Venezuelan crisis deepens after the country goes on mass strike

July 21, 2017, 11:37am

Three people were killed in clashes in Venezuela Thursday, as millions joined a nationwide strike designed to pressure the government into dropping plans that many fear will usher in a dictatorship in the South American country.

While the vast majority of Venezuelans oppose the government’s plans for constitutional change — 85 percent of the working population joined the strike, according to the opposition —President Nicolas Maduro has the backing of the country’s powerful military, and he will not give in to the demands of the protesters, analysts say.

With little appetite for compromise from either side, the stage is set for escalating political violence, deepening economic misery, and an increased exodus of Venezuelans. In the worst case, the country risks a slide toward civil war, warned Diego Moya-Ocampos, senior analyst for the Americas at IHS Country Risk.

“There’s no middle ground,” Moya-Ocampos told VICE News. “The government is being forced by the military to push forward with the National Constituent Assembly, while the opposition is being forced by its grassroots not to negotiate with the government.”

Millions heeded the call from the opposition to join in Thursday’s “zero hour” strike, intended to paralyze the country and send a message to the government to drop plans to establish a powerful new legislative body — the National Constituent Assembly — later this month. In many cities, protesters set up roadblocks, while deadly clashes with security forces erupted on the outskirts of Caracas and the northern city of Valencia.

But Moya-Ocampos said that while the strike was successful in causing chaos, it failed to bring the opposition any closer to its main objective of regime change. Maduro shrugged off the strike, claiming Thursday that it was a “triumph” for his government as some sectors of the economy had not participated, and ordering the arrests of main organizers. More than 360 people have been detained, according to reports.

Moya-Ocampos said the opposition’s efforts had failed so far because of the crucial behind-the-scenes role of the country’s military, whose senior leadership strongly supports the president’s agenda and is opposed to regime change — in large part because it could damage their economic interests. About a third of the country’s cabinet are current or former members of the armed forces, and the military is a major player in many sectors of the economy, having been granted emergency powers to manage state-run activities in pharmaceuticals, food and basic goods production, logistics, and controlling imports.

Senior members of the military are committed to Maduro remaining in power, because “they want to be left alone to carry on with their activities,” explained Moya-Ocampos.

Despite widespread support for the protests — “the key driver of which is hunger” — they were unlikely to prevail until they reached the level where they overwhelmed the ability of the security forces to contain them, said Moya-Ocampos. So far, the security apparatus had been able to keep the protests in check, cracking down harshly the more the protests escalated. About 100 people have been killed since the crisis began in April, with the government often using pro-government militia groups known as “colectivos” to confront the opposition.

So what could break the current deadlock? Moya-Ocampos said that with both sides deeply entrenched in their positions, protests escalating and the death toll rising, it raised the prospect of new actors emerging to challenge the government, the military and the opposition — the latter of which has so far been committed to non-violent protest. Such developments would likely lead to even greater anarchy, and could potentially create “the conditions for civil war,” he said.

Already, there have been signs of discontent emerging from the middle ranks of the security forces. On June 27, a rogue police officer commandeered a helicopter to launch an attack on the Supreme Court and demand the government step down, while 185 mid-ranking officers have been arrested during the crisis, highlighting a growing possibility of a coup.

Targeted international sanctions could also pressure the military hierarchy to drop its support for Maduro, Moya-Ocampos said. U.S. President Donald Trump threatened Monday to impose “strong and swift” economic sanctions if Maduro establishes the National Constituent Assembly on July 30 as planned, and other governments in Europe and the Americas have issued similar warnings.

But despite this, analysts widely expect Maduro to press ahead with the creation of the assembly — whose members will be selected from within pro-government groups — and that the newly created body will then move swiftly to dissolve the existing, opposition-dominated National Assembly, plunging the country into greater constitutional turmoil.

For the short term, at least, there’s no solution in sight, said Mayo-Ocampos. “What is clear is that what’s coming in Venezuela is ungovernability, increased political violence, and anarchy.”