Early Tuesday morning, prominent Venezuelan opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma were forcibly removed from their homes by the notorious Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia (Sebin). López and Ledezma had been placed under house arrest on charges related to their vocal opposition of President Nicolás Maduro’s government.
In response to the outrage surrounding the detainment of both leaders, the Venezuelan Supreme Court of Justice stated that López and Ledesma had been planning to escape, and therefore had to be returned to prison. Despite being unable to prove the accusations, the pro-Maduro Supreme Court upheld the decision.
What is happening in Venezuela?
The detainment of López and Ledezma comes a mere 24 hours after Maduro’s highly controversial Constituent Assembly election. Sunday’s vote created a 545 member assembly charged with rewriting Venezuela’s Constitution. The election was largely boycotted by those who saw it as a way for Maduro to strengthen his authoritarian grip on the country by creating a body that would give him greater decision-making power.
Once formed, the Constituent Assembly will decide the fate of state institutions, including the opposition-controlled national legislature. The Assembly will have the power to effectively wipe out Maduro’s political opposition, giving the government total control over the country.
Using the Assembly to silence the opposition
Leading up to the election, Maduro and his allies spoke extensively on how they would use the Assembly’s sweeping powers to silence and punish those critical of the government by removing legislators’ constitutional immunity and arresting key opposition leaders.
Neighbouring countries and former allies of Venezuela – including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Spain – rejected the legitimacy of Maduro’s election as well as the resulting ‘victory’. Venezuelan opposition leaders, including López and Ledezma, denounced the election as undemocratic and called on supporters to boycott Sunday’s vote.
An election Venezuelans didn’t ask for
One of the most problematic elements of the Constituent Assembly election was the fact that Venezuelans were never given the option of rejecting a rewrite of the Constitution. The opposition held a symbolic vote asking citizens if they wanted the 1999 Constitution to be rewritten at all. The response was a resounding ‘no’, with 98 percent of votes cast in support of upholding the current Constitution. Opinion polls leading up to the election reflected a similar sentiment, with a significant majority of Venezuelans seeing no need for a constitutional rewrite.
How is this election important?
The Constituent election represents the Maduro government’s latest attack on democracy and democratic values.
In March 2016, the Supreme Court (widely considered an arm of Maduro’s government by the opposition) issued a sentence allowing this body to operate on behalf of the opposition-held legislature. This gave the Supreme Court, an unelected body, power to overturn decisions made in the national legislature, and make decisions in place of the legislative body. Henrique Capriles, who ran against Maduro in the 2013 presidential elections, called the move an outright coup d’état.
The decision sparked a violent wave of protests that has claimed many lives, and continues to rage on. Since April 2017 alone, an estimated 113 people have been killed, and over 2,000 wounded in anti-government protests. Sunday’s election marked the bloodiest day in the past three months. 14 people were killed during protests (according to opposition sources), Constituent Assembly candidate José Félix Pineda was fatally shot in his home early Sunday morning, and at least seven police officers died in an explosion in a Caracas neighbourhood.
Why we need to keep watching and talking about Venezuela
With the newly-formed Constituent Assembly, Maduro’s government not only continues to undermine democracy in Venezuela, but further divides a country that has been crushed by economic crisis, shortages of food, medicine, and basic supplies, as well as dangerous hyperinflation.
A number of regional and international powers have refused to recognise Maduro’s Venezuela as a democratic state. On the one hand, this puts immense pressure on Maduro and weakens Venezuela on the world stage. This will prove to be a huge problem for the Venezuelan government as they spend the coming months desperately trying to confront the crippling shortages in the country. With this type of international pressure, it will be next to impossible for Venezuela to obtain international bank loans and cultivate diplomatic ties to procure resources.
On the other hand, the pressure exerted over the Maduro’s government falls hardest on the people of Venezuela. With continued international isolation, Venezuelans will continue to suffer. Inflation is expected to reach a staggering 720 percent in 2017. Food prices have skyrocketed. The percentage of households in poverty has shot up to 82 percent*, and is on the rise.
The international community is right to criticise the absence of democratic values in Maduro’s government. At the same time, it’s important to remember that there is a real human cost to economic sanctions and international isolation.
*In 2016. Data collected by the Central University of Venezuela, the Andrés Bello Catholic University and Simón Bolívar University. The government of Venezuela hasn’t released data on poverty in the country since 2015. See the full survey here.