03 August 2017
by Neil Tidmarsh
Dinosaurs take a long time to die. The cataclysmic shock which destroyed their world may well have been short and sharp, but those survivors unwilling or unable to evolve into more sustainable life-forms no doubt suffered slow, lingering deaths. The world saw this six months ago, when President Yahya Jammeh clung onto power in Gambia for months after his defeat in last year’s election, refusing to accept that his type of tyranny is obsolete in today’s West Africa, until his inevitable downfall finally caught up with him.
The government of President Maduro of Venezuela has spent the last two years turning itself into a dinosaur (evolution in reverse, as it were). Until two years ago, Venezuela had enjoyed sixty years of multi-party democracy. And then elections gave opposition parties a majority in the National Assembly (the Venezuelan parliament), and President Maduro’s government didn’t like it. The Supreme Court (which is controlled by the president – he appoints all the judges, and some of them have limited legal experience or qualifications, to put it mildly) tried to bar three of the MPs from taking their place in parliament, in what many regarded as a blatant attempt to rob the opposition of its two-thirds majority.
Since then, the president and his government have tried to rule without parliament, ignoring any laws it passes and using the Supreme Court as their executive. Last year, the opposition managed to gather enough signatures on a petition to trigger a referendum calling for presidential elections, but this too was ignored by the government. Shirking other constitutional imperatives, the government also postponed regional elections indefinitely.
Then, in March this year, the Supreme Court withdrew the legislative powers of the parliament and attempted to remove MPs’ immunity from prosecution. The move was described by opposition MPs as a coup d’etat, was condemned by the 34-nation Organisation of American States, and was criticised by Maduro’s own attorney-general. Anti-Maduro demonstrations became bigger and more widespread than ever. Three days later President Maduro reversed the decision. But the protests continued, and continue today, with increasing violence as demonstrators are met with tear gas, water cannons, pepper spray, bird-shot and rifle-fire. More than a hundred people have been killed.
After backing down last March, however, the president announced plans for a new constitutional assembly, a “peoples’ assembly” with the power to over-ride parliament and re-write the constitution. Despite general strikes, violent protests and international criticism of this plan as shameless gerrymandering and power-grabbing, election to this new body took place last weekend. Opposition parties boycotted the election, refusing to field candidates, and so it seems did most of the country. Many polling stations appeared to be empty for most of the day; official figures claimed a 41% turnout, but the opposition put the figure at just 12%. State employees complained that they were compelled to vote. Journalists were banned from within 500 yards of polling stations. Protests were banned (under sentence of up to ten years in prison) but took place anyway; at least ten people were killed as police tried to break up demonstrations and dismantle barricades.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, two leading opposition politicians – Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo Lopez – were arrested in the middle of the night and taken to a military prison. Both men were already under house arrest, having only recently been released from prison.
The new assembly is due to sit for the first time tomorrow (Thursday 03 August). Its five hundred and forty-five members – elected from candidates chosen largely by President Maduro’s government – include the president’s wife and son.
And so the government’s evolution into the kind of dinosaur which devastated Latin America for much of the twentieth century is almost complete. If the new assembly overthrows the legitimate parliament and rewrites the constitution to turn the country and government into an old-fashioned Latin American one-party state and dictatorship, as it appears to have been designed to do, then it will have re-made Jurassic Park for real.
And what a beast it is, proof indeed that dinosaurs are doomed to lose the evolutionary race, the most unfit candidate in the competition which is the survival of the fittest. Under President Maduro’s government, Venezuela’s economy has collapsed. The country is one of the biggest oil producers in the world, and while the government can’t be blamed for the fall in the price of oil, it can be blamed for the lack of diversification which has made Venezuela as disastrously reliant on oil as nineteenth-century Ireland was on the potato crop. Inflation is running at over 700%. The country is on the brink of default. Its currency (the bolivar) has lost 99.35% of its value against the dollar. Food and other basic goods are difficult to come by; starvation threatens many Venezuelans.
Even before political protesters and the security forces began to clash with a violence which threatens outright revolution, law and order were close to collapse. Venezuela has possibly the highest murder-rate in the world, an estimated 12 million illegal weapons on its streets, and a colossal drugs trade run by ruthless mega-gangs, many of them operating from prisons which they effectively govern. The opposition insists that the government is itself involved in the drugs trade, calling the president a “narco-dictator”. The US government claims that Maduro’s vice-president and his interior minister have links to the business. Two nephews of the president’s wife are in jail in New York, convicted of trying to smuggle cocaine into the USA. Three years ago, a defector and former bodyguard of the late President Chavez reportedly accused a high-ranking army-officer, who became the speaker of parliament, of having run a drugs cartel inside the army.
What really does for the dinosaur is its isolation. Its fellows fall by the wayside, one by one, and it’s pushed aside by more advanced and effective beings. This is what happened to President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia earlier this year; all the other West African countries lined up on the side of democracy and the rule of law to oppose the obsolete tyranny which he represented. The same thing is happening to President Maduro. All the other countries in South America (with the unsurprising exceptions of the fellow left-wing regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia) have refused to recognise the new assembly. Thirty other countries around the world have also refused to recognise it. The USA has frozen Maduro’s assets and banned him from travelling to the US (which puts him in the same club as Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe); it also imposed sanctions on 13 of the president’s officials for human rights abuses, corruption and undermining democracy. Ambassadors from the UK, Spain, France and Mexico attended a session of the National Assembly (the legitimate parliament) to show support for the authentic and evolved democracy it represents.
Superficially, it might look like President Maduro’s government has been gaining new strength and life over the last two years; it has defied and survived opposition in parliament and on the streets. In reality, however, it’s more likely that it has been dying a long, slow death since those elections in 2015. The dinosaur may be dead already; the evolutionary dead-ends of its long neck and tiny brain mean that it takes a while for the message to get through.
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