Skip to main content

Jose Mauricio Gaona is an O'Brien Fellow at McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, a Saul Hayes Fellow at McGill University's Faculty of Law, and a Vanier Canada Scholar.

Sunday's election in Venezuela of a national constituent assembly does not represent the very beginnings of Mr. Maduro's dictatorship, but its final ascension. In truth, the actions of Mr. Maduro's government in the past 12 months are archetypical of a dictatorship, not a democracy.

Once a government turns its security forces against its owns citizens and breaks the system of checks and balances between branches of power that upholds democracy, all that follows is dictatorship. In 2016, of the 21,752 homicides in the country, nearly 5,000 were at the hands of security forces. Since protests started on April 1 this year, 115 people have been killed, nearly 2,000 injured and more than 4,000 detained. As Mr. Maduro appeals for reconciliation and peace, more than 400 civilians are being prosecuted before military tribunals. Just as in the dictatorships of Argentina and Chile in the 1970s and '80s, security forces in Caracas have been taking people away from their homes in the middle of the night. The NGO Foro Penal, which represents dozens of protesters currently detained, said that most detainees have been tortured by intelligence officials.

In the past week alone, members of the National Guard attacked residences and assaulted civilians all over the country.

As the promise of a socialist revolution leading to a redistribution of wealth among Venezuelans fades, and the reality of a dying nation gradually emerges, Mr. Maduro's government has increased the use of force to retain his power. This is often the last resort for populist leaders once voters' emotions change and their perception of reality can no longer be distorted. After all, the use of force is the natural tool of those whose very premises are threatened by reason and reality.

Having muzzled most of the media, controlled the judiciary, assured the loyalty of executive officials and the military, and succeeding in forming a constituent assembly, Mr. Maduro can finally get rid of the National Assembly and, in the process, the last check-and-balance institution in the country able to deter his dictatorship.

While there is a constitutional provision that might lead some pundits to predict that Mr. Maduro's call for a rewrite of the constitution could backfire against his intentions to obtain unchecked-plenary powers, such predictions are inaccurate. Indeed, Article 349 of the 1999 constitution precludes the president from either objecting to the new constitution or intervening with the constituent assembly's decisions – including the decision to call for elections. Yet, expecting that Mr. Maduro, who has used the constitution to legitimize his dictatorship, will subject himself to the rules set forth by the very system his government has so vehemently tried to change is, at most, naive.

What's more, the declarations issued by the governments of Colombia and Panama on Saturday announcing that Venezuela's constituent assembly will not be recognized, along with the no-objection clause of Venezuela's constitution, provides a win-win situation to Mr. Maduro. Should the constituent assembly decide to bestow Mr. Maduro with plenary 'constitutional' powers – as expected – Mr. Maduro will appear to be following the 1999 constitution as he cannot object to the constituent assembly's decisions.

Or, should the constituent assembly decide to call for new elections, Mr. Maduro could still dissolve it using the political narrative set forth by the international community, which has repeatedly called the constituent assembly illegitimate.

In his final attempt to appeal to voters' emotions and induce a different depiction of reality, Mr. Maduro introduced a new economic proposal on Saturday in a book entitled: Venezuela, A Country of Endless Opportunities. Naturally, this populist promise is not grounded in reality, especially when everything in Venezuela is dying: From people in their homes, streets, hospitals and prisons, to the rule of law and the economy. Last year, the economy contracted more than 20 per cent, this year, inflation rates are expected to surpass 1,600 per cent, and today, the country has almost $10-billion (U.S.) in foreign reserves with an outstanding debt of $7.2-billion.

People in Venezuela are so conscious about the opportunities their country offers these days that more than a million might have already become refugees, thereby triggering the largest humanitarian crisis on the continent.

Populist leaders are so focused on fabricating alternative realities to back up their simple explanations of complex problems, and eventually displaying their ineptitude to solve such problems, that they become unable to see the reality that people who elected them face. Unfortunately, this is when the character of a leader and the destiny of a nation finally meet. Everything else is prologue.