Petition over protests

Venezuela's opposition is out to prove to a tired public that it can force President Maduro’s hand

Venezuela’s opposition turns to petition over protests

Wednesday was supposed to bring Venezuela’s largest protest since the Sept. 1 showing when, government opponents claimed, more than 1 million people took part to decry the sharp collapse of their country’s economy and the dwindling of vital supplies. The movement’s aim: to pressure the electoral authorities to call a referendum on President Nicolás Maduro’s future before year’s end.

Then, abruptly, politics beat out protest, and opposition leaders announced they were scrapping demonstrations in order to organize the petition needed for a referendum. The country’s electoral authorities require the opposition coalition to collect 4 million signatures (or 20 percent of the country’s registered electorate) before it will call a presidential referendum on whether the beleaguered Maduro should remain in office.

Though many of the marches have been huge, they have done little to discourage a recalcitrant Maduro from dismissing them as failed coup attempts organized by a small and privileged group of elites backed by U.S. imperialists determined to wipe out the left-wing legacy of his predecessor, the charismatic Hugo Chávez.

Demonstrators take part in the "taking of Caracas" march in Caracas, Venezuela, Sept 1, 2016. Venezuela's opposition is vowing to keep up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro after flooding the streets of Caracas with demonstrators Thursday in its biggest show of force in years. Protesters filled dozens of city blocks in what was dubbed the "taking of Caracas" to pressure electoral authorities to allow a recall referendum against Maduro this year. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)Photo by Ariana Cubillos/ AP Photo

Nor have they curbed Maduro’s crackpot announcements. Most recently the leader’s sudden creation of the Hugo Chávez Prize for Peace and Security, which was announced the same day neighboring president Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize for his four-year effort to bring his country’s civil war to an end. Maduro, in a clear rebuke to Western powers — cough, cough, the U.S. —  revealed the prize’s first winner would be Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The next few months could spell a dramatic change in the country’s political future, and signal the end of Maduro’s party and the country’s lasting commitment to Chavismo (a distinct hybrid of socialist and populist ideology pioneered by its namesake, former President Hugo Chavez).

“The activities of this 12 of October have been a massive show of force by the opposition that continues to be united in the push for a recall referendum,” leading opposition figure Lilian Tintori said near of the end of the opposition’s mobilization efforts. Wednesday’s trial run amounted to a mass simulation of the signature collection across the country, two weeks before it is due to actually happen.

Tintori, the wife of the country’s best-known and imprisoned opposition leader, Leopoldo López, underlined how the opposition is pinning nearly all its hopes on the referendum.

“If they deny us the right [of the referendum], we will start with civil disobedience,” Tintori warned.

Wednesday’s last-minute change of plan may be a practical application of political machinery, but it also looks like tacit recognition that the battle-worn strategy of putting people on the streets is beginning to look tired and ineffectual.

Maduro and his government ministers have repeatedly stressed in recent weeks that there will be no recall vote, however. At least not before the midpoint in his term on Jan. 10. That date is key to both Maduro and his opposition. If he loses a referendum after it, he would be automatically replaced by his vice president, thus ensuring his Socialist Party remains in power until the end of his term in 2019. Losing a referendum before then would force a general election, where a favorable outcome for Maduro’s party is less likely.

“The opposition has seemed like a movement without direction, where there are lots of words but not much action.”

Speaking to reporters in Istanbul while attending an energy summit Tuesday, Maduro said the opposition’s efforts to force the referendum were “full of fraud and irregularities,” They had, he claimed, “totally failed.”

Such diversionary tactics and chest-puffing have done little to quell Venezuelan anger and frustration at the country’s catastrophic economic crisis, forcing millions of people to spend their days searching for basic goods. Malnutrition rates have soared and people have died due to lack of basic medicine.

But Venezuelans are also exhausted, disheartened, and disappointed at the opposition’s seeming inability to put the country on a clear path toward change.

“The opposition has seemed like a movement without direction, where there are lots of words but not much action,” 27-year-old Rosa Marcano said while eating lunch in Caracas.

“We all want the referendum,” she added, stressing that she would be participating in the day of action even as she’s losing faith in the outcome. “It is one thing to want it, another thing for it to happen.”

Wednesday’s plan was the opposition’s bid to show an increasingly skeptical population that change can and will be made. By simulating the process of signature collection at the 1,356 stations designated for the task, the opposition hoped to assert its effect.

“We are preparing for the great day of the validation of the signatures,” said Henry Ramos Allup, the opposition speaker of the national legislature. “We’re just going to have to wait and see what Nicolás Maduro will do when all of Venezuela comes out to demand that the referendum takes place in 2016 so that we can end this nightmare.”

The only signs that something political was going on in the capital of Caracas, were the small groups of young people in white T-shirts carrying Venezuelan flags and gathering around the capital to head toward assembly points.

“This is not about following a leader. It is important that everybody works together and that we understand that we are all part of the same family, that is called Venezuela,” opposition leader Edinson Ferrer told VICE News. “This is about the restitution of democracy, and every Venezuelan who wants democracy has a task to fulfill.”

The electoral authorities have ruled that the signatures must be collected over three days beginning Oct. 26.

While the opposition was focused on teaching volunteers how to follow fingerprinting protocols properly, the government had organized its own counter-march in the center of Caracas.

“The people are coming out onto the streets to defend the revolution in the face of opposition efforts to destabilize the country,” Maduro ally Diosdado Cabello told those gathered to support the current government.

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