Saturday, August 5, 2017

CARACAS – After two aborted attempts to install the National Constitutional Assembly (ANC), its recently elected members were sworn-in in a short ceremony that started close to midnight on Friday in the building that also houses the Venezuelan parliament. The members of the ANC were elected on Sunday in an election that saw just 20% of the electorate some 3.8 million voters participate in.

The original ceremony, last Wednesday, was cancelled amid chaos outside the Legislative Palace, with government and opposition supporters clashing in street battles that left nine dead and almost 200 injured. For today’s ceremony, the building was surrounded by members of the pro-government “People’s Guard” armed with assault rifles.

The swearing-in comes as rumors of widespread unrest in the military spread, with several high-ranking officers said to not recognize the ANC. If true, these soldiers could join calls of protest by the opposition-controlled National Assembly and the Attorney General. According to military sources, most officers are unwilling to bear the burden of repressing the widespread outcry, which saw several small military facilities around the country overrun and ransacked by protesters in the past days.

The only order of business for the new body in its first session was to elect its president, with Diosdado Cabello beating former Foreign Minister Delcy Eloina Rodríguez in an unexpectedly tight vote. In a short and fiery acceptance speech, Cabello warned the opposition that “the ANC will do what must be done to quash all terrorist activities,” adding that none of the other Branches of the State were above the ANC.

According to sources close to the high government, President Nicolás Maduro regrets going through with the ANC election, and is mulling an astonishing about-face to disband the ANC, which would open a deep rift between the radical ‘chavista’ faction led by Maduro himself, and Constituent Assembly chairman Diosdado Cabello.

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As the push to make Maduro cancel the ANC goes full steam ahead, all or parts of that dispatch from the future are likely playing in his mind, and in the minds of many people in Fuerte Tiuna.

So as negotiations get going, quietly, between Havana and Bogotá, it’s worth pondering: what would it take for Maduro to cancel the ANC of his own accord?

For Maduro, giving up the ANC has become the price of admission he would have to pay to begin any negotiation. After making a farce of the 2016 dialogue, the government’s reputation is shot. To open negotiations, they will have to make immediate concessions, not promises.

That would be a very steep price indeed. The ANC is his most powerful weapon against the opposition and, more importantly, it’s his offer to other chavista leaders to stick with him. If he were to cancel the ANC, he’d be left without a weapon, and it could lead radicals to abandon him.

The Diosdados, the Reverols and the El Aissamis need the ANC. They are, by virtue of their crimes, completely committed to staying in power no matter what. Maduro is useless to them if he’s not as committed.

I believe Maduro would be willing to pay the toll on his own, not forced by men in green fatigues if he thinks the ANC is too much of a risk, or if he can make a good trade.

The ANC is his most powerful weapon against the opposition and, more importantly, it’s his offer to other chavista leaders to stick with him.

In the first option, Maduro could cancel it if he believes the ANC will do him more harm than good. This is the scenario described in the opening news from the future: the country might become ungovernable if the ANC is installed, or the ANC could fall into the hands of a rival. Both scenarios would put Maduro at personal risk.

So far, MUD has done little to establish this risk. All efforts seem focused on stopping the ANC election from happening on July 30 not on the aftermath.

But what if on July 30 the government holds the election? If Maduro sees the days after the election as days of harvest, of reaping rewards? Then going through hell to get there will seem to be worth it.

That’s where MUD and the international community must step in and make clear it will be far worse for Maduro to hold the election than to cancel it.

Two other groups hold important sway in raising the risk for Maduro: the Armed Forces and the less radical members of his party. Both groups seem largely opposed to the ANC, and are pushing Maduro to drop it.

A second reason for Maduro to cancel the ANC could be for him to get something in return, like a truce or amnesty: if Maduro is asked to drop his weapon and disarm, he would obviously like the fighting to stop. The big “something” on offer from the international community at the moment, and apparently from MUD, is the start of a new round of negotiations.

The country might become ungovernable if the ANC is installed, or the ANC could fall in the hands of a rival. Both scenarios would put Maduro at personal risk.

On Monday, we saw a clearly coordinated international push to get Maduro to cancel the ANC, with statements from eighteen countries, including President Santos of Colombia who met with Raúl Castro on Sunday and a threat from the USA to stop buying oil from Venezuela if the ANC goes through. Every statement seems to carry the same message: cancel the ANC and we can work something out. And it’s surely no coincidence that MUD’s statement on Monday included the same offer.

Maduro so far has not accepted, and it’s easy to see why. As I said above, he depends on radicals for support, and they won’t agree with negotiations that would lead to a transition. He sold them on an ANC, now they want an ANC. Thus, the net effect of the type of negotiations on offer with proper independent mediators, and clear goals can be destabilizing for Maduro, even if they lower the pressure from the opposition and abroad.

For Maduro to take this offer, he would need assurances from the opposition and from other countries that he’ll be safe, either in Venezuela or elsewhere.

These reasons to cancel the ANC are not mutually exclusive. Maduro could realize that the ANC would be too risky, and try to make a trade: if he must cancel it anyway, better to do it for something than for nothing. Furthermore, the two reasons are intertwined: the worse that probable dispatch from the future looks, the less it will take to convince Maduro to cancel the ANC.

On the heels of the July 16 consultation, it’s Maduro’s turn to play. MUD should, and surely will, step up its street agenda to put pressure on the President. Outside our borders, several countries are acting; but we don’t know on what or how it’ll work. The end game is in Maduro’s hands, but if he makes a mistake, or takes too long to play, the game could be taken from his hands, never to come back.

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