ON THE evening of February 6th the lights went out across most of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, just as the city’s rush hour was beginning. Unable to take the metro, tens of thousands of workers were forced to walk the crime-ridden streets. Many took the power cut as a metaphor for the country’s snuffed-out democracy and lost prosperity.

At precisely the same time, Jorge Rodríguez, Venezuela’s expensively dressed communications minister, was arriving at a meeting in the Dominican Republic. He has been the chief negotiator for the country’s leftist regime in sporadic talks with the opposition that have taken place over the past 16 months. Brandishing a bright yellow pen he declared that a deal had been reached. Signing it, he said, was a mere “formality”.

Anyone credulous enough to believe him was soon disabused. On February 7th the opposition delegation, led by Julio Borges, the former head of Venezuela’s parliament, made a counter-proposal. It repeated a long-standing demand that the president, Nicolás Maduro, restore the democratic institutions that he has subverted since taking office in 2013. It called for establishing an independent electoral council to replace the current one, which does the bidding of the “Bolivarian” regime. The opposition also sought the reinstatement of banned political parties, the freeing of some 200 political prisoners and access to the media.

Mr Rodríguez refused to look at the document. So there was no deal. The talks were suspended indefinitely. Hours later the electoral commission announced that a presidential election will be held on April 22nd. Together, the breakdown of the talks and the setting of the date seem to dash any lingering hope that the election will be anything other than a fraud.

Perhaps, as the government’s most radical opponents have long argued, the talks were doomed from the start. The government was never going to allow a fair presidential election. This year the economy will be a third smaller than it was in 2013, the year Mr Maduro took over from Hugo Chávez, the regime’s charismatic founder. The IMF expects inflation to be 13,000%. Food is scarce. The president blames this mess on malevolent outside powers, such as the United States. Most Venezuelans rightly blame him and his government. His approval rating is around 25%.

With foes like these

Mr Maduro now plans to fight the elections on the basis of the document his negotiators offered in the Dominican Republic. That will allow for the presence of UN electoral observers and a modest reform of the electoral authority. He will then no doubt proclaim that he has arranged for the election, which will give him a fresh six-year term in office, to be a fair one.

He can count on weak opposition. That is partly because he has dealt with anyone who might threaten him by putting them out of action. Some of the opposition’s most prominent leaders are under house arrest, barred from office or in exile. In January, the electoral authority banned the Democratic Unity roundtable, the coalition of opposition parties, from nominating a candidate. It also declared that the two biggest opposition parties had failed to register correctly, which disqualifies them from fielding candidates.

Mr Maduro may nonetheless face a rival or two. Henry Ramos Allup, a veteran politician, and Henri Falcón, a former ally of Chávez, have talked of running against the president. Mr Maduro might not mind. Some show of opposition would give the election a gloss of legitimacy. It would further split the opposition, which has failed to choose a single leader in 18 years of chavista rule. If more than one rival takes Mr Maduro on, all the better. They would split the anti-government vote, making it easier for him to win the one-round election.

He has rushed the election in part to deny the opposition time to prepare (it need not be held before December). He may also be calculating that the economy will be in even worse shape by then. Underinvestment and corruption have brought PDVSA, the state oil firm, which provides nearly all of Venezuela’s foreign income, close to collapse. Its production is at its lowest level in nearly 30 years. Rating agencies have declared the company to be in technical default after it repeatedly paid late interest on its bonds. Both PDVSA and Venezuela itself are scheduled to make $9.5bn in principal and interest payments this year. An outright default would make it far more difficult to export oil, and thus to feed Venezuelans even at today’s subsistence level.

Outside powers may be on the point of inflicting damage on the economy as a way to push Mr Maduro out. Rex Tillerson, the American secretary of state, has just completed a six-day tour of several Latin American countries. He spent much of it trying to build a regional response to Venezuela’s crisis. He said that the United States had established a working group with Canada and Mexico to study the possibility of restricting its oil exports. The administration’s aim is to bring the disaster in Venezuela “to an end”, Mr Tillerson says. There is little doubt that it would welcome the same fate for Mr Maduro’s rule. President Donald Trump is said to be “energised” by the idea. But Mr Maduro has proven himself to be wilier than many of his foes had thought. A blackout in Caracas may not portend a loss of power for the regime.