A government in disarray.

Photographer: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

A Troubling Welcome for Venezuela's New Congress

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
Read More.
a | A

When the Venezuelan opposition won a landslide victory in December's legislative elections, defenders of Latin American democracy were heartened. Finally, one of the region's most stubborn autocracies was on the run. Or was it?

Just to get sworn into their new jobs at the National Assembly on Tuesday, opposition lawmakers had to breach a barricade of hostile police and national guardsmen, submit to a shoving and shouting match with government loyalists inside the congressional chamber and watch members of the old guard stomp out in protest.

QuickTake Venezuela

Even that chilly reception was mild compared with the political connivance that President Nicolas Maduro had ginned up in the final weeks of the year, as the ruling socialist party was poised to lose its congressional majority and Maduro his own exceptional powers to rule by decree.

It was never going to be easy to overturn the revolution that Hugo Chavez launched in 1999 in the name of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar, promising plenty to the poor and affliction to the rich, courtesy of a bottomless cache of petro-dollars. Almost 17 years later, that vision has collapsed along with gross domestic product, stable prices, the basic laws of supply and demand, and public safety. And yet the lengths to which Maduro, Chavez's successor, has gone to cling to power, deny the economic reality around him and neuter the incoming congress seem impressive, even by Chavismo's authoritarian standards.

Don't be fooled by Maduro's conciliatory public message, advising allies that they would have to adjust to "a new political dynamic." In December, Maduro's government hastily appointed 13 new judges to the Supreme Court, further tightening the president's chokehold on an already pliant bench -- an important move because the top court has the power to countermand many of the legislature's initiatives.

Not surprisingly, last week the restacked high bench barred three opposition lawmakers from taking office, leaving Maduro's rivals just shy of the legislative supermajority they had won. On Wednesday, however, the new president of congress, opposition hardliner Henry Ramos Allup, defied the high court by swearing in the three legislators, setting the stage for an institutional showdown. Ramos Allup also outraged Maduro's allies by ordering portraits of Chavez removed from the parliament.

The new majority likewise saw its wings clipped by an eleventh-hour government move to hinder the legislature's power to supervise the central bank, including stripping its ability to appoint and remove directors. That was a direct slap at congressional rebels who had planned to tighten oversight of the country's murky monetary policy.

The authoritarian reflex might be better seen as a sign of internal disarray than a show of strength. "Maduro's actions strike me as the moves of a government that was totally unprepared to lose," said Venezuela scholar David Smilde, of the Washington Office on Latin America.

Indeed, the tumult in the capitol building this week offers a glimpse into what could devolve into an outright clash between the opposition-controlled congress and the rest of the country's institutions, dominated by a hyperactive executive branch. An impasse, in turn, stands only to deepen resentments in an already polarized society and poison prospects for building a political consensus on how to restore Venezuela to some semblance of democratic and economic normalcy.

Perhaps the ultimate question is whether Maduro's foes are prepared to govern what is arguably the world's worst economy. Until now the opposition has spoken out most forcefully about human-rights violations and called for the regime to free jailed political dissidents -- vital issues but ones that won't fill empty shopping carts or fix a crashing currency. Missing are concrete proposals to pay down the gaping fiscal deficit, contain runaway inflation without the flimflam of price controls, make the streets safe and end the profligate gasoline subsidies that end up in the tanks of the privileged.

Though substantive economic reform remains largely out of their grasp for now, opposition members need to come out forcefully with some credible alternatives to the country's gathering miseries -- or else risk being seen as an accessories to the chaos.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net