Things are changing in Venezuela — and not in Maduro’s favour

An interview with Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles earlier this week left me more hopeful than at any time in recent months that President Nicolás Maduro may not be able to maintain his de facto dictatorship indefinitely.

Until a few weeks ago, the conventional wisdom in diplomatic circles was that Maduro’s control of virtually all Venezuelan institutions, his suppression of the opposition-controlled National Assembly’s powers, military repression and a divided opposition would make it very difficult to restore democracy in Venezuela anytime soon. But, all of a sudden, the opposition has regained its momentum.

An escalation of international diplomatic pressure against Maduro andmassive demonstrations sparked by the Venezuelan regime’s decision to curtail the National Assembly’s last remaining powers — later reversed under pressure — has put the Venezuelan regime on the defensive. Two young people have already died in the protests, and many are wounded.

Capriles, the governor of the state of Miranda and a former presidential candidate, who narrowly lost against Maduro in a questionable 2013 election in which no credible foreign observers were allowed, was banned last week from running for office for 15 years.

This means that Capriles — much like Leopoldo López, Antonio Ledezma and other top opposition leaders — would not be able to run against Maduro in scheduled 2018 elections. Most of them were banned on trumped-up charges of “inciting violence” or “administrative irregularities.”

“Because of a $10 fine, they imposed on me a 15-year ban,” Capriles told me. “It’s totally unacceptable. The government shouldn’t be allowed to decide who will be its opposition, or to choose its adversary.”

When I asked him what makes him think that, unlike previous protests, the new round of demonstrations will have political consequences for Maduro, Capriles pointed to several new developments.

“We are living in a stage that is totally different from the previous ones,” Capriles said.

First, the regime has taken off its gloves and can no longer pretend to be a democracy. While the late leader Hugo Chávez prided himself on convening more elections than anyone else, Maduro is now cancelling elections, he said.

The Venezuelan people know that they have been robbed of their 2015 electoral victory, when they won a majority of the National Assembly, and that the regime has among other things nixed a recall referendum for which the opposition had collected the signatures required by the constitution, he added.

Second, the international context has changed dramatically against Maduro. The 34-country Organization of American States (OAS), with the support of all major democracies in the region, on April 3 gave a near-ultimatum to the Maduro regime to allow “the full restoration of democratic order” or risk being banned from the regional community.

Not only the OAS, but also the United Nations and the European Union have spoken out at a time when the regime most needs international support, Capriles said.

“If Maduro decides to isolate himself, he’s making the wrong calculation, because that would mean accelerating his ouster,” Capriles told me. “Today, more than ever, the Venezuelan government needs the outside world for financing and resources.”

Third, Venezuela’s opposition will not again fall into the trap of a fraudulent dialogue with Maduro, he said. “We are not going to hit ourselves again with the same stone,” Capriles said. Maduro has proved once and again that he is not willing to carry out a meaningful dialogue, he said.

Fourth, the opposition is more united than at any time recently, Capriles said. “We should almost be thankful to Maduro for the events of recent days” because the government’s “self-coup’’ against the National Assembly and its escalating repression “have helped set aside whatever differences may have existed,” he said.

My opinion: Maduro is facing a perfect storm of economic disaster, mounting international pressure, and escalating protests at home.

If opposition leaders put aside their personal ambitions and act together — as Capriles says they are — things could change soon in Venezuela.

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