The Catch-22 in Venezuela

On Thursday, July 20th, the Venezuelan opposition held a 24-hour nationwide strike as part of its campaign against the Maduro government and its plan to implement a new constitutional assembly with a vote on July 30th. The purpose of the strike was to place pressure on authorities and to reinstate order in the country. Businesses shutdown, roads were blockaded, and many private transportation services refused to run. The strike comes at a critical moment in the opposition’s campaign coined as “zero hour.”

Thursday’s events follow the July 16th referendum conducted by the Venezuelan opposition against President Nicolás Maduro and his proposed constitutional assembly. The proposed constitutional assembly would have the power to rewrite a new constitution and dissolve the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Voting will be conducted by an intricate group system the opposition says is designed to give the Maduro government and its supporters an advantage. Additionally, the July 30th elections allegedly will not give voters the option of rejecting the assembly but only for who they wish to elect. If the prospective assembly is implemented, it will consist of 545 members and almost certainly favor Maduro.

Over 7.1 million Venezuelans came out to vote in the July 16th referendum and over 98% of those voters opposed the installment of the proposed constitutional assembly. The results also revealed that voters support military use to protect the presiding constitution and want elections before Maduro’s scheduled end of term in 2019.

The Venezuelan government dismissed the Thursday strike and Maduro labeled the referendum as “meaningless.” They state that the July 30th elections to establish the constitutional assembly will continue, as planned.

The referendum and strike were not without casualties. Three people were killed and at least ten more injured. Since the protests began almost four months ago, over 90 people have been killed, 1,500 wounded, and over 3,600 arrested.

It is clear that Venezuela is ideologically divided between Maduro’s supporters and his adversaries. The two sides are staunchly at odds with one another: the opposition wants new elections before Maduro’s set end of term in 2019 and believe that the proposed assembly could encourage dictatorship.

Maduro, on the other hand, wants to implement the proposed assembly because he claims that it will improve Venezuela’s political and fiscal state. Additionally, he asserts that the opposition seeks to depose the government. However, these claims are highly suspect. With Maduro’s low approval ratings and the state of the economy, his ability to maintain power will be enhanced with a pro-Maduro assembly.

But the referendum and nationwide strike continues to illustrate that the majority of Venezuelans are against the Maduro government’s political and economic practices.

Once the richest state in Latin America, Venezuela is in an economic calamity. Its 2015 economic growth is marked at -5.7%, a diminishment compared to its 2011 4.2% growth. Additionally, over 87% of citizens cannot purchase essential food, 76% of public hospitals lack access to basic medical supplies, and infant mortality rate has risen by 21% since 2015. Foreign reserves are at their lowest since 1995 and many of these reserves are in the form of gold bars not easily exchanged.

Many Venezuelans blame the government for the current economic state while the authorities, on the other hand, place the blame on foreign players. While Venezuelans may disapprove of Maduro, he still maintains support and control over the military and much of the media.

Nations that have publicly supported the Venezuela referendum include Brazil, Canada, Mexico, the European Union, and the United States. President Donald Trump stated that the United States will take “strong and swift economic actions” if President Maduro proceeds with the constitutional assembly on July 30th.

Faced with mounting pressure from the international community and threatened economic actions, Maduro might be forced to postpone the July 30th elections. Oil accounts for 95% of its export income and the United States is its main petroleum importer. Without international monetary sustenance, Venezuela would plummet further into economic disaster.

Venezuela is in a catch-22. The people and government are at opposite ends of the spectrum in what they want for the future of Venezuela. The people want the continuance of democratic norms, whereas Maduro and his supports seek to tighten their grip over the nation.

While the future of Venezuela is unclear, if the July 30th vote goes forward, it is important for nations like the United States to act accordingly. Though the Trump administration has not stated the specifics of proposed sanctions, they would reportedly include freezing assets and banning U.S. business in the country.