Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela, speaks during an event in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday, May 4, 2017. The South American nation has been riven by protests for weeks, and Maduro has called for a popular assembly to write a new constitution, a fresh attempt to consolidate control. Protests over the past month have resulted in at least 30 deaths, and opposition politicians have vowed to continue street actions. Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg Image Credit: Bloomberg

An economy in shambles, lethal street crime, dungeons packed with political prisoners, and South America’s worst refugee crisis — it’s hard to find a misery that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government hasn’t visited on his compatriots in his four years in office. But by calling for a new constitution, (Venezuela has had 26), as he did this week, Latin America’s ranking strongman may well have trumped his own dismal record.

On May 1, with the streets of Caracas and other major cities teeming with antigovernment protests, Maduro announced a plan to convoke a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. As anticlimactic as that sounds, this was an autocratic milestone even for the country that has turned political and economic fiat into a science. In a single flourish, the Venezuelan leader proposed not just to bend the rules, as he has done repeatedly since coming to power in 2013, but also to junk the latest constitution — which his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, fashioned into a tyrant’s toolbox — and cherry-pick a Bolivarian dream team to deliver what will presumably be an even more authoritarian one.

If the proposal stands, as virtually all of Maduro’s decrees have stood to now, the new law in turn would bury the cherished trope among contemporary Latin American strongmen that their word, no matter how arbitrary, is still anchored in democratic process.

“Maduro’s proposal was not just flagrantly unconstitutional. It was the most radical move in more than 17 years of Chavismo,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, chief political risk analyst at IHS Markit, a London-based business consultancy.

Brazilian foreign minister Aloysio Nunes went further, labelling Maduro’s proposal a “coup” and a breach of democratic civility. “Maduro chose to radicalise,” Nunes told me in an interview. “This proposal is incompatible with the democratic process, slams the door on dialogue, and is a slap in the face to the Pope’s appeal for a negotiated solution.”

What’s equally clear is that the Venezuelan leader’s power play was a gesture of desperation camouflaged as show of muscle. Ever since Chavez built the so-called Bolivarian revolution for 21st-century socialism, Venezuela has been split roughly in two, with the neglected urban and rural poor banking on redemption under ‘Chavismo’, and the middle class and intellectuals bracing for outright authoritarianism. After four years of self-immolation, however, the Maduro government has squandered even that reliable pro-government capital.

Venezuela has the hemisphere’s highest inflation and South America’s worst homicide rate. Misguided price controls and state intervention have emptied store shelves, empowered black-market vendors, and turned the search for scarce food and medicine into a daily torment. Now even hidebound Chavistas have turned coat, as prosecutor-general Luisa Ortega Diaz did in March, when she decried the stacked Supreme Court’s move to usurp the power of the legislature. These apostates helped deliver control of the National Assembly to the country’s opposition in the December 2015 elections.

A survey in March showed that eight out of every 10 Venezuelans disapproved of Maduro’s government, while 63 per cent of those polled in December said they wanted him gone. Even urban slum dwellers, long a reliable Bolivarian demographic, have since joined the street rebellions.

Maduro, predictably, has answered his critics with political whack-a-mole, clubbing every opposition advance with court orders, riot police or the colectivos, as the roving armed bands of pro-government citizens’ militias are known. With opponents of the regime leading the polls, the government-pliant national electoral board thwarted an opposition-driven presidential recall referendum and summarily suspended last December’s election for governors and mayors, while the comptroller-general banned headline opposition leader Henrique Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate, from elected office.

Such blunt force has stirred unprecedented international reaction, drawing comment from Pope Francis, a threat of sanctions from the Trump administration, and warning from Venezuela’s normally indulgent neighbours. Nineteen of the 35 member nations of the Organisation of American States voted to discuss Venezuela’s political crisis, and 14 of them signed a statement calling for the Maduro government to safeguard democratic rights.

Maduro’s response? Vexit: a formal announcement of intent to withdraw from the hemispheric diplomatic body.

As Maduro cages himself in, it’s hard to see the way forward. As enfeebled as his government appears, he is not alone. Analysts argue he would not have dug in without cover from the Venezuelan military, whose high command the government has drawn closer by delegating key sectors of the national economy. In that sense, Venezuela is moving ever closer to the Cuban model of a supreme ruling party backed by military command.

“Political scientists are trained to look for the cracks among the elite, but so far they aren’t showing,” Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College told me. “As long as Maduro avoids competitive elections, this group can sustain him in power.”

That pact is not bulletproof, and the continuing wave of mass street demonstrations will test the convictions of Maduro’s guarantors, especially if violent clashes and casualties continue to mount. One way beyond the current impasse might be for opposition leaders to assure that the eventual fall of the ruling coalition does not mean its political death. “We know from other nations that you cannot have democracy if those who lose office lose everything,” Corrales said.

Of course, magnanimity is rarer than toilet paper in the Venezuelan street these days and it alone may not persuade a repressive regime to stand down. “Latin America has a good deal of experience in how to make the transition from dictatorship to democracy, but that takes dialogue and mutual recognition among political opponents,” Brazilian foreign minister Nunes told me. “Instead, Maduro has chosen revolution.”

— Washington Post

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of ‘The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier’.