Venezuelans are stockpiling scarce food and water as tensions mount ahead of a widely criticized last Sunday vote that President Nicolas Maduro has called to elect an assembly of supporters to rewrite the constitution and strengthen his grip on power.
Maduro—who’s presided over an increasingly autocratic regime that has imperiled the country’s six-decade democracy and left the economy and society in shambles—is showing few signs of backing down despite growing pressure.
He’s broadcast a deluge of propaganda supporting the assembly even as outraged opposition leaders called a general strike on Wednesday to forestall it. And opposition is international: The Trump administration sanctioned 13 senior Venezuela officials on Wednesday, including the interior minister and the national oil company’s vice president for finance.
The head of the Organization of American States has called for elections and Spain’s former prime minister is trying to broker a deal.
The Venezuelan president has been vague about goals for the so-called constituyente, although he’s said the body will convene on August 3 and sit atop all other branches of government.
It, alone, will determine how long it should stay in power. While some analysts speculated that Maduro called the convention as a negotiating tactic to quell opposition protests and violence that has claimed more than 100 lives, others say Maduro will use the body to delay indefinitely elections he can’t win.
On Wednesday evening, Maduro said in a national address that he rejected the “illegal” US sanctions and that the constituyente would be the country’s “revenge.” He reiterated that the vote would proceed as planned.
“People tend to consistently underestimate Maduro,” said Raul Gallegos, an analyst at consultancy Control Risks. “What we’re seeing is now is a government showing its true colors.”
“This is a government that has absolutely no incentive or intention to let power go,” he said.
In calling for a constituent assembly, Maduro is taking a page from his mentor and predecessor, the late socialist firebrand Hugo Chavez. But unlike Chavez’s assembly in 1999, which rewrote the Constitution to the delight of millions of his supporters, Maduro’s initiative seemingly has little popular support.
Shutting down Caracas
The opposition coalition says its 48-hour strike is a last-ditch effort to persuade Maduro to cancel the vote.
On Wednesday, while some main roads were barricaded on the east side of Caracas, motorcycles and bikes cruised through side streets, hopping curbs and ducking under ropes and chains.
Some small shops and supermarkets remained open, but the sound of birds chirping replaced the routine din of traffic.
“This is just the start,” Janeth Santana, a 36-year-old educator manning a roadblock on Wednesday morning. “If they impose the constituent assembly, the real fight begins.”
The opposition is urging supporters to take to the streets of Caracas on Friday and have promised further actions for the weekend.
“The constituent assembly would be the coronation of the coup,” said Juan Guaido, an opposition lawmaker. “It would mark the formal start of a dictatorship.”
At the barricade, Santana said violent clashes could break out on Sunday.
“Sometimes you have no other choice,” she said. “Many have already lost everything. It’s a fight for our future.”
On Sunday voters will select 545 delegates, with 173 chosen from sectors including students, pensioners and workers. The 364 to be picked by region will be heavily skewed to rural areas more friendly to the socialist party; each municipality will be awarded a single delegate, regardless of population.
“Rural Tachira state, with 826,000 registered voters, will have 31 constituents, while prosperous and educated Zulia, with three times that amount of voters, will have just 23,” Russ Dallen, managing partner at Caracas Capital, said in a report in June. “With only 20-percent support in the country, the Maduro regime was forced to come up with a way to turn that minority into a majority.”
With the opposition boycotting the vote, the names voters will see on the ballot are all presumed Maduro supporters. On top of that, most are ciphers.
“Only 25 of them are known politicians,” Oswaldo Ramirez, an analyst at Caracas-based consulting firm ORC Consultores, said in an interview.
The plan has drawn international concern. The Trump administration’s round of sanctions on Wednesday was its third. Those punished include: Interior Minister Nestor Reverol Torres; Simon Zerpa Delgado, who is vice president of finance for the national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA; the general commander of the army, Jesus Suarez Chourio; Sergio Rivero Marcano, commander general of the national guard, and Elias Jose Jaua and Iris Maria Varela, members of the Commission for the Constituent Assembly. The sanctions also affect current and former directors of the national police, Carlos Perez Ampueda and Franklin Garcia Duque.
Less punitive efforts to stop the crisis are also under way. This week, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the former Spanish prime minister who has pushed for peaceful solution, held talks with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez in Caracas. Luis Almagro, the secretary of general of the Organization of American State, on July 21 tweeted that “Only fair and free elections without political prisoners or banned politicians are the real way out of the current crisis”
But the people are preparing for what may be a social cataclysm. Some supermarket shelves are already empty, with long lines for staples and supplies like batteries, water, radios and food.
Armed forces have been deployed to voting centers, many in schools. At one in southeast Caracas, 10 soldiers patrolled with rifles this week. The government has contingency plans for alternate voting places if the opposition occupies them.
Pushing the Message
State television and radio networks for the past week have been dominated by five-minute programs called “cadenas,” featuring candidates for the constituyente making their pitches. The networks break into news programs and telenovelas to air them.
The government has also directed propaganda toward the 3 million-odd employees at ministries and other public institutions, hoping to leverage not only their votes but those of their families. The president of state oil company PDVSA and the oil minister have been touring the company’s facilities to promote the assembly to workers.
The constituyente will buy the government time, said Gallegos of Control Risks. Venezuela’s government is skilled at taking advantage of a geopolitical climate where both the opposition and liberal democracies abroad are unable to counter a regime that doesn’t play by accepted rules, he said.
“They think in very strategic terms, but always focused on how to stay in power,” Gallegos said. “If people didn’t get it before, I think this is clear, and I think the government benefits from a number of people still guessing, wondering. Is this really what they are? Are they really a dictatorship? It’s like, hello! Look at everything they’re doing.”