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Dictatorship Or Diversions, Eye On The End Game In Venezuela

Holding a contested vote to replace parliament with a loyal popular assembly may give Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro a little more power and time. But how long for?

Protester in Caracas on July 30
Protester in Caracas on July 30
Marcelo Cantelmi

CARACAS — The regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had its way on Sunday, holding its vote for a new Constituent Assembly meant to replace parliament. No surprises there. It went ahead with its plan, ignoring foreign pressures and the permanent mobilization of Venezuelans protesting the perpetuation of the Bolivarian-inspired socialist system.

The vote yielded a predictable result, amid a lack of transparency over its legality and the manipulation of the entire process. From this moment on, we are clearly facing a dictatorship of the old-school variety, with powers that override alternative authorities and eclipse any elections that might come in the future.

Yet it is not clear, even with this concentration of power, how the authoritarian process will continue. Local analysts are toying with various hypotheses that will take shape or not, within coming hours and days. One is the threat uttered by the country's second most powerful man, the legislator Diosdado Cabello, that they would do away with the opposition-controlled parliament, quash its members' immunity and eliminate dissidents inside the regime, whom Cabello has been mocking on his rather absurd television show Con el Mazo Dando ("Knockin'em Down").

Note: The U.S. condemned the regime Tuesday after two top opposition leaders were jailed

Hawks like Cabello have much to lose, should the regime's scaffolding come crashing down, as would so many others in the Bolivarian nomenklatura, which explains the government flight forward regardless of consequences. The problem is, such a conduct has a cost.

The current stalemate could lead to a reign of terror.

The main doubt now centers around just how long this newly established dictatorial structure will last. The country is in a state of terminal economic crisis, without no investments in sight — and the population is increasingly bearing real-life consequences. Similar conditions have overturned dictatorships in the past, in other parts of the world. One figure alone shows the pervasive uncertainty: Over the weekend, the U.S. dollar jumped from 8,500 to 11,000 bolivars. Such dollar hikes mean more inflation and fewer supplies, and it is a sign that there is no way of calming people down or recovering any of the government's frayed ties with the worlds of business and finance.

Some analysts believe the current stalemate could lead to a reign of terror, with deaths and disappearances intended to snuff out a possible mass rebellion. That would be the worst-case scenario, even for the hawks pushing for it. A harsh regime, rather than the softer dictatorship the Maduro presidency has opted for so far, would exacerbate Venezuela's isolation and further curb its room for maneuver. "It wouldn't last," an analyst and textile businessman told me.

With such a lack of clarity about the future, the reins presently holding loyalties may come undone, as has happened already with the attorney general-turned-regime critic, Luisa Ortega Díaz. There are no ideological challenges here. Dodgy businesses are what have kept the regime together and are the reason behind such initiatives as the Constituent Assembly. A good many officials have assets across the world and quite a few would probably also like to immerse themselves in Ortega Diaz's newly rediscovered republicanism.

But without a change of line-up at the top, prospects of an opening seem restricted. Maduro might be replaced with a more flexible figure — though clearly not Cabello, the great winner of Sunday's vote. Even that would not avoid an explosion of internal tensions. We should recall that opponents who emerged from within the ranks of the current regime began coordinating their dissidence after, not before, the system stopped yielding them benefits.

It has now become a pure game of survival, where losers are to be wiped off the political map. Or worse.

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