Venezuela’s ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis has assumed graver proportions over the past five weeks and pressure is mounting for a regime change, even as doubts persist over the likelihood of the next presidential elections, originally set for October 2018. Fresh protests broke out after President Nicolas Maduro earlier this month signed an order aimed at forming a new constituent assembly of some 500 members and rewriting the country’s constitution to reshape his powers and those of legislators.
Many Venezuelans clearly saw Maduro’s ruling as a way to snatch powers from the opposition-led National Assembly and consolidate it in a constituent assembly over which he might have a better hold. “[Maduro] tried to do this as a way to unite the country, but it was seen as an attempt to retain power and sparked the latest round of protests,” said William Burke-White, director of the Perry World House and professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Venezuela’s crisis has probably hit a tipping point and Maduro’s days in power are numbered, said Burke-White. “The path forward is Maduro will be pushed out of power, or there will be a repressive, horrible crackdown where the death tolls keep mounting,” he noted. “It may be better to be moving in that direction [towards Maduro’s ouster] than be in an ongoing political quagmire that we have been in for the last few years.”
According to Dorothy Kronick, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, “The best way forward for Venezuela would be elections and having a new government in power.” She noted that 2017 is the fourth consecutive year of negative GDP growth for Venezuela; last year, its economy contracted by more than 17%. “There are devastating shortages of food and medicine, and inflation is above 300%. And there is tremendous suffering.”
Burke-White and Kronick discussed the scenarios likely to emerge in Venezuela in the foreseeable future on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
Move to Consolidate Power
The recent crisis had its first flash point on March 29, when the country’s Supreme Court passed a ruling to assume the functions of the National Assembly, but strong protests forced it to subsequently backtrack. Meanwhile, protestors continued calling for elections and a regime change. Maduro, who was elected in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez, signed the executive order to form a new constituent assembly and rewrite the constitution on May 1. “We must modify this state, especially the rotten National Assembly that’s currently there,” he had said.
Opposition leaders are pressing for a removal of the Supreme Court justices who issued the March 29 ruling, general elections in 2017, the creation of a humanitarian channel for medicine imports and the release of all political prisoners, according to a BBC report.
“The oil industry is no longer able to provide the economic support that Maduro needs to consolidate, or buy off, power.”–William Burke-White
Burke-White did not expect elections to happen anytime soon. He noted that Maduro had indicated that fresh elections would be held as part of the new constitution. “His [United] Socialist Party [of Venezuela] would lose those elections if they were held today,” he said. “Much of this is a move to push those elections out indefinitely.”
Maduro’s plan for the new constituent assembly is to have about half of its 500 members elected directly from among all sections of Venezuelan society, including workers, youth, women, peasants and indigenous people, according to a CNN report. The other half would be made up of delegates chosen from among businesses and workers’ collectives. Kronick noted that the provisions in the rewritten constitution would “undoubtedly … favor the government.” She also predicted that the Maduro government would try to ensure that the convention “is full of delegates that are its supporters.”