-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — Venezuela is at the end of its tether. Seen from any angle, its decadence is painfully visible in areas ranging from personal liberties and rights, to the economy and the state of its society and institutions. The regime no longer embodies even a paltry version of its revolutionary discourse — it is like a broken vase, emptied of all illusions.

Meanwhile, a cabal of its members is clinging to power in the time-worn tradition of banana republics and their shoddy despots, like Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe or Paraguay under Alfredo Stroessner. In this endless muddle, the Caribbean nation can only ask questions, chief among them: How is is possible for things to be getting worse?

The regime is caught between its incompetence and the falling price of oil, Venezuela's key export. As resulting economic problems grow, the regime's social support base shrinks and the government loses its symbolic power and ability to distance itself from the crisis. We should not be surprised that the opposition has managed to garner so many signatures backing the end of President Nicolás Maduro's mandate.

Putting this constitutional tool to use requires first setting it in motion. The initial step was to collect 1% of all possible signatures (roughly 180,000), something organizers easily accomplished by gathering more than a million signatures in just one day. Next they will need to collect four million signatures to hold a presidential recall referendum. The referendum will pass if the recall option receives at least one more vote than Maduro did in the 2013 presidential election.

Going by the current tally, the process has all the appearance of an election, with each round of votes stripping the regime of a bit of more of its residual legitimacy. The mechanism was devised by the Chavista polity, specifically Maduro's late mentor, President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013), who was confident in his enduing appeal and his ability to win automatic majorities. But without the certainty of oil, the recall option has become a powerful instrument for change.

The regime's weakness was particularly apparent in the most recent legislative elections, in December, when the government lost its parliamentary majority.

Economist Asdrúbal R. Oliveros has observed that Venezuela's gross domestic product shrank 47% between 2013 and 2016. Another economist, Leonardo Vera, says this is one of the sharpest declines anywhere. "Only Equatorial Guinea and the Sudan are below us," he says. In social terms, this means that the 30% poverty level observed in 2013 is now at 70%. Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the opposition daily El Nacional, told Clarín that Venezuela is facing food shortages for the first time.

"In the Americas, this had only ever happened in Haiti," he said. The shortage is set to affect all those who earn around $10 a month, considering that statistics agency CENDAS puts the cost of the average family's monthly shopping cart at $80.

A November protest in Venezuela — Photo: Cristal Montanez

Analyst Michael Penfold envisions three possible scenarios ahead. First, the regime stands firm; second, the opposition coalition MUD promotes Maguro's constitutional departure; and third, an ongoing stalemate leads to violence.

A fourth option would have the regime collapsing under the weight of internal tensions, like that of Fujimori in Peru (1990-2000) or the Stroessner dictatorship in Paraguay (1954-1989). The government is loath to initiate a smooth, "Cuban-style" transition due to the widespread trafficking and corruption of its officials. Such a change would be a blow to the leaders currently busy accumulating wealth.

One such individual, allegedly, is the head of the Bolivarian National Guard, Néstor Reverol, whom the United States has suggested has ties to drug trafficking. Other high-ranking suspects include legislator and former speaker Diosdado Cabello, and two nephews of First Lady Cilia Flores who are currently awaiting trial in the U.S.

Journalist Eugenio Martínez attributes the regime's resilience partly to the reluctance of some in the opposition to see Maduro sacked: They'd rather see him burn in the nightmare of his own creation. That's a dangerous proposition.

The fact that recall signatures must be checked — on weekdays, which are now limited due to cuts in the working hours of state employees — presents another obstacle to change. The verification process could drag on past Jan. 10, 2017, after which a vice president must take over until the end of the presidential mandate (in March, 2019), and Maduro could name anyone as his next vice president, including regime hardliner Cabello.

If Maduro were to fall before Jan. 10, elections would need to be called within a month. Meanwhile, power would go to anti-government parliamentarian Henry Ramos Allup, who is one of several aspiring presidential candidates in the opposition.

Could the coalition survive an outbreak of rivalry within its ranks? It's not clear; and such lack of clarity is, of course, just another reason why the Maduro government has survived for as long as it has.