring his most likely candidate in the next presidential election from holding political office for 15 years.
This latest protest movement is different from previous ones that sought the removal of the government from power. The demands this time are centered around a timetable for elections, which the opposition is confident it will win. Along with the new strategy comes a renewed presence in the streets that does not appear ready to lose energy.
Despite the prolonged opposition and protest movements aligned against him, Maduro has survived and continues to hold power. As the political and economic crises facing Venezuela continue, Maduro remains committed to his strategy of applying a socialist band aid to the country’s wounds. Yesterday, authorities seized a General Motors factory in Valencia. Normal operations are no longer possible and GM has announced it is suspending operations in the country. It’s not clear exactly how seizing the factory will help the Venezuelan economy. Realistically, the move was probably made to rally support from Maduro’s political base.
Maduro’s take on the here and now has always been suspect. While the nation suffers, he is either unwilling or incapable of putting forward effective measures to push Venezuela back onto an even keel. As the opposition strengthens and protests intensify, Maduro’s inaction makes him appear more like Nero and Venezuela more like Rome with each passing day.
On Sunday as the Christian world celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Turks across the world were voting on a historical constitutional referendum which, if passed, would grant Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a host of new powers. By late last night it became clear the ‘Yes’ vote would carry the day, propelling Erdoğan to a close, yet potentially decisive victory. If the referendum is implemented entirely, Turkey’s government will shift from a parliamentary democracy to one that is dominated by a strong executive president. The president will no longer be held accountable by Turkey’s parliament, control the judiciary, have broad budgetary power, and the ability to shape the executive branch of government as he sees fit. This morning, many are wondering just what the results of the vote will mean for Turkey’s future.
Before that question is considered, the results of the referendum have to be certified and digested. The vote count was close with the ‘Yes’ camp receiving 51%. Opposition leaders are calling for large number of potentially problematic ballots to be reviewed, and there are widespread reports of voter intimidation and voting irregularities across Turkey to be investigated. It is unlikely an investigation will happen though. Turkey’s electoral body has ruled the vote valid.
That act will do nothing to change the fact that the referendum results could usher in a new period of political instability for Turkey. In the nation’s largest population centers, the majority of citizens voted ‘No.’ Protests have already broken out in Istanbul and other cities and there have been clashes between Turks opposed to Erdoğan and his supporters.
Outside of Turkey, there is uneasiness about the new role of Erdoğan and the chance that the secular Turkey of the past will forever vanish. European politicians are spending a great deal of time this morning debating what the referendum results will mean for Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, and how it will affect the migration crisis. Concerns about Erdoğan directing Turkey away from Europe and toward a closer relationship with Russia need to be addressed. That particular possibility, should it come to reality, has the potential to disrupt the balance of power in Europe and the Middle East.
With the Easter Holiday coming to a close, and North Korea quite possibly calming down for a short period, the opportunity will be taken this week to discuss Turkey at length.
Sunday’s wave of unsanctioned mass protests that broke out across Russia took the Kremlin entirely by surprise. The rallies were the largest in Russia since the pro-democracy protests in 2011-2012 and centered on a dual theme of anti-corruption and anti-government. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in response to Russian opposition leader Alexi Navaly’s exposé on the extravagant real estate holdings of current prime minister and former president Dimitri Medvedev. Navaly urged Russians to go out and protest Medvedev, naming 26 March as the day to do so. The response was greater than Navaly likely expected as people took to the streets in St. Petersberg, Moscow, Vladivostok and many cities in between. Ekho Moskvy, an independent radio station, put the numbers at 60,000 people taking part in 80 protests across Russia on Sunday. Over 1,000 arrests were made and Navaly was one of those detained. Today he was convicted of disobeying police, sentenced to 15 days in jail and fined 20,000 rubles (roughly $355) for organizing an unsanctioned protest.
The rallies were labeled a ‘provocation’ by the Kremlin. A Kremlin spokesman even implied that a number of the protesters were in the streets simply because they had been paid to be there. In any event, Sunday’s protests have likely rattled the Russian government. Unsanctioned rallies were made illegal after the 2011-2012 protests. In spite of this, thousands of people defied the law and came out to join yesterday’s protests.
Russia is a large nation and the geographic spread of the protests indicates that the anti-corruption theme has struck a chord with a large section of the population. It is useful to note the lack of a pro-democracy cause in the protests. Democracy has been largely viewed as a sour word in Russia since the 1990s. Russians are content to live with a form of government which does not mirror the liberal democratic foundation of many Western nation-states so long as corruption is kept in check. The economic crisis that Russia has been facing has eased. Conditions are not bad as they were two years ago, but recovery has been elusive. The average Russian citizen is making do with less and to see their political rulers such as Medvedev living a lavish lifestyle is too much for many to overlook.
For Vladimir Putin the stakes are even more significant. The opposition has a face now in Navaly, and momentum on its side. What happens next is unclear, however, if Putin does not tread carefully and a period of unrest descends upon Russia, he will be forced to take action to secure his position ahead of the 2018 elections. That action could come at home or, just as conceivably, abroad.