For the last 20 years, Venezuelans have been subjected to one of the most ruthless dictatorships in modern history in Latin America. A regime that used democracy to destroy democracy.
In 1998, Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez ran for president after he was unable to take power by force in a failed 1992 coup d’état. Chávez was a candidate in a country that respected the peaceful transfer of power, freedom of expression, legal political parties, free candidates and free elections. But in 18 months, he changed the constitution and went from being a head of state elected for five years without an option for re-election to six years with the option of re-election.
Two decades later, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, held “elections” in which contenders were arbitrarily imprisoned, political parties were banned, the media censored and a parallel parliament created by the dictatorship because they did not have majority in the legitimately elected congress. The government is all a fraud.
More than 70 percent of Venezuelans did not participate in the election and more than 60 countries do not recognize the dictator. Still, power was usurped and a tyranny was installed. On Tuesday, those in opposition to Maduro clashed against government forces loyal to his dictatorship.
Venezuelans do not face a conventional dictatorship, it is something worse. It is a corrupt state that threatens the region. That’s because Chávez and Maduro made Venezuela a paradise for the criminal economy — including drug and human trafficking, and colectivos armados, or guerrillas who act with impunity under government protection.
While it is true that many officers in the armed forces suffer the same problems of citizens and want to change the situation, Venezuela has 2,000 generals, and with the support of Cuban agents, Russian troops and death squads, the regime has dismantled democracy. And that is all Maduro has left, the use of weapons and fear to continue to hold power.
This corrupt state has brought devastating humanitarian and economic consequences. Since 2015, 3.7 million Venezuelans have forcibly emigrated. Venezuelans, without having had a war or a natural catastrophe, have one of the largest populations of refugees in the world, second only to Syria. The economy has contracted more than 50 percent in five years and, according to the International Monetary Fund, the 2019 hyperinflation will be 10,000 percent. More than 90 percent of the population lives in poverty. The homicide rate is one of the highest on the planet, with more than 80 per 100,000 inhabitants. And more than 330,000 Venezuelans have been killed since 1999. All this in a country with the world’s largest oil reserves.
However, Juan Guaidó, president of the legitimate parliament, has assumed the constitutional function of interim president after the illegitimate mandate of Maduro’s regime expired on Jan. 10.
More than 60 countries recognize Guaidó as head of state, millions of Venezuelans have turned to the streets to support him, and some of the nation’s assets have been recovered. What happens in my country not only affects Venezuelans, but also the region. Every day that Maduro remains in power, there will be more drug trafficking routes, more migrants and refugees, more political prisoners and more people dying because of the lack of medicines and food. All that remains is for the majority of the armed forces to defeat that corrupt
David Smolansky is a leader of the Popular Will party in Venezuela and a former mayor of El Hatillo, a municipality in Caracas. He is in exile in the United States, and he is coordinator for a Venezuelan migrants and refugees working group at the Organization of American States in Washington.