The Constituyente: Putting the Next Political Crisis on a Timer

The countdown to July 30th is on. Venezuela must be the only place where the government gives the next crisis its own fecha en el calendario.

It’s hard to overstate how destabilizing Nicolás Maduro’s decision to convene a Constituent Assembly has been. Every aspect of it seems consciously designed to turn up the heat on a pressure cooker that’s purposefully had all its safety valves clogged up. Rammed through illegally, with no previous consultation, with no referendum, on the basis of patently unfair election rules in a way that guaranteed the opposition would not and could not participate, it represents a brazen, undisguised attempt to shut down any remaining vestige of constitutional democracy in our country.

From the start, I’ve been convinced this whole thing is too crazy to work. One important reason is that, by its very structure it creates a series of crisis points each of which seem barely survivable to the regime: moments when the minds of democracy-minded Venezuelans can’t help but be focused, dates when the reality of the threat becomes too evident to will away.

Putting a countdown clock on democracy is stress testing the chavista coalition like nothing ever had before.

The first and worst of these, it seems to me, is July 30th: the day when the members of the Assembly are supposed to be “elected”. (The scare-quotes are necessary because the bizarre simulacrum of democracy that will take place that day resembles the real thing about as much as a Dicom auction resembles what happens at Sotheby’s.)

The farce on July 30th —when people will be asked to “elect” from long lists of names they don’t recognize all of whom are ardent supporters of dictatorship— looks very much like a point of no return. Allow this to happen and you can put a fork in the republic, it’s done.

This is scary, yes, but also to be welcomed in some ways. The hard deadline of July 30th injects a level of clarity into the public sphere that it’s been lacking. The slow, gradual turning-up of the heat on the frog cooking pot finally ends that day, and the already well heated frog is put into the microwave on full blast.

Over the last year we’ve made a big effort to talk to sources who don’t usually talk to journalists.I’m not comfortable going into the details here —if you’re interested you should subscribe— but readers of our Political Risk Report already know about the extreme pressures the constituyente has created inside the military and within PSUV itself.

Putting a countdown clock on democracy is stress testing the chavista coalition like nothing ever had before. It’s very far from clear it’s a stress test a government this widely loathed can survive.

There is serious, serious dissent across the governing coalition right now. Nevermind what the opposition thinks: most PSUV activists are uncomfortable with the proposal. Extraordinary efforts are being made to extract obedience from an activist base that realizes wedding itself to a proposal this blatantly authoritarian could doom their political prospects decades into the future.

There is precious little popular enthusiasm and zero constitutional legitimacy to Maduro’s power-grab, and the pressures it’s creating are causing more damage to the government side than to the opposition’s. Embarrassing though a U-Turn would be, damaging though it would be for Maduro’s credibility, it offers at least some hope of stabilizing the country. Doubling down on this madness can only mean open-ended instability years into the future, if not a descent into outright civil conflict.

Which is why I still think the most plausible interpretation is to see the entire constituyente thing as an elaborate head-fake: an involved bit of brinksmanship destined to be withdrawn in return for concessions before July 30th.

I may be wrong, of course: God knows it wouldn’t be the first time. But I think it’s worth going out on a limb, because absolutely nothing is more obnoxious than political observers who hedge their calls to within an inch of their lives.

So, when the decision stopping the constituyente comes, do remember where you heard it first. Chavistas may be incompetent at virtually everything, but they have a real knack for staying in power. And time-bombs may be great as movie plot devices…but nobody actually plants one under their own seat.