Geopolitics on the rocks

Niccolò Locatelli

Maduro can go, but Venezuela’s instability is here to stay

South America

No matter the president's fate, Venezuela’s dependence on oil prices is bound to trigger more unrest and protests. Why chavistas possibly staging a coup are Maduro’s biggest concern.

Venezuela is experiencing an economic disaster coupled with a political crisis marked by the withering of the country’s democratic institutions.

While President Nicolás Maduro looks weaker by the day, the chavista regime - nicknamed after its founder, Venezuela’s late President, Colonel Hugo Chávez - will not easily relinquish the political and economic power it has gained since 1998, when Chávez first won the elections. (Chávez died in March 2013; his successor Maduro, a former bus driver, union leader and Minister of Foreign Affairs, won the presidential election in April 2013 by a tiny margin.)

At the time of this writing, it is not possible to determine if, when and how Maduro will fall. But it is possible to analyze the roots of the crisis, why the president - whose renewable term expires in April 2019 - hasn’t fallen yet and what the most likely post-Maduro scenario would look like.

Venezuela’s current instability stems from a multi-year recession that is taking a heavy toll on the population, fueling political unrest and pushing the regime to gradually do away with democratic procedures in order to retain power.
The world’s largest holder of oil reserves, Venezuela has always been dependent on oil prices; petroleum products revenues make 95% of its exports earnings. The crash of oil prices caused by the US financial crisis (2008) and the Saudi anti-shale gambit (2014) has depleted the State coffers, prompting a slash of the subsidies the government had been giving to the lower classes and to Chávez’s allies (Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and several countries in the Caribbean).

The highly-ideological, ill-conceived economic model pursued by Chávez and Maduro entails a big role of the State, which is not merely a regulator but a player, usually the dominant one among (or against) market forces.
With chavismo came the birth of a new ruling class, called the Boli-bourgeoisie, which has taken control of the major companies and institutions of the country.
Colonel Chávez’s comrades make up a relevant share of the Boli-bourgeoisie. Today a third of the cabinet members and half of the State governors (Venezuela is a federal presidential republic) are either serving or retired military officers. As food and drug shortages begun to spread, Maduro put the military in charge of the food and medicine distribution service.
The Armed Forces and the Boli-bourgeoisie at large shape the battle for Venezuela: for them, there’s much more at stake than the Maduro presidency.
The Democratic Unity Roundtable (Spanish acronym: Mud), which comprises most of the opposition, has already won the 2015 parliamentary election; should it take back the executive branch of government, it might try to disrupt the formal and informal structures that have given the chavistas so much power.

So far, Maduro has been able to prevent the protests from reaching the tipping point.
In 2014, he had 43 protesters killed and some of the most influential opposition leaders arrested.
In 2015, he let the Mud win the majority at the parliamentary polls, only to deplete the National Assembly of its constitutional powers thereafter.
In 2016, he pledged to engage in a “Dialogue” with the Mud, mediated by the Vatican and regional bloc Unasur, only to drag it out for as long as it was necessary in order to make a constitutionally-envisioned presidential recall meaningless (if the referendum was held now, a chavista would still be in charge until the end of Maduro’s term; anyway, the long process to get to vote has been stopped). State elections, constitutionally scheduled for 2016 and likely to end up in a landslide win for the opposition, have been postponed too.
2017 looks as a mix of the last three years: protesters meet armed resistance by police and colectivos (pro-government militias), Maduro unreliably calls for restarting “the Dialogue” with the opposition while the last remnants of democratic institutions are targeted.

Maduro has been able to pull this off for three reasons: the domestic opposition is weak and ultimately divided; foreign pressure has been feeble and mostly symbolic, ever since the Obama days; the Boli-bourgeoisie still hasn’t found a replacement for the presidency.

The domestic opposition is out of touch with the lower classes. Its purely political agenda, while popular among the public opinion in the Western democracies, fails to connect with the needs of the poorest people in Venezuela, who may want Maduro out not because “he’s a dictator” but because they can’t put food on their table. The Mud represents mainly the upper-middle class; even though it won the parliamentary election and its candidate would likely win a free and fair presidential one, it lacks the support needed for a long-term confrontation with the regime.
The Democratic Unity Roundtable is also less united than what the name suggests. Too many parties, with too many different projects and too many potential leaders - all of them likely to be arrested, disqualified or sidelined by the government before the next elections take place.

After 2002, when the United States and Spain supported the failed coup against Chávez, Venezuela has not faced international pressure for years, no matter how inflammatory the Colonel’s rhetoric was. With the relevant exception of then President Uribe’s Colombia, South American countries were either allied with Caracas or neutral.
With Obama, the U.S. has gone back to its benign neglect policy of ignoring a country (a whole region, for that matter) that posed no existential threat: Venezuela was too dependent on oil exports, especially towards the United States, to seriously challenge the superpower. Also, as Obama was restoring relations with Castro’s Cuba, Maduro’s anti-imperialism started looking outdated and not credible.
Recent changes to this policy are merely symbolic. In 2015, Obama declared Venezuela “a national security threat” and sanctioned some officials involved in the repression of the street protests in 2014. In his first months at the White House, President Trump met with the wife of a prominent jailed opposition leader, sanctioned (via the Department of Treasury) Maduro’s Vice President Tareck el-Aissami and keeps bringing Venezuela up in his conversations with other Latin American dignitaries.
More resolute actions, such as cutting crude oil imports from or petroleum products exports to Venezuela altogether or taking the lead in the negotiation effort, have not been taken.
U.S. prosecutors are investigating several high-ranking chavistas (including Vice President el-Aissami and Interior Minister Nestor Reverol) for cocaine trafficking and money laundering; these investigations can give Washington some leverage, but so far they have been harnessed by Maduro to keep his fellow chavistas close to him.
It is not in the U.S. national interest to escalate the crisis, as the fall of the regime in Caracas might trigger instability, mass migration and a shock to oil prices. Nor is it to be dragged in a conundrum that Venezuela’s neighbors have been unable to solve.

The chavistas have recently lost a few important allies in Latin America.
Argentina’s and Brazil’s new presidents, Macri and Temer, are outspoken in criticizing Maduro’s anti-democratic turn and they had Caracas suspended from the Mercosur trading bloc (they still trade with Venezuela, though).
Peru, whose former president Ollanta Humala was touted as “Lima’s Chávez”, is now on the anti-Maduro side too. So is Mexico, which is apparently abandoning its decades-old non-interference policy in an effort to bring the Venezuelan government back to the negotiating table via the Organization of the American States (OAS).
But none of these countries is really committed to seek change in Venezuela: they fear instability in the area and they just want to play nice with Trump by showing him they stand by the White House on international issues. Also, all of them have more urgent matters that need to be taken care of. Macri has to put the economy back on track after the Kirchner era; so does Temer, who is also concerned by a bribery scandal that might take down the whole Brazilian political system. Peru is thinking about China, its largest trading partner, and Mexico has to figure out how to deal with the new U.S. administration. Colombia, the other Venezuela’s relevant neighbor, is busy implementing the peace deal with FARC that Chávez himself helped in negotiating.

The possible suspension of Venezuela from the OAS would be a cosmetic move - one that Maduro has already begun to counteract, by blasting the institution for its lack of legitimacy and independence (from the United States, of course). In fact, Caracas might as well leave the OAS before the OAS suspends her.


On the other hand, Maduro’s external supporters are standing by him: China has invested around 50 billion dollars in the oil-for-loan scheme, Russia cherishes Venezuela’s rhetorical anti-americanism and Cuba needs Caracas’ declining subsidies. Ecuador and Bolivia remain ideologically closed to the populist (not meant as an insult) message of the Bolivarian Revolution.
While Beijing and Moscow can provide cash and support for the government in the United Nations Security Council, Havana, La Paz [*] and Quito can be instrumental in delaying or obstructing regional calls against Maduro.

Since foreign countries have other priorities and the opposition holds no real power, the only obstacle to Maduro remaining in power until 2019 would be chavismo staging a coup against its own head of State.
At the time of this writing, this option appears unlikely - but more likely than a recall referendum, a chavista candidate losing in a free and fair presidential election, a foreign intervention and a non-chavista coup.
Maduro clearly lacks a strategy to uplift the country from its impending economic collapse, but he has been able so far to keep all the factions of chavismo on board.
By promoting high-profile figures like Reverol or el-Aissami respectively to a cabinet position and the vice-presidency, he has gained the loyalty of the very same people who might have had an incentive to defect to the United States, if granted immunity.
The national oil company PdVsa has been used as a cash cow and its top positions are filled with chavistas, putting once again loyalty over competence.
The Armed Forces (Spanish acronym: Fanb) were skeptical of a commander in chief who didn’t hail from the barracks. Maduro has increased the army’s political and economic role - and their members’ salaries, multiple times.
He is also pushing pro-government militias to take on a bigger security role.

Still, under certain circumstances the Fanb - whose lower ranks are suffering the same food shortages that make people taking to the streets - might act to oust the president. So far, the rallies have been repressed by the Police, the National Guard and the colectivos (pro-government militias): the number of casualties is relatively low for Venezuelan standards.
Should the protests escalate and should the main branches of the Armed Forces be called into play, they would either have to participate in the massive killing of their own fellow citizens or try to negotiate a way out of the crisis. The latter option would probably include token gestures from the regime, such as setting a date for regional elections; but the president himself might become a bargaining chip.
His removal around two years before the next scheduled presidential elections would defuse tensions; his successor would then have some time to implement reforms that could prevent the collapse of Venezuela without dismantling the chavista system.
These reforms, coupled with the expected rise in oil prices and a renewed effort to cripple the opposition (also to be expected), could give a chavista candidate a chance to win at the ballot box in 2019 and remain in power “democratically”.
The ouster of Maduro would also give the regime the chance to sideline the Cuban intelligence and military officers sent by Castro at Chávez’s request. The late President wanted the Fanb to be committed not just to the Homeland, but to his Bolivarian Revolution too. The Cuban presence has been a source of uneasiness for the nationalist wing of the military.

A de-Madurized - and possibly de-Cubanized - regime could try to mend fences with the regional powers and the United States, without abandoning its anti-imperialist stance.
Should lower classes experience an improvement in their living standards, the domestic opposition would lose much of its appeal. With the economy getting back from the brink, and the electoral calendar confirmed, international pressure would slowly cool off - until the next crisis.
It’s a kick-the-can-down-the-road scenario for the regime, but it’s as good as it gets: the best days of the Bolivarian Revolution are probably gone, while Venezuela’s main source of instability - its dependence on oil prices – is here to stay.

NOTES

[*] Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia. La Paz is the seat of the government.