The effort to oust President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela through a referendum was always a long shot. But it represented the best hope of ending an era of authoritarian rule and epic economic mismanagement through peaceful, constitutional means.
Last week, however, allies of Mr. Maduro in the courts and on the electoral commission shut down the process, with predictable results. On Wednesday, enraged protesters took to the streets, where some came under attack by security forces, while their leaders called for a demonstration on Nov. 3 that will end at the presidential palace.
The latest confrontation between the government and the opposition began with regional court rulings that tossed out signatures supporting the referendum on grounds that some were gathered fraudulently. Based on those rulings, the electoral commission, run by acolytes of the president, last Friday suspended the next step of the process, the collection of signatures from roughly 20 percent of voters. That decision makes it almost certain that a referendum will not be held before Jan. 10, the latest dateunder which a plebiscite would trigger a new election.
Venezuela’s Parliament, which is run by Mr. Maduro’s opponents, but which he has rendered largely powerless, reacted with rightful indignation. During a hearing on Sunday, opposition leaders said the electoral commission’s decision represented a “rupture of constitutional order” and ade facto coup of the legislative branch. The hearing devolved into pandemonium and bloody scuffles after a band of government supporters burst in.
Some opposition lawmakers have proposed holding an impeachment-type trial. But even if that was to happen, it’s unlikely it would be more than a symbolic gesture. Opposition leaders appear to be pinning their hopes on acts of civil disobedience. “Maduro and his cronies must know that being peaceful doesn’t mean that we won’t defend the nation when we’re forced to,” the opposition leader Henrique Capriles said in a statement in which he called on Venezuelans to join Wednesday’s demonstration. “We must save Venezuela because it’s falling down the abyss this government it pushing it toward.”
Past standoffs have prompted international calls for dialogue. On Monday the Vatican offered to mediate talks between the government and the opposition. There’s little reason to be optimistic. Mr. Maduro has demonstrated that he is unwilling to share power or acknowledge the humanitarian crisis gripping the nation. This should persuade leaders in the region to denounce Mr. Maduro in stronger terms than they have in the past and call on Venezuelan jurists and bureaucrats to stop being accomplices of a dictatorship in the making. Meanwhile, China, which has kept the government afloat during years of low oil prices, should stop throwing good money after bad. Beijing is unlikely to see a return on its investments in Venezuela as long as Mr. Maduro remains in power.
In the meantime, ordinary citizens suffer from malnutrition and are dying needlessly, problems aggravated by the Maduro government’s refusal to accept humanitarian aid. As the situation worsens, it is only logical that more Venezuelans will be driven by desperation to rise up. If there is more bloodshed, Mr. Maduro will be responsible.