Venezuela Enters a ‘Dangerous New Phase’

Geoff Ramsey

The suspension of a planned signature drive for a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela was a massive setback, and escalated tensions in a country already wracked by inflation, food shortages, and political stalemate. In the wake of this announcement, WOLA Senior Fellow David Smilde has been called on by leading media outlets to explain its importance and what the future might hold for Venezuela. 

As Smilde told The New York Times, the unlawful suspension of the recall referendum process puts Venezuela’s political crisis in new territory, and amounts to “a dangerous new phase.” While the government claims that the National Electoral Council (CNE) decision was mandated by several lower jurisdiction courts around the country, the reality is that these courts have absolutely no legal authority over the CNE. Suspending the signature drive was an intentional move by the government, one with alarming implications. In Smilde’s words, the government’s announcement “really changed the game.”

It has become clear that for the administration of President Maduro, the recall referendum process represented a serious liability. As Smilde remarked to the Associated Press: "This is a big deal and reveals that the government was fearful of what could happen in the three-day signature collection period.”

This week, the Vatican announced that it would facilitate talks between the government and the opposition on key issues, but the fractured opposition is divided over the process and its future is uncertain. In Bloomberg, Smilde explains the opposition’s position in blunt terms: “They have something to gain by dialogue, but they also have a lot to lose.[…]The problem is that the opposition doesn’t have enough unity and leadership to have a focused strategy and just bungled along into these things.”

Among opposition leaders, the fear is that the Venezuelan government will use dialogue to deescalate the situation while not adopting reforms, as some analysts say it has done in the past. As Smilde remarked to CBC News, this makes it “hard to take the government’s desire for dialogue at face value,” although he cautions that getting opposing sides to meet face to face is always a positive development.