Amid crisis, Venezuelan opposition tells Army: make your choice

As Venezuela slides toward economic and political chaos, the opposition has appealed to the Army to choose sides. 

Fernando Llano/AP
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles gives a news conference at his office in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, May 17, 2016, where he called for Venezuelans to ignore an economic and state of emergency decree, if put into place by Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, saying it's unconstitutional and a violation of international conventions and of the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter.

The leader of the Venezuelan opposition, Henrique Capriles, called upon the Army Wednesday to make a choice: to stand "with the Constitution or with [President Nicolas] Maduro."

The call came on the heels of a presidential declaration of a 60-day state of emergency, giving the Army and police – as well as himself – wider powers to deal with an economic crisis that has engulfed the country and spurred protests.

While Mr. Capriles made it clear that the opposition was not calling for a military coup, but rather emphasizing what he regards as the unconstitutional powers the decree bestows, such a direct plea to the Army carries inherent danger.

“I don’t think the opposition would have made this comment if there wasn’t a section of the military willing to stand up for the Constitution and oppose the slide into authoritarianism,” says Cynthia Arnson, director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, in a telephone interview.

Some observers suggest, however, that the military may be the institution least likely to support any political upheaval, given its alleged participation in drug-trafficking and corruption that have gone unchallenged.

The appeal by Capriles may also be a tacit acknowledgement of the pivotal role played by the military, long used to wearing the mantle of “king-maker,” as Juan Nagel, a Venezuelan economist based at the Universidad de los Andes in Chile, explains.

“Obviously what is happening here is the opposition is sensing that the possibility of democratic engagement with the government is waning,” says Dr. Nagel, co-author of the self-described “opposition-leaning” Caracas Chronicles, in a telephone interview.

Indeed, as Nagel sees it, the move smacks of “desperation and exasperation,” riding a fine line between asking the military to pressure the government and seeking direct intervention.

The leanings of the Army itself are a “black box,” according to some analysts. Dr. Arnson describes the military as having been “systematically purged” in recent decades of potential rivals or opponents to the government, “largely stripped of independence.”

But perhaps this move by the opposition, far from seeking to spark a coup, really is a last-ditch effort to save the democratic process.

The opposition has tried to force the government’s hand, submitting a petition for a referendum on recalling Maduro, garnering 2 million signatures when the law requires only 200,000. But Vice-President Aristobulo Isturiz has declared that "Maduro won't be ousted by a referendum because there will be no referendum."

In response to the government's position, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States published an open letter Wednesday, addressed to President Maduro, in which he spoke of the "obligation" to hold the recall referendum, telling Maduro that if he denied the Venezuelan people the right of that vote, he would be "just another petty dictator."

The situation in Venezuela is “nothing less than the collapse of a large, wealthy, seemingly modern, seemingly democratic nation just a few hours’ flight from the United States,” wrote Moisés Naím of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in The Atlantic.

It is hard to find glimmers of hope amid the increasing desperation, and Arnson is “skeptical that the country’s political evolution will be devoid of violence.”

“I’m not implying the opposition will take up arms, but there’s a point at which the deprivations lead to civil unrest,” says Arnson. “The more the government appears to be closing the possibility of a recall referendum or peaceful transition, along with increasing levels of scarcity, there is increased possibility of social violence.”

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