Last week, over seven million Venezuelans both at home and abroad voted against president Nicolas Maduro’s proposed Constituent Assembly, which would have empowered his administration to rewrite the country’s constitution.
But the logic of Venezuela’s republican institutions broke down long ago. This informal, unsanctioned referendum had no constitutional basis, and the government paid it little mind, promising to push ahead with the controversial plan despite overwhelming popular discontent.
Now opposition leaders have called for a 48-hour strike to keep the pressure on.
Both the July 16 vote and the general strike are an attempt to make rules for the grassroots exercise of democracy – a sign that Venezuelans have not yet forgotten this system of governance, despite mounting incivility that has left more than a hundred dead in just over three months of daily protests.
The perverseness of life here is no longer limited to the everyday turmoil of scarce resources, medicine shortages or spiralling crime. In Venezuela, the social contract has officially been shredded.
Venezuelans have drifted from a nightmare into an unreal world, as though living in the magical realism of Jorge Luis Borges, where anything is possible and everything can be invented.
Chronology of the absurd
In these profoundly liquid times, even political clashes in Venezuela have gone postmodern, creating something close to anarchy on the streets.
Each day, acting spontaneously and with no clear leadership, fighting factions in cities across Venezuela may (or may not) block streets of their own volition, penetrate university campuses and crush their opponents, trampling the basic standards of social coexistence.
Masked young demonstrators clash anonymously with state forces and destroy urban infrastructure, from street lights and sewers to the public transit.
The state, in turn, overreacts, relying on disproportionate use of police force and judicial overreach to try to stem dissidence. Human Rights Watch estimates there are now some 400 political prisoners in Venezuela.
Little is certain in Venezuela but this: the country is now living a low-grade war.
What else can you call a country in which barricades are raised every day in major cities, military troops are posted on the streets and where citizens routinely swallow tear gas?
All parties bear responsibility for this conflict. The protests are not peaceful as the opposition claims nor as violent as the government says. Tensions have so escalated in recent weeks that no one really knows what triggered certain events nor what direction they’ll take next.
On June 27, which is National Journalists’ Day in Venezuela, unruly groups surrounded the National Assembly building, trapping members of Congress and the press for hours and bombarding them with insults and threats.
This was certainly not a minor event, but it turned out to be a mere dress rehearsal. Just over a week later, on July 5, the National Assembly was stormed during a ceremony commemorating the signing of Venezuela’s declaration of independence in 1812.
On this eminent civic date, a shouting horde burst into the chamber, threatening, landing blows, and bloodying up some members of the opposition party. Journalists, congressional staffers and several diplomats were held hostage for hours.
This fearsome event represented, in graphic detail, the kidnapping of Venezuela’s republican spirit.
Civilisation versus barbarism
Those familiar with Latin American literature will recall the region’s obsession, back in postcolonial days, with the topic of civilisation versus barbarism.
Today, these same forces have resurfaced in Venezuela. Subject to the anarchical forces of barbarism, citizens swing between resentment, hate and incomprehension, with little concern for the consequences of their actions.
Venezuela has lost the trappings of modernity.
Nobody is free from blame. Citizens erroneously placed their bets on populism, and now the country has fallen prey to apathy, awaiting its next great leader.
Meanwhile, the Maduro government is embroiled in corruption and inefficiency, more interested in its own survival than in leading a spineless and weak-willed nation to salvation.
And the opposition, too, has failed: it has not developed any feasible alternatives for the future.
All told, the entire country has developed what seems to be a structural inability to engage in dialogue or negotiate solutions to the deep-rooted differences now ripping Venezuela to shreds.
What will become of this country?
Shunning the hard work of dialogue and debate, many Venezuelans are hoping for a Disney-style quick fix. But the real world does not work like a fairytale; the good guys don’t always win in the end.
Instead, the opposition has worked up poorly thought-out possibilities, creating weak, one-off instances of parallel governance that have nothing to do with Venezuela’s institutional reality and no chance at institutionalisation.
The July 6 grassroots poll was one such event. In addition to asking Venezuelans about the government’s plan to make substantial (but largely undefined) changes to the country’s social and political organisation, there was another question in the non-binding referendum.
Results of the July 16 plebiscite. Over 7 million Venezuelans oppose the government’s plan.
This openly seditious second query suggested that the armed forces might repudiate and perhaps even remove President Maduro from office. It’s important to note that the Venezuelan people declared themselves openly in favour of this risky possibility.
Neither loud dissent nor nationwide conflicts can stop the Maduro government, which is intent on holding its power-grabbing Constituent Assembly. If the measure goes forward, the 545 members of the National Assembly could be elected as soon as this Sunday, and granted the power to redefine the provisions underpinning Venezuela’s republican structure.
Between these two approaches – the opposition’s weak mutinies and the government’s growing authoritarianism – there is a single country. But Venezuelans have demonstrated a sweeping inability to acknowledge each other’s existence in order to reach even the most basic agreement that could drive progress.
If the people can’t build a common and inclusionary strategy for the future, in Venezuela, there may be no “happily ever after”.