The United States has ordered the families of diplomats to leave the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, amid mass protests against a controversial vote this weekend. This indicates that the State Department expects the situation to deteriorate further, which is alarming considering that the country’s ongoing political crisis has already led to more than 100 deaths—mainly protesters shot by police or armed civilian gangs known as “colectivos.” The country’s economic crisis is so acute that there’s widespread child malnutrition, and experts are worried about famine in the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves. And the level of political chaos is such that a renegade ex-cop and part-time action movie star bombed the Supreme Court with grenades in June—and, perhaps more remarkably, it hardly seemed out of character.
But things can get worse, and this weekend’s events will be a major indication of whether they do. Opposition protests are going ahead on Friday afternoon despite a ban. On Sunday, the government is planning to hold a vote to select a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. President Nicolás Maduro has been feuding since 2015 with the opposition-controlled National Assembly—the country’s unicameral legislature—which has been attempting to remove him from power. Maduro, who took power in 2013 as the handpicked successor of the late Hugo Chávez, has become increasingly unpopular as the country’s economy has deteriorated, the result of both economic mismanagement and low oil prices. In better days, it was easy for Maduro, and Chávez before him, to dismiss protests against their increasing authoritarianism as the handiwork of Western-backed elites upset about socialist policies. That’s getting harder as the opposition has grown. On July 16, more than 7 million Venezuelans turned out for a referendum organized by the opposition, denouncing Maduro’s plan to hold a constituent assembly.
The government has made some concessions, including releasing opposition leader Leopoldo López from prison to house arrest, but it’s still pressing forward with the plan for Sunday’s vote. About two-fifths of the constituent assembly will be selected by “sectors,” such as trade unions and communal councils, that are largely loyal to the government. The rest will be elected by municipality, but the opposition says the system is gerrymandered to overrepresent rural areas where support for Maduro is strongest. The coalition of opposition parties, known as the MUD, is boycotting the vote.
If the vote takes place, things could get ugly very quickly. The International Crisis Group notes that “Fringe elements in the opposition (collectively referred to as La Resistencia), frustrated with the MUD’s non-violent approach, talk in private of armed resistance. With millions of illegal weapons in private hands, arming urban guerrillas might not be difficult.”
Then there’s the role of the country’s military and security services. While the helicopter attack appears to have been the work of a small group of somewhat delusional right-wing extremists, there’s also reportedly widespread discontent among officers, which could get worse if the army were called in to restore order in the face of even larger mass protests.
Venezuela has a history of military coups. Chávez himself attempted to lead one as a military officer in 1992. After he was elected president, he himself survived a 2002 coup attempt, organized with at least the awareness of the CIA and the tacit support of the first Bush administration.
Maduro has denounced the current protests against him as part of an international right-wing conspiracy led by the Trump administration—a pretty standard dodge at this point. The Trump administration did recently imposed financial sanctions on 13 current and former Venezuelan officials and has threatened more measures if the government follows through on the constituent assembly plan. Announcing the sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that the “United States will not ignore the Maduro regime’s ongoing efforts to undermine democracy, freedom and the rule of law.” If you’re keeping track at home, the administration is very worried about threats to democracy from left-wing Latin Americans. Middle Eastern strongmen and right-wing eastern Europeans get a pass. Unfortunately, due to the administration’s unpopularity as well as the history of U.S. interventions in the region, U.S. support might hinder rather than enhance the appeal of opposition to Maduro’s power grab.
While governance in the region is far from perfect, Latin America has mostly left behind the 20th-century era of dictatorship, coups, and civil conflict. With the exception of Cuba, every government in the region was democratically elected, and with the resolution of Colombia’s five-decade war with the FARC, there are no ongoing armed conflicts. (Drug violence and crime is another story.)
That’s not to say there aren’t warning signs. Brazil’s current president, Michel Temer, took power after the highly controversial impeachment of his predecessor, denounced by opponents as a coup, and both he and his main rival are facing criminal charges for corruption, amid growing political chaos. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega amended the constitution and sidelined rivals ahead of a controversial election to a third term last year.
All this is to say that this weekend’s events in Venezuela could very well have stakes beyond Venezuela itself.