“THE world knows this is a dictatorship,” jeered masked students confronting a rank of national guardsmen on April 4th in Caracas. With tear-gas swirling around Avenida Libertador, one of the capital’s main streets, what had begun as a march to parliament became a stand-off between youths with stones and soldiers with machineguns. One placard bore the image of a military boot trampling a map of Venezuela.
Protests against the authoritarian regime, which has ruled since 1999, are no rarity. In 2014, 43 people died on both sides in massive demonstrations. But this week’s confrontation felt both angrier and more hopeful than recent ones have been. That is because of a series of extraordinary events, which began on March 29th.
Venezuela’s supreme court, which obeys the regime, started things off with a ruling that claimed for itself the powers of the opposition-controlled legislature. That was only the latest in a series of measures to kneecap the assembly after the opposition won elections in 2015. But the formal usurpation of its rightful powers provoked new outrage. Chile, Colombia and Peru withdrew their ambassadors. Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organisation of American States (OAS), denounced what he called a “self-inflicted coup”.
The second surprise occurred on March 31st, when Venezuela’s attorney-general, Luisa Ortega Díaz, a stalwart of the regime, joined in the condemnation. Delivering her annual address to government lawyers, an event carried live on television, she described the court’s decision as a “rupture” of the constitutional order. “We call for reflection so that the democratic path can be retaken,” she said. Hours later, Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, summoned the national defence council and ordered the supreme court to reverse the most contentious parts of its earlier announcement (exposing the court’s independence for the fiction it is).
Both the public rift at the top, and the government’s ratchet away from dictatorship rather than towards it, are unprecedented. Some detect an elaborate ruse. International pressure on the regime had been mounting. The OAS held a debate on Venezuela’s deteriorating democracy earlier in March, over the objections of the government. What better way to shut up critics than to have the supreme court do something anti-democratic and then order it to change its mind? If that was the plan, it didn’t work. The OAS held a second debate after the U-turn.
More interesting, and more likely, is the possibility that the rifts within chavismo, the left-wing movement founded by the late Hugo Chávez, are real. They could eventually provide an opening for good-faith negotiations between elements of the government and the opposition. Ms Ortega is no softie; she is loathed by the opposition for jailing politicians. But she may have been trying to distance herself from factions in the regime that are even more extreme than she is, says Luis Vicente León, a pollster.
The “Taliban”, as some chavistas refer to hardliners, include Diosdado Cabello, a former president of the national assembly, and Tareck El Aissami, Mr Maduro’s vice-president, who has been named a drug “kingpin” by the United States Treasury Department (an accusation he denies). Mr Cabello reportedly helped to draft the supreme-court ruling, and announced it on his television programme minutes after it was published. Ms Ortega’s dissent may be a sign that not all members of the regime are prepared to break irrevocably with democracy. According to the Wall Street Journal, the chief of the armed forces, Vladimir Padrino, also urged Mr Maduro to revise the supreme court’s ruling.
If the regime cracks, the wretched state of the economy will be one cause (see article). Its economic mismanagement has led to severe shortages of food and medicine. Earnings from oil, almost the only source of hard currency, have been falling. The government dare not default on the country’s $110bn debt, lest creditors seize oil shipments.
The need to pay debt spurred the supreme court’s power grab. This month the government and PDVSA, the state oil company, are due to make bond repayments of $2.8bn, which is more than a quarter of international reserves. The regime has been trying to raise cash through joint ventures, asset sales and other deals with foreign investors and governments, especially Russia’s. The national assembly has warned that such deals will be invalid without its approval. That threat held up a $440m loan from CAF, an international development bank based in Caracas, last month. Hence the supreme court’s assault on parliament, which gives Mr Maduro broad power to approve joint ventures in the hydrocarbon sector. That part of the ruling stands, though investors may not feel reassured.
Encouraged by fissures in the regime, the opposition and some of Venezuela’s neighbours are pressing it to restore parliament’s powers in full, hold overdue regional elections and bring forward a presidential election scheduled for December 2018. The chavistas are not ready for that. If they lose, the opposition will “destroy them, and their families and their money”, says Mr León. Hardliners may need safe passage out of the country if democracy is to return. They would sooner destroy Venezuela than face destruction themselves.