LA PAZ, Bolivia ― Two centuries ago, Venezuelan leader Simón Bolívar, sword on his hip, got up on his horse, traversed the Andes Mountains and liberated six countries. Today, Venezuelans take to the streets, cellphones in hand, beaming up into the sky via Periscope, Instagram and Facebook their epic struggle for freedom against a narco-criminal dictatorship in the land of “the Liberator.”
Venezuela is a magical country, but it is now mismanaged by a ruthless regime that has turned it into a dark dystopian nightmare. People stand in endless lines, their arms marked like cattle, waiting for their rations of things like cooking oil, flour or toilet paper.
Inflation is higher than in Zimbabwe, violent death rates are similar to those in Syria and scarcity of resources is of catastrophic levels reaching the scale of some sub-Saharan African countries. Blackouts are recurrent, people eat out of garbage bins, malaria is back and dead children are placed in cardboard caskets.
Blackouts are recurrent, people eat out of garbage bins, malaria is back and dead children are placed in cardboard caskets.
Democracy is also in shambles. Opposition leaders have been jailed, exiled or disbarred. Their passports have been annulled. And they are not allowed to board local flights. The regime has muzzled the free press, and it owns most media outlets.
Venezuela is at the crossroads: the beginning of the end of this narco-dictatorship or the beginning of a North Korea in the Caribbean.
How did we get here? In part from the regime’s own struggles to maintain a grip on power even after it lost ground ― and the opposition’s immense effort to continue to hold it to account.
In December 2015, President Nicolás Maduro’s party suffered a landslide defeat in congressional elections. The opposition secured enough seats in Parliament to end over 15 years of legislative control by the regime. As a result, Maduro unleashed a multi-part rolling coup of sorts to offset this major setback.
Looking for a way to restructure the government in his favor and neutralize Congress, Maduro’s outgoing Parliament forced several early resignations in the Supreme Court and packed it with over 30 of his own supporters to gain absolute control of the judiciary. This paved the way for the blocking of legislative prerogatives that the opposition could exercise.
But the opposition didn’t react lightly to Maduro’s actions. Instead, it channeled its energy in 2016 towards demanding a referendum to end the president’s tenure. The dictatorship, attempting to do everything to survive, used its political leverage to cancel the referendum all together.
Facing pressure from the Organization of American States, or OAS, Maduro maneuvered to gain a veneer of legitimacy, at least within the international community, by setting up a “dialogue” with the opposition.
Maduro has unleashed a multi-part rolling coup to offset regime setbacks.
In truth, Maduro’s objective was solely to delay and defer elections, detain more opposition leaders, deflate street protests, divide the opposition and deactivate OAS disapproval. Seeing through this false diplomacy, the Vatican called out the regime’s deceit in December 2016. But it was too late ― the dictatorship had castrated Congress and cancelled elections.
By the start of this year, the regime was facing increasing economic problems, with many in the country struggling to pay for food and medicine. Drowning in debt, the anti-American, capitalism-bashing friend of Wall Street put up half of the Venezuelan-owned Citgo petroleum company ― a major U.S. oil refiner ― as collateral to bondholders and used the other half for a Russian loan. Oil reserves were also given as a guarantee for Chinese loans and Venezuela withdrew its International Monetary Fund reserves.
Despite this and other financial efforts, creditors were jittery and loans required congressional approval. To keep the country from defaulting, Maduro made his next controversial move just two months ago: the Supreme Court shut down Parliament, assumed legislative power over the country and approved a series of loans. This move unleashed the massive street protests that we see on the streets of Venezuela today that have already killed at least 60 people.
Since then, Maduro has continued to assert his power in defiance of the public demonstrations. In May, the dictator announced the creation of a “constituent assembly,” tasked with rewriting the constitution. The assembly would allow Maduro to essentially rule indefinitely without elections.
Initially, Maduro attempted to maintain his tyrannical practices, disregard precedent and avoid a referendum on the new constitution. But continued dissent from leftist former Chavez supporters, known as Chavistas, has now made him change his mind.
If there were any remnants of democracy left in the nation, this ploy demolishes its last chance at survival ― popular, direct, secret, universal balloting. The regime in its final throes is attempting to cancel all future elections, close Congress, remove opposition governors or mayors and approve all the odious loans that steal the future of Venezuela.
Venezuelans have made a moral choice: they will die marching on their feet and never kneel to the dictator.
In surreal scenes, Maduro first proposed this fraudulent scheme dressed in traditional Venezuelan clothing, dancing on national television. Days later, he went to a livestock fair and invited cows to be part of his constituent assembly, as if voters were just cattle to be duped and herded. As protests go on, it has become clear that he cannot stop himself from taking advantage of the Venezuelan people, and unfortunately neither can Goldman Sachs, which just this week bought $2.8 billion worth of Venezuelan bonds at around 30 cents on the dollar ― essentially injecting 865 million dollars into Maduro’s pockets.
These are truly the hunger bonds that economist Ricardo Hausmann describes that are funding a dictatorship in last hurrah for power, desperate to steal whatever it can. It is contradictory that the United States government implicitly condones Venezuelan government officials’ corruption, freezes their U.S. bank accounts, seizes their assets, yet keeps this Wall Street spigot open for future corruption to prop up a cruel dictatorship. If Maduro stays in power, he will never be able to repay these hunger bonds.
For now, he has asked the Venezuelan people to choose: his governmental policies, continued violence and repressive dictatorship or more killings, jail and persecution.
He is right about one thing. The time for choosing has arrived. Liberty or tyranny. Democracy or narco-dictatorship. General elections now or a new Cuba forever. We no longer have the option to wait.
The military in Venezuela and our Americas must also make a decision.
The OAS general assembly convenes in Mexico this month. Our hemisphere must position itself clearly. The world must put regime crooks on notice. The crimes they are committing have no statute of limitations, and they will be held personally accountable.
The people in the streets of Venezuela have chosen the path of no return, because they no longer fear the dictator, and they march, swallow tear gas, wave their flags and sing the Spanish version of “Les Misérables” at the barricades. Courageous young people face guns with violins, march in front of snipers, sacrifice their lives, bury their dead, scream that the dictatorship is no more and clamor for freedom.
Venezuelans have made a moral choice: they will die marching on their feet and never kneel to the dictator in the true spirit of Simón Bolívar. Now it is time for the world to make a choice, too.