The announcement by Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro, that he would call elections to install a National Constituent Assembly (ANC) initially seemed more of a threat than a genuine ambition.
Yet, despite weeks of opposition-led protests and widespread international condemnation, the elections were held and the 545 member assembly sat for the first time this week. The body will sit for as long as it takes to rewrite the country’s constitution and has the power to bypass the opposition-controlled National Assembly (AN), meaning Maduro’s Socialist Party (PSUV) now has virtually unlimited control over policy-making. Opposition parties boycotted the elections, considering them ‘unconstitutional’.
The rules for choosing candidates were drafted to heavily favour the PSUV’s own interests – certain seats were specifically allocated to represent certain areas of society, including; workers, farmers, fishermen, students, the disabled, indigenous people, pensioners, and business people. To be eligible for these seats, candidates had to be “certified” by the government. The choice of Delcy Rodríguez, a former Foreign Minister and a trusted Maduro supporter, as ANC leader makes it unlikely that the president’s rivals within the body (which technically has more power than Maduro) will try and oust him, as some analysts speculated they might.
The voting process itself also generated controversy – after Electoral Council Chairman, Tibisay Lucena, claimed that a record 8,089,320 voters had turned out at the ANC poll, compared to 5,622,844 in the AN elections 19 months earlier. However, the number was disproved both by the UK based company which ran the voting system and internal government documents seen by news agency Reuters, which suggested that the actual number was only around 3.7 million by 5.30pm local time on voting day. Government workers and employees of state owned companies, mainly in the mining and metallurgical industries, were also made to vote in the ANC elections on threat of losing their jobs – despite the fact that voting is not obligatory according to the current constitution.
Meanwhile, the country’s economic downturn has continued to worsen. The Bolivar (Venezuela’s currency), has continued to fall in value against the US dollar. The exchange rate on the black market, which for many Venezuelans is the only way to acquire the currency given the strict controls implemented by the government, has now reached over 20,000 Bolivares to the dollar in some areas. It is estimated by the International Monetary Fund that inflation in the country will reach 720.5 per cent by the end of the year, and data recorded by the AN suggests that the actual measure could be significantly higher, as it had already increased by 240.8 per cent after the first six months of the year.
The knock-on effect of increases in inflation and the value of currency has left many Venezuelans in dire circumstances. 82 per cent of households are now living in poverty (meaning Venezuela is now the poorest country in the Americas) and those requiring hospital treatment are forced to buy medicines on the black market as hospitals suffer continual shortages and struggle to provide anything but the most basic of treatments.
Maduro and the PSUV government have remained defiant, blaming the country’s problems on foreign powers. In public addresses he has singled out the US, accusing it of attempting to orchestrate a coup d’état. Meanwhile there has been an exodus of Venezuelans to neighbouring Colombia and Brazil both to buy supplies such as drugs and to escape the economic pressures – between 300,000 and 340,000 Venezuelans are now estimated to have crossed the border into Colombia with intentions to remain permanently.
For the full details on how the international community has reacted to the Venezuelan Crisis, including the imposition of sanctions by the US on President Maduro, please click here to read the sister article