Expert: Violence Will Only Escalate Ahead of Venezuela’s Referendum

Iñaki Sagarzazu

Iñaki Sagarzazu

After more than a year of political battles based upon the increasing autocracy of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, the situation is quickly coming to a head.

The 2015 elections left a divided government: on one side, Maduro, on the other, the opposition-controlled National Assembly. As the economy fell deeper into recession, inflation accelerated and shortages increased, the economic crisis became a social and political crisis as well.

In 2016, the country's pro-president Supreme Court ruled constantly against the National Assembly's constitutional prerogatives, slowly eroding the checks and balances dictated in Venezuela's constitution. In a last attempt to change the regime, the opposition started pushing for a recall referendum as established in the constitution; however this also was canceled by pro-government lower courts.

The Supreme Court effectively eliminated the National Assembly at the end of March, which kicked off protests and demonstrations that have resulted in more than 80 deaths. In the aftermath, Venezuela's chief prosecutor – once a government loyalist – has emerged as Maduro's chief critic. The Supreme Court on Monday (July 3) stripped Luisa Ortega Díaz of her power to name her own deputy, instead imposing someone who has prosecuted some of Maduro's most vocal opponents. The court also threw out her order for the former national guard leader to testify about human rights abuses during the protests and is expected to remove the attorney general next week altogether.

Maduro has called for a Constituent Assembly, with a planned July 30 vote, which would have powers to reform the constitution and supersede other institutions. On Monday, the opposition announced plans to hold an unofficial referendum on July 16. The symbolic vote is intended to show what recent surveys have, that 7 in 10 Venezuelans are against rewriting the constitution.

Thursday (July 6), Maduro said the new constitution will be approved by voters in a referendum after it is written. The promise – coming from the same man who recently said, "What we couldn't accomplish through votes, we will with weapons" – is not likely to provide much reassurance.

Iñaki Sagarzazu is an assistant professor in the Texas Tech University Department of Political Science who specializes in Venezuelan politics and how institutions' roles in politics affect individual voters. His research has been published in the American Journal of Political Science, British Journal of Political Science, Political Behavior, West European Politics, Political Science Research & Methods, Latin American Politics & Society, and Policy Studies Journal as well as in several book chapters in edited volumes. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Latin American politics and political communications. Sagarzazu sometimes posts his political analyses on Twitter and his blog. He is fluent in both English and Spanish.


Iñaki Sagarzazu, assistant professor of political science, (832) 230-6021 or

Talking points

  • The government has called for a Constituent Assembly, which would give it the power to get rid of the opposition.
  • The opposition has called for a referendum, although because it is not called by Maduro, it is mostly a symbolic gesture.
  • More than 80 people have been killed since the beginning of April. Until the date of the referendum, the violence will only escalate.


  • "The government has called for a Constituent Assembly at the end of the month, and that Constituent Assembly, even though it was called illegally, will pretty much have power to do anything. It would be above every other single branch of government, and that's definitely a way in which the government could try to eliminate the opposition."
  • "The government has these mob squads around that act with complete impudence. They act next to the police. There's a picture going around that shows a deputy on the floor bleeding, some mobsters around him and then, two or three steps away, the national guard."
  • "From here on until the 16th, the next week is going to be even worse. And then whatever happens the 16th, who knows? Violence has only increased as the date arrives."
  • "It's not just violence against politicians. Students were arrested for sitting down and blocking a street. A technical adviser of the opposition was arrested and charged in a military tribunal with conspiracy. There were images yesterday of one of the trucks of the national guard tearing down the gates of a building so they could get in. It's just a big disaster and the government is doing nothing to stop it."

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