Three months ago, Venezuela’s beleaguered president, Nicolás Maduro, pushed the nuclear button in Venezuelan politics: He declared that he would convene a Constituent Assembly, a specially elected body that’s allowed to do pretty much anything. There’s nothing quite like it in the U.S.; the Constitution does have a provision for a Constitutional Convention, but it has never been invoked and is merely empowered to propose amendments to the Constitution. La Constituyente, as it’s known in Venezuela, goes well beyond that: It can fire judges, dissolve legislatures, create new offices, even fire the president. If the Constituyente wants to declare Swedish as the official language and require all citizens to wear underwear on the outside (“so we can check”), there’s nothing to stop it.
Then, on Sunday, Venezuela held an elaborately rigged election to select the delegates to the Constituyente. The convoluted rules that were improvised by the government all but guaranteed it a large majority. America’s most brazenly gerrymandered congressional district maps have nothing on an election where some seats were elected directly by members of pro-government neighborhood groups. It was grubby, desperate stuff, but Maduro’s political position is nothing if not grubby and desperate. His approval rating has fallen below 20 percent, with large majorities of voters saying they want him out of office immediately.
The opposition boycotted the vote, rightly calling it a blatant power grab. Foreign ministries around the world concurred: The U.S., Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Italy, Norway, the E.U. and others condemned the vote and vowed not to recognize its outcome. To the Maduro administration, this was hardly news. The cost of international isolation was already baked into Maduro’s calculation; he’s plainly willing to bear it. Still, the U.S. on Monday announced sanctions on Maduro personally. “Maduro is not just a bad leader, he is now a dictator,” President Donald Trump said in a statement read by national security advisor H.R. McMaster.
What happens next is clear, broadly speaking: Venezuela’s dire condition will become even more critical. The remaining embers of democracy will be stamped out. The opposition will be methodically repressed. The food shortage will worsen, and the violence in the streets will intensify. What everyone is wondering, though, is whether the Army will do anything to stop the slide—and whether that’s an outcome anyone should wish for.
Thinking back to Hugo Chávez’s glory years, it’s amazing how severely the revolutionary sheen of Chavismo has been dulled. His movement, after all, once had the star power to attract left-wing celebrities from Sean Penn to Naomi Campbell, and was seen as a model throughout the region. These days, no Latin American politician in his right mind would dream of citing Venezuela as anything but a cautionary tale. Chavismo has become a toxic brand, a slur that center-right politicos use to try to discredit left-wing challengers. In Venezuela, too, the old talk of remaking the world order and challenging U.S. imperialism has given way to a much darker vision—an obsession with domestic enemies (“the fascists,” as the opposition is known) and the CIA, which is blamed for any and every problem.
The economy has fallen into a terrifying tailspin, with three out of four Venezuelans losing body weight to hunger because food is so hard to find. Since 2013, GDP has contracted 40 percent in per capita terms. In a grim parlor game, Venezuelan economists have taken to identifying countries that performed better in war than Chavismo has in peace. (Neither Iran nor Iraq saw the kind of economic cataclysm we’ve witnessed, even as they gunned down tens of thousands of one another’s young people in the 1980s. El Salvador in the ’80s and Ukraine in the last few years are just a couple of the countries who’ve fared better in war than we have in peace.)
Amid the hunger, Maduro’s grotesque Constituyente, all 545 handpicked members, will convene as soon as Thursday. Its task is simple: clear the obstacles in the way of a Cuban-style dictatorship in Venezuela. The first order of business will be to clean house: It will likely dissolve the National Assembly, the Venezuelan legislature where the opposition won a two-thirds majority in a 2015 landslide, which now seems likely to be remembered as the last free elections in Venezuela for a good long time. Next up: the prosecutor general, a once-reliable Chavista whose ideological doubts have turned into outright dissent in recent weeks. After that, opposition politicians likely will be jailed. (Indeed, two prominent leaders were taken from their homes by security forces on Tuesday.) Then, there will be new election rules to guarantee a permanent Chavista government in a country that has come to despise Chavismo.
The question now is whether the military will stay loyal as the Constituyente follows through on its plans. The top brass has long been at pains to stress its complete loyalty to the government, but rumblings of discontent are just about audible in the ranks. As chaotic street protests continue to rock the country, the soldiers know it’s up to them to crack the skulls that need to be cracked to re-establish order. It’s unclear how long they’re willing to keep doing that.
The Trump administration reportedly is considering drastic sanctions against the Venezuelan oil industry in response to the Constituyente. In a country that gets 95 percent of its export earnings from oil, the implications are frightening. Fewer oil dollars mean even less food and medicine will be imported. Sanctions hold out the threat of an even greater humanitarian crisis, more social conflict, and more rioting.
And yet, for a society that’s already tried everything to get rid of its dictatorship and failed, some hope that just maybe oil-sector sanctions pushes someone within the military to make a move against the regime.
Is this a good idea? Far from it. Involving the men with guns into political decision-making is a counsel of despair.
Is it even safe? Hell no. It’s easy to imagine scenarios where different units square off against one another and Venezuela gradually morphs into Syria.
That some have come to see the military as our last hope is just a measure of how desperate the situation has become. Because if there’s one thing that’s not in short supply in Venezuela these days, it’s desperation.