the current

Is Venezuela's Maduro putting the pieces in place for a dictatorship?

As the government moves to rewrite the constitution, fears circulate that President Nicolás Maduro is consolidating power. Is it a dictatorship, or is that an oversimplification of the crisis in Venezuela?
Venezuela's democratically elected President Nicolas Maduro appears to be consolidating power at a time of great economic and political instability for his country.

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On August 1, two Venezuelan opposition leaders under house arrest were re-arrested by the country's intelligence services.

The detention of Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma was roundly condemned by the international community, with Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland stating their detention was "further proof of the regime's dictatorial intentions."

But this is just the latest in a stream of criticism for President Nicolás Maduro, who has been accused of exploiting Venezuela's severe economic crisis and consolidating power for himself.   

A slide towards dictatorship is perhaps most evinced by a contentious vote held on July 30, which elected members of a new body to rewrite the constitution in what is assumed to be Maduro's favour.

On July 30, 2017, Security forces members point their weapons at demonstrators while they protest the election of a new Constituent Assembly, which will be tasked with drafting a new constitution. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Emiliana Duarte, activist and managing editor of Caracas Chronicles, says this constitutional change is a move "to institutionalize dictatorship," and calls the process surrounding it "illegitimate."

Ben Rowswell, Canada's former ambassador to Venezuela, adds the electoral council responsible for the vote "was hand picked by the president through unconstitutional means," which follows a pattern for the Maduro government.

"The Supreme Court is totally stuffed by unconstitutional means, taking orders directly by the president. It has not once in its entire history under Maduro issued one ruling that's not favourable to the government … There's absolutely no separation of powers."

We expect there to be more violence and more repression. The number of political prisoners right now is up to 498.-  Emiliana  Duarte, managing editor of Caracas Chronicles

But other observers argue that to categorize Maduro as a dictator is an oversimplification of a complex crisis.

"The word 'dictator' actually has meaning, it has content, and I think we should actually try to stick close to that content," says George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University.

"There's no reason to think that the scheduled 2018 presidential election won't occur. There's no reason to think … whatever constitutional reform comes out of this constituent assembly won't be put to a popular vote."

An anti-government demonstrator cries during a vigil to honour those who have been killed during clashes between security forces and protesters in Venezuela. Four months of street protests have left at least 125 people dead. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

Ciccariello-Maher says the media has been sensationalizing politics in a moment of crisis. He points to the detention of Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma as an example, identifying that these two opposition leaders violated terms of house arrest.

"Under normal circumstances, the headlines wouldn't scream 'kidnapping.' They would talk about … being returned to custody," he says.

"We want to be a little more … nuanced when we're talking about these people and the coverage we give these events."

But Duarte describes a country on lockdown, with people afraid to leave their houses for fear of confrontation with the police.

"We expect there to be more violence and more repression. The number of political prisoners right now is up to 498," she says.

Over 5,000 people have been detained by security forces in the past four months, and 1,389 remain in custody, according to Foro Penal, a human rights group.

"And the president himself has actually said publicly, 'What we don't win through ballots, we will win through arms,'" says Rowswell.

"This is a classic dictatorship that has now installed itself in Venezuela."

Listen to the full debate at the top of this post. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Julian Uzielli, Kristin Nelson and Pacinthe Mattar.