It’s hard to know what will happen next in Venezuela, but what Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told me in an interview last week should raise alarm bells throughout the hemisphere.
Santos said during a visit to Miami that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s hand-picked Constituent Assembly is drafting a new constitution that would be made public after Venezuela’s May 20 presidential elections. The new charter would officially turn Venezuela into a Cuban-style dictatorship, he said.
Maduro, already a de facto dictator, is running for re-election for another five-year term. He has prohibited top opposition leaders from running against him, banned international election observers and refused to allow an independent electoral tribunal.
The United States, European Union and all major Latin American countries – including Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia – have said that they won’t accept the results of Maduro’s sham election.
Santos told me that Maduro’s Constituent Assembly is secretly drafting a new constitution of about 350 articles and 18 “transitory clauses” that would create a voting system like in Cuba, where government-controlled “mass organizations” elect local officials who in turn elect legislators, who ultimately pick the country’s top leaders.
“The information I have is that among the proposed constitution’s articles is one that would abolish the universal right to vote and establish a system of corporative elections similar to that of Cuba,” Santos told me. “That amounts to the formalization of a Soviet-styled dictatorship.”
Santos added, “I also understand that they will establish a series of changes in things such as the definition of treason to the fatherland. The expanded definition of treason would allow the Maduro regime “to repress any criticism and to have more supposedly legal instruments to be able to further repress the population.”
Asked where he got that information, Santos said it comes from “intelligence reports,” without elaborating.
Maduro may radicalize his leftist revolution in order to prevent a popular rebellion as the country descends into near total chaos, Santos said. Venezuela’s inflation rate this year has been projected by the International Monetary Fund at up to 13,000 percent, the highest in the world, and there are widespread shortages of food and medicines.
“What one is seeing, and is very worrisome, is that the more the economic and social situation deteriorate, the more sophisticated the regime’s ways to repress the population are,” Santos continued.
Venezuela is also creating neighborhood paramilitary cells to try to control any kind of dissent, Santos said.
“At this very moment, they are creating about 13,000 cells throughout the country, with 40 militants per cell,” Santos told me. “Those are the people who, at the very moment there is an anti-government protest, go and repress it. Just like with Cuba’s neighborhood watch committees.”
I’m instinctively skeptical when presidents cite “intelligence reports,” which sometimes are written by disinformation experts trying to smear their enemies. But in Venezuela’s case, there are powerful reasons to take Santos’ statement seriously.
First, Venezuela’s late populist leader Hugo Chavez – Maduro’s mentor – had already tried to change the constitution to establish a Cuba-style election system in 2007.
That year, Chavez convened a constitutional referendum to, as he said, “end the old bourgeois system” and create a “new socialist state.” He proposed changing the Constitution to, among other things, elect public officials through government-created “socialist communes” rather than municipalities. The referendum was narrowly defeated.
Second, it’s very likely that Maduro, anticipating that his country will face an even greater economic collapse and growing international isolation after his inevitable May 20 re-election, decided that he won’t be able to prevent a national insurrection unless he turns Venezuela into a police state.
If Santos is right and Maduro goes ahead with this plans, we could soon see a Syrian-type refugee crisis in the Americas.
This is one reason why Santos is so worried: According to his count, about 1 million Venezuelans have already fled into Colombia. Unless Maduro can be pressed to shelve his totalitarian plans and restore democratic rule, we may soon see millions more Venezuelans fleeing the country, creating a region-wide migration crisis like this hemisphere has not seen in recent history.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can contacted at email@example.com.