Geopolitics

Nicolas Maduro And The Art Of Clinging To Power

Venezuela's economic woes are depriving the socialist regime of its remaining popularity, even as the government uses every constitutional and political trick up its sleeve to block the opposition's ascent to power.

Maduro on May 1 in Caracas.
Maduro on May 1 in Caracas.
Marcelo Cantelmi

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES â€" Venezuela is at the end of its tether. Seen from any angle, its decadence is painfully visible in areas ranging from personal liberties and rights, to the economy and the state of its society and institutions. The regime no longer embodies even a paltry version of its revolutionary discourse â€" it is like a broken vase, emptied of all illusions.

Meanwhile, a cabal of its members is clinging to power in the time-worn tradition of banana republics and their shoddy despots, like Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe or Paraguay under Alfredo Stroessner. In this endless muddle, the Caribbean nation can only ask questions, chief among them: How is is possible for things to be getting worse?

The regime is caught between its incompetence and the falling price of oil, Venezuela’s key export. As resulting economic problems grow, the regime's social support base shrinks and the government loses its symbolic power and ability to distance itself from the crisis. We should not be surprised that the opposition has managed to garner so many signatures backing the end of President Nicolás Maduro's mandate.

Putting this constitutional tool to use requires first setting it in motion. The initial step was to collect 1% of all possible signatures (roughly 180,000), something organizers easily accomplished by gathering more than a million signatures in just one day. Next they will need to collect four million signatures to hold a presidential recall referendum. The referendum will pass if the recall option receives at least one more vote than Maduro did in the 2013 presidential election.

Going by the current tally, the process has all the appearance of an election, with each round of votes stripping the regime of a bit of more of its residual legitimacy. The mechanism was devised by the Chavista polity, specifically Maduro's late mentor, President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013), who was confident in his enduing appeal and his ability to win automatic majorities. But without the certainty of oil, the recall option has become a powerful instrument for change.

The regime's weakness was particularly apparent in the most recent legislative elections, in December, when the government lost its parliamentary majority.

Economist Asdrúbal R. Oliveros has observed that Venezuela's gross domestic product shrank 47% between 2013 and 2016. Another economist, Leonardo Vera, says this is one of the sharpest declines anywhere. "Only Equatorial Guinea and the Sudan are below us," he says. In social terms, this means that the 30% poverty level observed in 2013 is now at 70%. Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the opposition daily El Nacional, told Clarín that Venezuela is facing food shortages for the first time.

"In the Americas, this had only ever happened in Haiti," he said. The shortage is set to affect all those who earn around $10 a month, considering that statistics agency CENDAS puts the cost of the average family’s monthly shopping cart at $80.

A November protest in Venezuela â€" Photo: Cristal Montanez

Analyst Michael Penfold envisions three possible scenarios ahead. First, the regime stands firm; second, the opposition coalition MUD promotes Maguro’s constitutional departure; and third, an ongoing stalemate leads to violence.

A fourth option would have the regime collapsing under the weight of internal tensions, like that of Fujimori in Peru (1990-2000) or the Stroessner dictatorship in Paraguay (1954-1989). The government is loath to initiate a smooth, "Cuban-style" transition due to the widespread trafficking and corruption of its officials. Such a change would be a blow to the leaders currently busy accumulating wealth.

One such individual, allegedly, is the head of the Bolivarian National Guard, Néstor Reverol, whom the United States has suggested has ties to drug trafficking. Other high-ranking suspects include legislator and former speaker Diosdado Cabello, and two nephews of First Lady Cilia Flores who are currently awaiting trial in the U.S.

Journalist Eugenio Martínez attributes the regime's resilience partly to the reluctance of some in the opposition to see Maduro sacked: They’d rather see him burn in the nightmare of his own creation. That’s a dangerous proposition.

The fact that recall signatures must be checked â€" on weekdays, which are now limited due to cuts in the working hours of state employees â€" presents another obstacle to change. The verification process could drag on past Jan. 10, 2017, after which a vice president must take over until the end of the presidential mandate (in March, 2019), and Maduro could name anyone as his next vice president, including regime hardliner Cabello.

If Maduro were to fall before Jan. 10, elections would need to be called within a month. Meanwhile, power would go to anti-government parliamentarian Henry Ramos Allup, who is one of several aspiring presidential candidates in the opposition.

Could the coalition survive an outbreak of rivalry within its ranks? It’s not clear; and such lack of clarity is, of course, just another reason why the Maduro government has survived for as long as it has.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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