It’s been a dispiriting few days for Venezuela’s democrats. The opposition’s chances of sufficiently proving the illegitimacy of the election are diminishing by the day as the government pulls a successful bait and switch. More ominously, the shallow veneer that remained of a functioning institutional democracy is quickly disappearing. Opposition representatives in the Asamblea Nacional (AN) have already been stripped of their right to speak on the floor for not recognizing Nicolás Maduro’s victory by Diosdado Cabello, and yesterday, several prominent members were apparently physically assaulted by chavista representatives, allegedly while Cabello watched laughing.
If that is what really happened (and I believe it probably did), it represents the effective dissolution of the AN, which was the last branch of government not completely controlled by chavistas. With both opposition and government rallies planned for today, it’s increasingly likely that the Maduro take on chavismo will be more violent and openly authoritarian than the original version.
That said, I don’t believe this is a tenable situation for the Maduro government, despite having the support half the country and the full machinery of the state on its side. Most importantly because Venezuela’s political realm, for all its faults, has been roughly democratic for the last 54 years. Punto Fijo may have been corrupt and elite-centric, but opposition was still possible (just look at Hugo Chávez). Similarly, for all of his authoritarian leanings, Chávez still permitted a real opposition to exist against him. Whatever steps he took to debilitate the opposition, it was still there and still had a voice, albeit a small one. After so many years of more or less freedom of expression, I don’t believe the broad polity will accept a traditional authoritarian government for long. Moreover, I am extremely dubious that the military has the stomach for any major violent repression.
Beyond that, Maduro has to contend with Venezuela’s crumbling economy. Increased production in the US and elsewhere, coupled with slowing growth in China, weak growth in the US and Japan and a severe recession in Europe is pushing down the price of oil. Considering the damage already inflicted on the economy by 14 years of chavismo, the Venezuelan economy is fragile and unlikely to be able to weather a sustained period of slightly lower oil prices (an economist friend thinks as high as $70/bbs, I think perhaps even higher). Few governments successfully weather major economic downturns, and a weak, incompetent one like Maduro’s is especially unlikely to do so, especially because the entire political economy of chavismo has left him virtually no room to maneuver.
When I wrote before the election about why it could be better for the opposition if Maduro won, I did not expect such a rapid shift toward blatant dictatorship. While disturbing, it may prove his undoing, particularly if the Venezuelan economy slides into recession. Sadly, this still means things probably will have to get worse there before they get better.