Venezuela and the Volatile Road Ahead

On July 30th, Venezuela held an election to appoint members to its new constituent assembly. The plans for a new assembly were called by President Nicolás Maduro back in May and in effect have the power to create a new constitution that would likely favor the Maduro government.

Venezuelans did not get to vote on whether they actually wanted the constituent assembly but only on what candidates they wanted to fill the 545 positions within the assembly. There was a total of 5,500 candidates running, most being Maduro supporters.

Many of the elected members are close allies to Maduro including Diosdado Cabello, Iris Varela, and Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores.

To say the election was a sham would be an understatement. The government claims that there was a high voting turnout, around 41.5% and as many as 8 million voters. However, the opposition and other sources refute this statement saying that out of the 19 million Venezuelans registered to vote, only 2.45 million voted—only 15% of total voters.

This 2.45 million is a bleak number compared to the 7.5 million who came out to vote in the July 16th referendum opposing the proposed constituent assembly. Additionally, many of the voters for the most recent election were reportedly pressured or coerced into doing so.

In addition to feeling concerned over Venezuela’s path to dictatorship, some critics believe that having an assembly as large as 545 members will not be efficient to write an effective and productive constitution.

According to Diosdado Cabello, the constituent assembly will take over in less than 72 hours. No deadline has been given for writing the constitution. This contributes to the already growing worry that Maduro established the constituent assembly to prolong his period in office.

Even on threat of incarceration, many Venezuelans took to the streets to protest the election. At least 10 people were killed in clashes between the opposition and Venezuelan forces. The total death count since the protests began over four months ago totals to at least 125. Additionally, two opposition leaders, Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, were arrested from their homes on August 1st.

The United States publicly condemned the July 30th vote as did Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Spain.

Leading up to the elections, the Trump administration sanctioned 13 Venezuelan officials and hinted at more forthcoming sanctions should the election proceed.

In response to the elections, the U.S. Department of Treasury immediately placed sanctions on Maduro, freezing all of his assets and forbidding all Americans from “dealing with” the leader.

With Venezuela’s current -5.7% economic growth, it is evident the country faces an economic calamity. Food and medicine shortages are widespread throughout the country and predicted to only worsen. According to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela’s 2017 inflation rate is expected to increase to 1,660% making it the highest in the world.

In light of Venezuela’s dire economic situation, the United States must tread carefully in reprimanding the Venezuelan government for the sake of both the Venezuelan people and the American economy.

The United States is currently one of Venezuela’s main trading partners and accounts for 50% of its exported petroleum. Oil is Venezuela’s most important commodity and makes up 95% of its export income; therefore, whether the Venezuelan government admits to it or not, the country’s economic survival depends heavily on the United States.

If oil sanctions were to be placed on Venezuela, the country’s economy would plummet into further disaster and the already concerning humanitarian crisis would greatly enhance. Additionally, oil sanctions placed on Venezuela would in turn impact the U.S. economy. Gas prices would expect to rise and the U.S. would have to look elsewhere for buying oil.

In the forthcoming week, tensions in Venezuela are expected to continue to mount. Elected members are set to be sworn-in on Wednesday and many Venezuelans have vowed to continue protesting. Experts believe that a Venezuelan civil war, specifically a ‘bloody civil war’, is a potential outcome.

Venezuela has chosen to isolate itself and now stands at a precipice. To avoid falling off this cliff into greater disaster, the government must take the sanctions placed on the country seriously, the opposition must continue in their fight for democracy, and the United States must stand strong in its sanctions, only relenting if Maduro recants Venezuela’s path towards dictatorship.