Venezuela: Will opposition's push for Maduro resignation gain traction?

Since taking control of the National Assembly for the first time in 16 years, the opposition has faced limits on its ability to pursue economic change. Now it's calling for President Maduro's removal from office.

Ariana Cubillos/AP
A woman holds a sign with a message that reads in Spanish, "Stop it, Resign now Nicolas," during an opposition protest in Caracas on Saturday.

When Venezuela’s political opposition defeated the ruling socialist party in last year’s legislative elections, many here hoped economic relief would soon follow. 

But Marcelino Campos, a bus driver and staunch socialist party supporter, says his belief that the opposition victory would “push the government to take action” on triple-digit inflation and shortages of basic goods has so far failed to materialize.

The opposition is “only interested in power, in removing the president and taking control of the government,” Mr. Campos says. “They haven’t come out with any proposals to help the people.”  

Since taking control of the National Assembly in January, Venezuela’s opposition has been stymied by a series of political maneuvers that have left the legislative body with little tangible power. With its hands tied by the Supreme Court giving it little say over economic policies, the party has committed itself to what many see as a difficult and potentially risky strategy: attempting to remove President Nicolas Maduro from office.

The opposition announced three plans of action to accomplish that goal last week, including street protests designed to pressure the president to resign, a recall referendum, and a constitutional amendment that would shorten the president’s term in office. 

Each of the proposals comes with significant political risk that are exacerbated by the opposition's historic ties to the attempted coup against former President Hugo Chávez in 2002. The failed coup deeply divided the country and created an atmosphere of conspiracy and mistrust that persists to this day. 

To be sure, the opposition is not calling for a coup. But, in its bid to cut short Mr. Maduro's six-year term, the opposition is once again betting that the public is ready to support extraordinary steps to remove the ruling party from power.

Opposition leaders say that by stacking the Supreme Court with political allies and curtailing the legislations' traditional powers of oversight, Maduro has left them little choice. But analysts and citizens question whether such a confrontational tactic could lead to renewed unrest and risk alienating the majority of Venezuelans, who just months ago handed the opposition control of the National Assembly for the first time in 16 years. 

“I don’t think that [the opposition's approach] is winning people over,” says Luis Vicente Leon, president of the Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis. “There is a real desire for change among the public. People have fundamental problems that they are trying to resolve. People are looking for a better quality of life. But it seems to me that this tactic of trying to remove the president from power, it disconnects [the opposition] from the change that people are searching for,” Mr. Leon says. 

Similar struggles

Venezuelans across the country are struggling with a cratering economy that shrunk 10 percent last year and soaring prices caused by inflation that is estimated to top 700 percent in 2016. They're also faced with a scarcity of basic necessities that forces many to wait hours in line to buy flour, eggs, and laundry detergent.

Opposition leaders encouraged supporters to take to the streets last Saturday to demand the president’s ouster. It was the party's biggest call to action since the anti-government protests that that led to 43 deaths in 2014.

The turnout was estimated in the thousands. But it failed to draw the kind of numbers seen in 2014, raising concern that the public may be growing wary of the nation's political standoff.

A recall referendum would require some 3.9 million signatures to trigger a vote on removing Maduro from office, while the proposed constitutional amendment would shorten the president’s term from six years to four, forcing new elections in December of this year.  

Although Datanalisis polling shows that some 60 percent of Venezuelans would prefer Maduro to step down, Leon says that the actual process of removing him from office is something else entirely. 

“If you asked a Republican if they would prefer, in theory, that President Obama not be in charge, they would probably say yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they would support any effort to remove him from office,” he says, noting that that's the case in Venezuela at the moment as well.

The opposition has struggled to develop a clear strategy and a message that will bridge the country’s political divide, says David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“In the current crisis, for the first time, it is the poor that are suffering most from scarcities,” Mr. Smilde says, referring to the group that for the past 15 years has benefitted most from Chavista policies that provided cheap food and access to free health care and education. “The poor who are depending on price-controlled goods are the hardest hit. But the [opposition's] middle and upper-class leadership has little ability to reach these people and mobilize them,” Smilde says. 

Not backing down

Some Venezuelans see the effort to remove Maduro as a threat to the democratic process, even if carried out via legal channels.

“They’re trying the same thing all over again,” says Cristina Hernandez, a retired schoolteacher, referring to the 2002 coup attempt and other perceived efforts of political sabotage.

Ms. Hernandez says that political elites with ties to wealthy business interests in Venezuela and the United States have long sought to derail the socialist movement launched by Mr. Chavez in 1999. She points to the executive order signed by Mr. Obama in March 2015 – and renewed just last week – as the most recent proof.

“They say that we are a threat to the United States! Venezuela is a peaceful country. Why are they trying to kick President Maduro out of office?” she asks, lumping US politicians together with Venezuela's opposition.

Others say they simply have had enough.

“This government has done so many bad things to the country: Inflation, scarcity, crime,” says Maritza Gonzalez, an accounting student. "We need a change of leadership."

Neither side has shown signs of backing down and continue to verbally attack each other in rallies that have taken place since the opposition's announcement.

Opposition leader Henry Ramos Allup called on Maduro to "spare us the tragedy" and step aside. Across town, in front of thousands of supporters of his own, Maduro delivered a fiery speech in which he vowed to press on, saying, “I promised I would never surrender to the oligarchy.”

Campos, the bus driver, says there is plenty of blame to go around as the country grapples with its severe economic crisis.

“They are all at fault," he says. "[Politicians] fight for power while the country continues to sink.”

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