“I am no Mussolini,” Venezuela’s beleaguered President Nicolas Maduro insisted on television early this month. But if things go on this way, he could end up like Mussolini. That would be very unfortunate for him and also for Venezuela.
The daily street protests against Maduro’s rule are in their second month, and around 40 people have already been killed, most of them by the police. “Molotov cocktails” (fire-bombs) are old hat; the new fashion is for “poopootovs” — containers of human or animal excrement that are thrown at the security forces. Nobody knows when it will all end, but most people fear it will end badly.
It didn’t begin all that badly. Hugo Chavez, a radical former army officer who led a failed coup attempt in 1992, was elected to the presidency quite legitimately in 1998. Venezuela was the richest country in South America because of its oil wealth, but most of the 31 million Venezuelans were very poor, and Chavez proposed to change that.
He had strong popular support – majorities of around 60 percent in the 2002 and 2006 elections and still 55 percent even in 2012 – and he had lots of money to give to the poor. But he died of cancer in 2013, and his successor, a former bus driver called Nicolas Maduro, got barely 50 percent of the vote in a special election later that year. He has not had a quiet moment since.
The problem is money. Chavez ran up massive deficits to finance his spending on health, education and housing, which really did transform the lives of many of Venezuela’s poor, but the bills only came in after he died. The world price of oil collapsed, Venezuela’s income did too, and everything went sour.
Now Venezuela has the highest inflation in the world — 700 percent this year — and the economy has shrunk by almost one-fifth. There are chronic shortages of food and medicines: three-quarters of Venezuelans say they are eating less than two meals a day, and the child death rate is up by 30 percent. And a lot of people, including former Maduro supporters, are very angry.
To stay in power, Maduro must avoid an election, and the next presidential election is due next year. The opposition had already won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in 2015, so Maduro’s first move, in late March, was to have the Supreme Court (packed with his supporters) simply declare that the National Assembly was “in contempt” of the country’s laws and shut it down.
That was what brought the protesters out on the streets in such numbers that three days later Maduro lost his nerve and the Supreme Court revoked its decree. But the protests, fueled by the growing shortages of practically everything, just kept going, and now the demonstrators were demanding that the next presidential election be brought forward from 2018 to this year.
Maduro is cornered. He could not win a presidential election this year, or in 2018 either. It’s not even certain that the rank-and-file of the security forces can be relied on to defend him forever. So he has played his last card: a new constitution.
The last constitution was written by Chavez himself and adopted in 1999. At the time, he said it was the best in the world and promised it would last for centuries, but on May 1st Maduro said the country needs a new one. He is going to call a “constituent assembly” to write it, although he was vague on how its members would be chosen. Some might be elected, and others would be chosen from “social organisations” (i.e. his cronies).
The Chavez constitution does not give Maduro the authority to do this, but the man is desperate. He needs an excuse to postpone elections he knows he would lose, and this is the best he can come up with. It won’t work, because the opposition understands his game and will not accept it. The country is drifting towards civil war.
“I don’t want a civil war,” Maduro said while announcing his constituent assembly, but he is laying the foundations for one. He might even win it, in the short term, if the army and police stay loyal to him. But in the longer run he really does risk ending up like Mussolini: executed without trial and hanging upside-down in a public square.