The country is poised between chaos and dictatorship
“THIS government is going to fall!” chanted hundreds of protesters alongside the Avenida Libertador in central Caracas. Staring them down were ranks of security forces—from the police, the national guard and the feared, black-uniformed SEBIN (secret police)—charged with making sure that does not happen. Looming above was a huge grinning portrait of the late president, Hugo Chávez.
The protesters’ aim on May 18th was, as it has been on two previous occasions this month, to march to the offices of the National Electoral Council (CNE). The supposedly independent, but nakedly biased, institution has been delaying its consideration of a petition it was handed weeks ago, the first stage of a process to recall Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, through a referendum. With government forces blocking all routes to the CNE, the protesters were never likely to get close.
The regime may feel the day was a success. The protests were not huge. The poor have yet to stream down from the barrios en masse to demand the president’s ouster. But they are enraged and the government is worried. Almost 70% of Venezuelans want Mr Maduro to leave office this year, according to a recent poll. That demand is fuelled by the appalling deterioration of living standards under his incompetent rule. Venezuela is suffering the world’s deepest recession. Self-defeating price and currency controls and rampant corruption are causing shortages of everything from medicines to rice. “I am here because I am sick of queuing from dawn,” said José Galeano, a protester who describes himself as a poor man. “This has to end.”
Across Venezuela, small protests are now commonplace. Social media are awash with videos of shoppers plundering supermarkets and brawling with each other. As crime soars, the lynching of petty criminals is becoming more common.
The desperation such incidents reveal is dismissed by the increasingly delusional Mr Maduro during his endless television appearances. The shortages, he says, are the consequence of an “economic war” waged by enemies at home and abroad. Some in Caracas joke that he must be the only man who can claim to fight a fictional war, and then lose it. But they fear the direction his rule might now take.
After the May 18th protests he threatened to supersede the current economic state of emergency (announced five days earlier) with a “state of internal commotion”. Whereas the first gives him powers such as instructing the army to supervise the production and distribution of food, the second would give him the ability to impose something closer to military rule across the country.
Many in the opposition think this could signal the start of an “auto-coup”, in which the government escalates the crisis so that it has an excuse to suspend democracy and constitutional norms. Mr Maduro has already indicated that he will govern without regard to the National Assembly, which came under the control of the opposition after elections last December. “It is a matter of time before it disappears,” he said blithely at a press conference on May 17th. During the same event, held to rebut supposed lies told about him by international media, he refused to provide any information about the economy.
Henrique Capriles, the governor of the state of Miranda, who was narrowly defeated by Mr Maduro in a presidential election in 2013 after Chávez’s death, is leading the opposition’s efforts to expose the president’s rule as unstable and lawless. He urged Venezuelans to ignore the state of emergency. “If Maduro wants to apply the decree, then he should start bringing out the tanks,” he said on May 18th. His intent was not to provoke such a crackdown but to forestall one. He appealed directly to the army to make a choice between the constitution and Mr Maduro.
If Mr Capriles hopes that the army will desert the president, he is likely to be disappointed. Chávez, a former commando, made sure that the military had a large stake in his “Bolivarian” revolution and its profits. Mr Maduro has done the same. Dozens of high-ranking officers occupy senior positions in ministries. Mr Maduro recently approved the creation of a military company, CAMIMPEG, to provide services to the state oil company PDVSA.
Mr Capriles’s warnings about the increasingly dictatorial nature of Mr Maduro’s rule are now being echoed by worried outsiders. The secretary-general of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, a former minister in Uruguay’s left-leaning government, has written an open letter to Mr Maduro in response to his wild claims that the OAS was plotting to depose him. The Venezuelan leader must hold a recall referendum in 2016, Mr Almagro wrote, or risk becoming “just another petty dictator” of the sort that has plagued Latin American history. Mr Almagro’s former boss, the former Uruguayan president José Mujica, went one stage further, calling Mr Maduro “crazy as a goat”.
The main hope for avoiding either a naked dictatorship or a descent into chaos may be international mediation. Early in May it was reported that Pope Francis, who played an important role in the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, had written a personal letter to Mr Maduro. Its contents have not been revealed. The pope’s spokesman would only say that he was “following the situation with a lot of attention and participation”. José Luis Zapatero, a former prime minister of Spain, and Martín Torrijos, a former president of Panama, have held a meeting with Mr Maduro and, as The Economist went to press, were expected to see the opposition. Venezuela’s neighbours are appalled by the prospect that the country might implode. They may not be able to stop it.