ON JULY 5th, independence day, a pro-government mob armed with sticks, metal poles and pistols charged into Venezuela’s golden-domed national assembly building and beat up parliamentarians. Some of the victims, dazed and bloodied, staggered around the legislature’s gardens. Two went to hospital; with fractured skulls, it was feared. The thugs were responding to a summons by Tareck el Aissami, the country’s vice-president. The assembly, under opposition control since elections in December 2015, had been hijacked by an “oligarchy”, he declared; “patriots” should defend it. The national guard, responsible for the legislature’s security, made little effort to stop them.
Three days later, Venezuela’s thuggish regime showed its nicer face. In the dead of night Leopoldo López, the country’s most prominent political prisoner, was transferred from the Ramo Verde military prison to his house, where he will remain confined. The supreme court, which obeys the government, ordered the transfer on health and procedural grounds. Although Mr López, who looks healthy, is not a free man, his move back home is a surprise. Diosdado Cabello, a pugilistic panjandrum, had vowed that he would serve his full 13-year, nine-month sentence (for supposedly inciting violence during demonstrations in 2014) in his prison “cave”.
The regime’s unexpected softening towards Mr López adds confusion to a situation already fraught with it. Caracas, the capital, has been convulsed by protests since the end of March, when the supreme court usurped the powers of the national assembly. (The court partially reversed its decision, but the regime continues unlawfully to disregard the legislature.) At least 95 people have died in the protests. Shortages of basic goods add to the rage. Millions of Venezuelans are malnourished and the sick are untreated. Inflation this year will be 950%, predicts S&P, a rating agency. Three-quarters of Venezuelans oppose the 18-year-old regime. A trancazo, in which people block streets with cars, chains or bricks, stalled traffic for ten hours in several cities on July 10th.
Signs of discontent are appearing within the regime. More than 100 soldiers have reportedly been arrested for such offences as rebellion since the protests began. Luisa Ortega Díaz, the attorney-general under whose authority Mr López was prosecuted, has become one of the regime’s most dangerous critics. She has filed charges against several senior military officers, including the chief of the intelligence service and the colonel who failed to stop the marauders at the national assembly.
Ms Ortega and the opposition are at one in resisting the regime’s most brazen power grab so far: a plan to convene a constituent assembly, which can rewrite the constitution and do almost anything else it wants. Elections to the new body, set up to ensure that the regime will control it, are to take place on July 30th. The opposition calls the date “zero hour” for democracy.
It is unclear whether Mr López’s transfer to more comfortable quarters is a sign of the regime’s weakness or, more likely, of its guile. His imprisonment had become an international cause célèbre; his wife, Lilian Tintori, had visited Donald Trump in the White House. Mr López’s move was brokered by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a former Spanish prime minister who has been encouraging the government and the opposition to talk to each other. Optimists hope that dialogue might lead to a restoration of the opposition’s political rights and an agreement on resolving Venezuela’s economic and humanitarian crises.
Home, but not free
But it may well be that the unjailing of Mr López is a diversionary tactic rather than a sign that the regime is willing to make real political concessions. Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, has succeeded before in disrupting opposition initiatives with conciliatory but ultimately meaningless gestures. In October 2016, during a push by the opposition to hold a referendum to recall him from office, he agreed to negotiations brokered by the Vatican. The talks came to nothing, but they split the opposition and helped undermine the referendum campaign.
Mr Maduro could exploit Mr López’s homecoming in similar fashion. Before his jailing, Mr López, an economist educated in the United States, led the salida (“exit”) movement, a radical part of the opposition that argued for Mr Maduro’s negotiated departure from power. Mr López was convicted of inciting violence that led to 43 deaths during protests in 2014; lacking evidence, one prosecutor said the incitement was “subliminal”. Mr López’s main rival within the opposition is Henrique Capriles, a moderate who lost to Mr Maduro in a presidential election in 2013 and governs the state of Miranda. Although he is not in jail, the government has banned him from running again for political office for 15 years.
By sending Mr López home, Mr Maduro may hope to widen divisions within the opposition, which has no single leader. Within hours, Mr López’s and Mr Capriles’s parties were bickering over how long the latest trancazos should last. Some opposition politicians criticised Ms Tintori for thanking regime bigwigs who were in the caravan of vehicles that brought her husband home. Her critics suspected that she had capitulated to the regime, or that Mr López had struck a deal to get out of jail. Ms Tintori denies this. “Being courteous doesn’t make you less brave,” she said.
Mr Maduro is also using Mr López’s relocation to try to thwart an alliance between Ms Ortega and the opposition. She was entirely to blame for jailing Mr López in the first place, he declared. The president insisted that he himself had played no part (despite boasting in 2014 that he had ordered Mr López’s incarceration and would do the same for “all fascists”). The supreme court is threatening to put Ms Ortega on trial for “grave errors”, although the consent of the national assembly may be required to sack her.
If Mr Maduro intends the homecoming of Mr López as a signal that he is serious about dialogue, he will have ample opportunity to prove it. He could free Mr López rather than just sending him home, along with 100 or so other political prisoners. He could scrap the constituent assembly, restore the legislature’s powers and call off Ms Ortega’s trial. Until this happens, only Mr López’s family will have cause to celebrate. Most long-suffering Venezuelans will remain justifiably ungrateful.