Is Venezuela Really a Dictatorship?

International media's indictments of Venezuela as a dictatorship ignore basic facts, says Ryan Mallet-Outtrim. 


After a year of political turmoil, Venezuela turned a corner last week, at least according to an eye-catching op-ed in The Washington Post. Titled, “It’s official: Venezuela is a full-blown dictatorship”, the piece claimed the country has become an “all-out, no-more-elections dictatorship”.

The author, Francisco Toro, cited a recent controversial decision by Venezuela’s electoral authority, the CNE, to suspend a long awaited recall referendum on President Nicolas Maduro.

“The tense buildup suddenly ended Thursday as five separate (and supposedly independent, but c’mon now) lower courts approved injunctions to suspend the recall, closing down Venezuela’s last best hope for a peaceful solution to its long-running political crisis,” Toro explained.

But does the suspension of the referendum actually mean Venezuela is unlikely to have any future elections, and Maduro is now an unapologetic, iron fisted dictator?

The short answer is no.

Many international readers likely haven’t even heard of a recall referendum. Indeed, Venezuela is one of just a very small number of countries that even have such a mechanism. The idea is fairly simple: from the midpoint of any politician’s term, the electorate can petition to recall their representative. There’s a few steps though: first, anyone unhappy with their representative needs to collect the signatures of 1 percent of the electorate. If that petition is accepted by the CNE, then a second petition needs to be collected – this time, of 20 percent of voters. After this, a full on referendum is supposed to be held. The incumbent loses the referendum if more voters cast ballots against the politician than who originally supported them.

So why has this year’s referendum been suspended?

The lower court decisions mentioned by Toro were the results of allegations of widespread irregularities in the opposition’s initial petitions for a recall. It’s worth pointing out that we’re not talking about minor issues here: according to the CNE, around 30 percent of signatures were dubious for some reason or another. Some belonged to children or appeared to be simply bogus, while as many as 10,995 deceased Venezuelans somehow managed to put their names on the opposition’s petition.

This is the reason why courts in some states have ruled the entire referendum process should be frozen. The CNE only agreed to do this nationwide after the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decisions.

So far, nothing here seems particularly unusual. The only other presidential recall ever attempted in Venezuela took place in 2004, but only after three failed petitions. So, nobody should have been particularly surprised by last week’s events. Moreover, the CNE itself has been stating for weeks that a recall will be logistically impossible this year anyway. The only people claiming otherwise have been leaders of the main opposition coalition, the MUD. So on paper, last week’s suspension of the vote made a lot of sense.

However, there’s a little more to the story. The first point worth making is that the timing of any referendum is crucial for the opposition. If Maduro loses a recall before January 10, 2017, snap presidential elections will be held – elections Maduro would probably lose. However, elections after January 10 will simply result in Maduro being replaced by his vice president for the remainder of the term (till 2019). Yet the recall isn’t just important for the opposition in terms of ousting Maduro: it’s also crucial for morale. The MUD is notoriously disorganised, and perpetually mired in internal disputes and power struggles. This has contributed to the MUD’s failure to achieve any political success this year, despite holding a clear majority in the National Assembly (AN). The recall referendum has been one of the few objectives that has united, at least rhetorically, the MUD, making its suspension a huge loss for the coalition’s unity and morale. For example, the day after the suspension was announced, MUD leaders were already showing signs of disunity. Far right figures like Maria Machado were again calling for civil disobedience (read: disorganised violence and looting in the vein of 2014), while others were suggesting pursuing impeachment. Both of these options are pretty much doomed to failure; the violence of 2014 left over 40 people dead (mostly government supporters, police, soldiers and innocent bystanders) and the MUD discredited, while impeachment is almost impossible with the Supreme Court stacked with Maduro allies. Put simply, without a referendum in 2016, the MUD is a boat without a rudder, sail or compass.

Moreover, many opposition supporters see the CNE’s decision to suspend the elections as part of a conspiracy by the Maduro administration to obstruct the MUD’s efforts at legislative reform. There’s certainly a point to be made here, with neither side of Venezuela’s political divide showing any interest in course-correcting over the last nine months. The seemingly endless political tug-o-war between the presidency and AN isn’t good for anybody, and has meant serious issues have gone unresolved by the divided government throughout the year. Indeed, there can be no doubt Venezuela is facing what Greg Wilpert has described as a double political-economic confrontation. However, a vexing political standoff isn’t the same thing as a “full-blown dictatorship”.

Toro himself put it best when he wrote, “It’s easy to overdramatise these things”.

Indeed it is.