W. Kamau Bell visits South Florida, home of the largest number of Venezuelans in the United States, to understand the crisis that led them to seek asylum. Watch “United Shades of America” Sunday at 10 p.m. ET.
Venezuela’s embattled ruler President Nicolas Maduro has made the most of the coronavirus lockdown to stamp his authority over the country’s key political institutions, all in the matter of a week.
On Tuesday, the Venezuelan Supreme Court suspended the leadership of the main opposition party Primero Justicia and ruled that a pro-government lawmaker should be in charge. On Monday, the same happened to the second-largest opposition party, Acción Democrática. Both decisions were based on complaints from expelled party members.
A week earlier, the nation’s highest court appointed the new members of the Electoral Council, a body of five officials tasked with organizing elections. Of the new magistrates, two previously served as judges in the same Supreme Court, and one is a former Socialist lawmaker who’s been under US sanctions since 2017.
The court, which has traditionally supported the president, made the decision even though the Venezuelan constitution states the National Assembly – which is controlled by the opposition – should elect the members of the Electoral Council. The ruling was part of a pattern whereby the top court has refused to recognize the legitimacy of the assembly.
Hailing the rulings on Tuesday, Maduro declared: “We’re going to change everything that must be changed at the National Assembly. With lots of strength and lots of faith, our action will be grandiose.”
The rapid-succession rulings by the Supreme Court suggest the equilibrium is tilting in Venezuela and that Maduro feels confident enough to cement his rule while the opposition has been effectively silenced by coronavirus.
Until at least March 2020, Venezuela lived through a sort of institutional limbo: on one side was Maduro, who has ruled the country since 2013 and who is accused of rigging election after election and transforming his presidency in a dictatorship. On the other side was Juan Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly who the US and tens of other countries recognize as the legitimate interim president as long as Maduro stays in power.
Guaidó had no authority in Caracas, but he had the support of the international community, exemplified by when he was invited as a guest to President Trump’s State of the Union address in February.
Coronavirus changed all of that: Suddenly political and institutional clashes were pushed aside and Maduro asserted himself as the person in charge of combatting the pandemic.
He issued curfews, received medical aid from China, and started appearing on television detailing measures and announcing new cases and deaths almost every day.
With a population in lockdown to prevent virus spread, the opposition could no longer organize street protests or even gather in person at the National Assembly.
“It’s pretty clear that Maduro took advantage of the pandemic,” Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at the think tank Washington Office for Latin America, told CNN. “If at any moment in the past two years he appeared weak or not in charge, he’s making up for it now.”
To date, Venezuela has registered less than 3,500 coronavirus cases and only 28 deaths, although experts doubt the reliability of those figures as the country’s health system is in disarray and has limited capacity to perform Covid-19 tests.
Luisa Ortega Diaz, a former attorney general turned Maduro’s foe, told CNN she could not believe the success story painted by the government. “It sickens me that Maduro claims to be this anti-Covid paladin when he has no interest in the welfare of the people.”
Ortega though admitted Maduro has been able to use the pandemic to strengthen his rule.
Maduro’s great leap forward
Maduro’s latest moves have not passed under-noticed. On Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the new Electoral Council “illegal” and said the sentence “takes Venezuela further away from a democratic transition.”
Similar criticism came from the European Union and the Lima Group, which pulls together several Latin American countries that do not recognize Maduro.
But apart from condemning the latest push by the Venezuelan leader, there seems to be little that the international community can do to bring change to Venezuela for now.
Maduro and some of his closest officials have been under direct US sanctions since 2017, followed by an oil embargo in 2019. He survived several attempts to topple him and almost as many negotiations aimed at brokering a peaceful solution. Despite all this, he’s still standing.
Moreover, Latin America has become the hotspot of the pandemic and most of its governments are more occupied with battling the virus than with finding a solution for the political impasse in Venezuela.
“The pandemic was like the perfect opportunity for Maduro,” said Margarita López Maya, a Venezuelan historian at the Central University in Caracas.
His decision to put the military in charge of the coronavirus response strengthened his social control, she said.  In March, the Venezuelan Army was deployed to impose strict social distancing measures throughout the country, while recently soldiers have been manning gas stations to ration fuel.
“In Venezuela, we have an expression – fleeing forward,” López Maya said. “Evidently, the government felt this was the right time to execute a great leap forward to position themselves ahead of the future.”
What comes next?
The future remains unclear in a country as volatile as Venezuela.
One of the five new members of the Electoral Council, Rafael Simón Jiménez, told CNN that he sees himself as an opponent to Maduro and that the opposition should consider his appointment as an advance toward fair elections.
Jimenez is part of a large grouping of “dissident chavista” opposition figures: politicians who worked with Maduro and his predecessor the late Hugo Chavez before falling out with the ruler. Similar to former AG Ortega Diaz, Jimenez is no ally of Maduro, but neither automatically a member of the opposition led by Guaido.
So far, Guaidó has said he does not recognize the Supreme Court ruling, and that he will not participate in an election organized by the new Electoral Council.
Nevertheless, the opposition parties new leaders appointed by court order this week could decide to compete in the election, further disintegrating the opposition field between groups that recognize Guaido’s leadership and groups that do not.
Ramsey, the analyst, still finds some hope for a peaceful solution in Venezuela.
The international community in particular, he said, still sees a negotiation between Maduro and the opposition as the best possible outcome, and while it condemned the new Electoral Council it seems to be open to the possibility that Maduro himself will participate in the next round of elections.
Maduro’s departure has long been touted as a prerequisite for any meaningful negotiation in Venezuela, but if the opposition would drop that requirement the government could be persuaded to engage in meaningful negotiations to obtain sanctions relief, Ramsey said.
Pompeo’s statement on Monday listed five “key areas” as essential for free and fair elections. None of them addressed Maduro’s role, leaving the door open to eventual participation. “The window is small, fading, but the door is not shut completely,” Ramsey said.
López Maya on the other hand has a more pessimistic outcome in mind. “I don’t see the logic behind the government’s push,” she said. “Even by stealing the election and winning the National Assembly, what do they do? What comes the day after? More conflict and division and the Venezuelans are tired of it.”