Nicolás Maduro: The New Tropical Czar Has No Clothes
Maduro may still be in office, but nothing in the Venezuelan landscape looks rosy for the government.
On May 20, Nicolás Maduro was re-elected president of Venezuela after an election almost everyone within and outside the country dubbed not free and fair. He presided over a process where most main political adversaries were jailed, exiled or disqualified, the government controlled every bit of news, and it organized a vast operation of vote-for-food with the use of a special ID card. The obvious question following the election is how long he will remain in power as Venezuela suffers a deep economic crisis and the government experiments with a level of international pressure and isolation few countries have experienced in recent years.
Whenever a country enters a long phase of plights and political submission that look unsolvable and menace to become permanent, and when it all occurs under a strongman’s fist, all gazes turn to the leader in power. This happened in the old days of the Soviet Union, in Cuba with Fidel Castro, in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, in Zimbabwe with Robert Mugabe (until it didn’t), and in many others. This is clearly the case of Venezuela.
Until recently, Maduro was the babbling, inexperienced and inadequate heir of Hugo Chávez, who built a powerhouse in Latin America, fueled by oil and championed by his populist nationalism and anti-US rhetoric. But after 2014, and more so in 2017, Maduro was able to outmaneuver both his foes in the democratic camp and his internal adversaries, even while the nation’s economy was going down the drain.
Chávez presided over the longest high-oil-price boom (2004-2012) that Venezuela has experienced in its almost century-long history as an oil economy. This brought the country steady (though only mild) growth, a huge consumption boom, allowing the populist leader to address unsolved problems like primary health care and malnutrition that had accumulated over decades. It also led to numerous gargantuan projects in infrastructure, railways, oil and gas processing plants that never saw the day, and an orgy of nationalizations that ended up creating a deep black hole of corruption. Chávez’s proclivity to personalistic and authoritarian rule, though, did not resort to drastic repression in order to grant political stability. His rule fitted the trendy political science characterization of hybrid regimes or competitive authoritarianism where the judiciary is packed with followers, political adversaries disqualified and the press obstructed but not silenced.
But as Chávez passed away in 2013, he left a troubling legacy to his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro. The economy, entering the downward part of the oil price cycle, began a drastic crunch, accumulating external debt, growing fiscal deficits and higher inflation. What began as typical economic disequilibrium soon turned into outright crisis: a loss of a third of GDP in a few years, huge shortages of food and medicine, hyperinflation, and the inability to provide basic services like electricity and water supply. But different to earlier experiences of macroeconomic disturbances in the region, Venezuela’s woes also originated in the extreme centralization of economic decisions (and property) in the hands of an inefficient state.
By reversing the mildly repressive tradition of his predecessor, who always sought political solutions and international support for his policies while dismantling a long-standing democracy, Maduro today incarnates the rebirth of the classic Latin American dictatorship of the 20th century built on the barrel of a gun. Political discontent in 2014 met a brutal response from the police, national guard and armed militias. The result was dozens killed, hundreds wounded, thousands of protesters imprisoned without due process, and important leaders put behind bars. The prosecution and the judiciary have effectively become institutional mechanisms at the service of curbing dissent.
Shortly after, however, in December 2015 the country woke up to a new situation: Maduro and his regime lost the national assembly (NA) in a blatant defeat, becoming a ruling minority in a country that increasingly despises them. As a result, the coalition in power — including the military, a majority of governors, the ruling party (with a consistent social base of government workers across the country) and the media (now either owned by the government or by friendly business people) — closed ranks in order to throw both the newly-elected NA and political adversaries off the rails.
The years 2016 and 2017 were decisive in more than one sense. In a sequence of decisions, the government invalidated a recall referendum that, in order to proceed, would have to take place before the end of the year; in early 2017, the supreme justice tribunal announced the annulling of the NA, and the executive approved (with no constitutional basis) the launching of a constituent assembly to remake the political system altogether.
As a result, the opposition staged massive protests in an effort to stop the measures. This included the volte-face of the Chávez-appointed attorney general, who condemned the supreme tribunal’s decision as a constitutional coup, prompting divisions within the Chavista camp that had been boiling over the prior years.
All these factors led to the “spring of discontent,” with massive rallies across the country, a world campaign by the Venezuelan diaspora and increasing pressure from countries around the globe. This was to no avail: Maduro remained in power, staged several rounds of rigged elections (both national and local), and continued to rule over a country where economic collapse has deepened, a humanitarian crisis grows in intensity by the day, and close to 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country to every possible place in order to survive. Currently, countries as far as Peru and Chile — not to speak of neighboring Colombia and Brazil — today seek solutions for an out of control inflow of immigrants from troubled Venezuela.
The tumultuous events of the past years reveal Maduro’s adeptness to navigate troubled currents coming in all directions: the economy, international pressures, the opposition and, last but not least, dissent within his own ranks. Examination of his rule has become a job for tropical kremlinologists as the infighting within the inner circles of the government has become more obscure.
In early 2018, Maduro began an internal razzia against one of his major rivals, Rafael Ramírez, who had been Chávez’s right-hand operator and an all-powerful head of Pdvsa, the state-controlled oil company. He had been appointed Venezuela’s representative to the United Nations in 2013 in the aftermath of a failed attempt at a moderate stabilization program he proposed that might have helped contain the imminent economic collapse. But from New York he continued to exercise a strong influence over the oil company. So, in order to reinforce his internal power, Maduro forced Ramirez’s resignation, gave control of Pdvsa to the army, and launched an anti-corruption campaign against Ramirez’s cronies. Given the extent of Venezuela’s corruption, to which only Brazil compares, internecine struggles within the power clique don’t revolve around political views like it used to be the case in Cuba or in defunct socialist states, but rather on corruption charges.
Clearly, corruption in Venezuela goes far beyond the typical institutional flaw that has become endemic in Latin America. A growing number of government officials have been accused and, in some cases, sanctioned for involvement in huge financial deals, taking advantage of exchange rate controls or for presumed involvement in drug trafficking. Even two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady were condemned last year for drug trafficking in a New York court.
The extent of this enthrallment has become so pervasive that a growing number of international critics consider Venezuela today as a sort of mafia rule. Even Lech Walesa, a pioneer of anti-totalitarian struggles in Eastern Europe, has recently argued that “Venezuela has been kidnapped by a group of neo-traffickers and terrorists” that “sooner rather than later shall be subject to intervention by coalition forces to preserve the region’s peace.”
What is clear from Maduro’s recent re-election is that, as many strongmen before him, he has been grossly underestimated. With the opposition weakened, cornered and with no clear strategy after deciding to boycott the presidential election, and with Maduro in full control of Chavista forces, especially the military, the odds about staying in power have been reduced to what international pressure can be exercised against his regime. If Chávez, with a full wallet and a promising rhetoric, managed to capture the imagination (and support) of Latin America and other corners of the world, Maduro, who was his foreign affairs minister, has been experiencing setback after setback.
Not only has there been a pendulum change in the region, bringing fresh adversaries in Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Panama and even in Ecuador, but the US and the European Union have heightened their pressure on the country to levels unknown in the region. If other countries have been mostly vocal against Venezuela, the US has put in effect individual sanctions against a long list of government officials, military officers, justices and others (the EU recently joined in with additional individual sanctions), as well as financial sanctions that make it harder for the government to handle financial operations and, more recently, even purchases of ordinary requirements for the working of the oil industry. On top of that, the country is facing default on most of its own and Pdvsa’s debt as well.
So the crunch is growing fast. Some officials within the Trump administration have recently spoken openly of other options, including the military, and there have been outcries by former Latin American presidents and others about the need for a humanitarian intervention to stop the situation from growing worse.
If international sanctions have proved effective in terms of bringing rogue nations to the negotiating table, so far this is not true for Venezuela. Recent experience shows that international pressure by itself does not bring about regime change, unless it is accompanied by military intervention. Given the Latin American tradition in that respect and — to say the least — the misgivings of the region vis-à-vis US involvement in the recent past, that option seems to be off the table.
It would seem that only an internal fracture of the ruling coalition may grant regime change, and at this point the odds for that to occur seem very low. At the same time, considering the very low turnout for the May 20 election — allegedly lower than what the electoral council has claimed — the need to rig the extent of the voting, and having to extract many of the votes for Maduro through economic blackmail (as Maduro himself put it, “This is giving and giving”), nothing in the Venezuelan landscape looks rosy for the government. Because history tends to be cursory, an unexpected change of course is not to be entirely ruled out.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.