Venezuela's Opposition Faces Its Biggest Test
The newly elected coalition that's now in charge of Venezuela's congress represents more than 20 parties, but they share three big goals: freeing political prisoners, healing the country's wounded economy, and ultimately getting rid of President Nicolas Maduro. All three objectives are worthwhile, but if the coalition moves too rashly, it will risk driving Venezuela further into chaos.
Thanks to a late Supreme Court ruling engineered by Maduro, a legal pall has been cast over the two-thirds supermajority in the National Assembly that would enable the coalition to move quickly -- by firing ministers and calling for referendums to recall the president and rewrite the constitution.
The opposition says it will nevertheless push hard to oust Maduro and has picked a congressional leader who favors confrontation. But a flat-out push for Maduro's ouster is likely to backfire. For one thing, the opposition itself is divided over the strategy. And Maduro, with the courts in his pocket, is well positioned to blunt it. He has already sought to weaken the new legislature with a flurry of decrees and legal challenges.
At best, if the coalition succeeds in forcing Maduro from office, Venezuela would remain divided along the same lines that have been drawn for decades. At worst, it would provoke civil unrest by the "colectivos," the armed militias that late President Hugo Chavez nurtured to defend his toxic populism.
There's no doubt Maduro and the other standard-bearers of Chavismo have turned the country with the world's biggest oil reserves into its worst economic performer, with chronic shortages of basic goods and medicine and the world's second-highest homicide rate. Creeping autocracy has swallowed the judiciary and undermined the free press. High-ranking officials have been implicated in drug dealing. And Venezuela's foreign policy has devolved into picking territorial fights with its neighbors and giving comfort to Syria, Iran, Sudan, North Korea and Cuba.
But the new lawmakers will be more successful if they move patiently and with consensus. Freeing those imprisoned for their political beliefs, unmuzzling the press, and releasing reliable economic and other data will help to stoke healthy public debate.
What most Venezuelans want, however, is a functioning economy. Sadly, Maduro's recent cabinet re-shuffle won't make achieving that any easier: He just appointed an economics minister who believes that Venezuela's record-breaking inflation does not exist "in real life" and is instead caused by speculation and hoarding.
Faced with such nonsense, Venezuela's new legislators should spend less time removing portraits of Maduro and Chavez from the halls of the National Assembly and more time offering common-sense solutions to Venezuela's deep economic problems. They could start by reversing Maduro's recent decree freeing the central bank from legislative supervision -- part of his effort to keep using it as a money-printing machine. Then they could put forward laws to dismantle misguided currency controls, and to gradually end the government's costly domestic and international fuel subsidies.
Venezuela's neighbors and friends can help by holding Maduro to strict account, as some are already doing. The U.S., for its part, should make clear that it is prepared to investigate allegations of drug dealing and corruption in Venezuela, and to impose new sanctions on those Venezuelan officials who subvert democratic processes, human rights and freedom of the press.
In December's elections, Venezuelan voters clearly chose to turn away from the Chavez era. The people they voted for should now have the power and the freedom to make that change -- and the patience to do so without provoking a destructive backlash.
--Editors: James Gibney, Mary Duenwald.
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