Maduro is desperate and erratic
Buenos Aires Herald, July 14, 2017
The decision by the Venezuelan Supreme Court to grant house arrest, instead of jail time, to opposition leader Leopoldo López is welcome news for those concerned with the state of human rights in Venezuela. But the court’s decision does not represent a policy shift by the government of Nicolás Maduro. The Venezuelan president’s undemocratic practices — which include exerting control over the Supreme Court — have not changed. The government in Caracas continues to crack down on opposition leaders, several of whom remain political prisoners. The decision to release López reflects the government’s desperation to pacify a very active opposition that has taken to the streets and threatens to topple the inept government.
López is one of the best-known opposition leaders in Venezuela. The 46-year economist, who was educated in the US and holds a graduate degree in public policy from Harvard University, belongs to a traditional influential Venezuelan family. He is a descendant of Simón Bolívar, the independence leader beloved by most of South America. López’s grandfather was a minister and several other family members occupied elected and non-elected offices in government before Hugo Chávez was democratically elected in 1999 and launched a process of reforms against the elite, which López comes from. He became involved in politics, winning office in 2000, right after Chávez came to power. Elected as the mayor of the wealthy district of Chacao (2000-2008) in the capital city, Caracas, López emerged as one of the most effective and outspoken opponents of the Chávez regime. When the Bolivarian president was temporarily toppled in 2002, López joined those who supported the unconstitutional two-day government that replaced Chávez. Though the opposition leader has embraced democratic practices since, his record is tainted by having supported the unconstitutional overthrow of the democratically elected Chávez.
The Chávez (1999-2013) and Maduro (2013-present) administrations have targeted López, seeing him as a representative of the old regime that Chávez sought to abolish. But López is a more complex figure. Though through his family origins, he represents the elite that Chávez fought against, López also departed from that group when he helped formed Primero Justicia (Justice First), one of the most important opposition democratic parties in Venezuela. In 2008, López was barred from running for office on alleged charges of corruption. In 2009, he broke with the party and formed Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), an alternative and more radical opposition party which he leads.
In the 2013 election, after the death of Chávez, López supported Henrique Capriles, his former ally and the leader of Primero Justicia and the moderate opposition. But after Maduro claimed victory in those elections, López became even more radical in his opposition to the government. Though Capriles and López are part of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition coalition, the two leaders represent respectively the moderate and radical opposition to Maduro.
The decision to grant house arrest to López is a result of the Maduro government’s decision to select López as the president’s main opponent, rather than Capriles, the man who narrowly lost against Maduro in the 2013 election (amid accusations of irregularities and fraud against the electoral authorities, which are packed by Maduro loyalists). In addition to seeking to appease the growing international pressure demanding the release of López — who is serving time on trumped-up charges of seeking to overthrow the government — the Maduro administration is trying to redraw the political map in a way that will make it favourable to its chances of staying in power.
Having divided the ruling camp by initiating a process to write a new constitution, Maduro has alienated Chávista loyalists who defend the 2000 Constitution and long for the late leader, who was admittedly more politically capable than Maduro. Since several moderate Chavista supporters might be inclined to throw their support behind Capriles — who embraces moderate market-friendly and socially conscious views — Maduro wants to radicalise the opposition by making López a relevant political actor. Out of jail, López has quickly become a challenger to Capriles for a leadership role in the opposition.
Though the Maduro administration has to deal with several self-inflicted problems — like hyper-inflation, economic mismanagement that has produced a four-year recession, high unemployment, food and drug shortages, even petrol shortages (in an oil-producing country) — the political mood is so bad that the government wants to avoid a terminal crisis. To do that, Maduro wants to force Venezuelans to choose between López — a leader who, for many, continues to represent the ancient regime that Chávez deposed — and Maduro, a leader who desperately tries to imitate Chávez but continuously fails to outmanoeuvre the opposition and rally support behind his government.
Maduro’s plan to turn López into the main opposition leader might fail. López and Capriles might end up working together to restore democracy even if they face-off later when the Maduro regime is toppled. Moreover, divisions within the government among Chavistas and those who support Maduro will likely not go away that easily. The president continues to push for his new constitution, but people’s primary concerns are food shortages and the economy, which is in disarray. Though welcome news, López’s release is just another erratic decision on the part of an isolated president and government that has badly mismanaged the economy and alienated many former supporters of Chávez.