On the Rocks

Is Venezuela's new president headed for an untimely exit?

Photo: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

LA VICTORIA, Venezuela — For Veronica Castillo, shopping has become a full-time job, and she blames Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Castillo, a 33-year-old homemaker in the central Venezuelan city of La Victoria, used to complete her week’s grocery shopping in an hour or two. Now if she’s lucky, she can find what she needs in a day or two of hitting the stores in this city of 150,000 about 50 miles from the capital, Caracas.

"I haven’t been able to find milk — fresh, powdered, or long life — in a month," says Castillo, who has a 1-year-old son. "I spend hours in line, and I still can’t find everything. And this is what our revolution has brought?"

Castillo, who reluctantly admits that she voted for Maduro in April’s snap presidential election following the death of Hugo Chávez, isn’t alone in her dislike for the president. According to an IVAD survey taken between Aug. 21 and 28, more than two-thirds of those polled said the country’s political situation was "unstable" and an even greater percentage was pessimistic about the economy. Soaring inflation, widespread shortages of basic foodstuffs, power outages, and rampant crime have all dented Maduro’s support. According to the same survey, Maduro would trail opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski if new elections were to be scheduled.

"There is a feeling of rudderlessness and lack of control within the government," says David Smilde, a senior scholar at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Maduro, 50, has caused many of his own problems by focusing on stoking his image as Chávez’s handpicked successor, rather than solving problems besetting the country, which has the world’s largest oil reserves but has struggled to develop them. The former bus driver has sought to cultivate the aura of being the country’s first "working-class president" with mixed results. Maduro, who once claimed that the late Chávez spoke to him in the guise of a bird, often seems to go out of his way to show that he is one of the masses. He refers to himself as a "son of Chávez" and his wife, the first lady, as the country’s "first combatant."

"He is constantly going around dancing and singing, kissing babies, and acting as if there are no problems," says Caracas-based political consultant Tarek Yorde. "It gives the people the impression that he is out of touch." At a rally of the ruling party’s youth on Sept. 13, Maduro accompanied a band by playing the drums, not only with his hands but by using his elbows and head as well.

He frequently misspeaks. In remarks on state television that went viral, Maduro used the Spanish word for penis (pene) in the place of bread (pan) while referring to Jesus multiplying loaves of bread to feed the masses. He constantly says that Venezuela is free of outside interference for the first time in decades, and he peppers his speeches with references to protecting the "fatherland." His constant refrain of fatherland has become a national tag line to explain away shortages of basic foodstuffs such as cornmeal, milk, cooking oil, meat, margarine, wheat flour, and coffee.

"’We may not have food, but we have the fatherland’ is what Maduro says," says Miguel Salas, a 34-year-old state employee. "I remember we had both before Chávez came to power."

Maduro’s foreign-policy decisions, including exiting the Organization of American States’ (OAS) human rights bodies, supporting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and offering asylum to American leaker Edward Snowden, have also drawn criticism. Maduro, who has alternated between seeking better relations with Washington and antagonizing Barack Obama’s administration, justified the country’s exit from the OAS human rights courts and commission by charging that they are U.S. pawns and biased.

"The so-called human rights system, the inter-American court and the commission, are byproducts of an instrument of persecution against progressive governments that began with President Chávez’s arrival," Maduro said at a Sept. 8 news conference.

In spite of the controversies created by Maduro’s foreign-policy moves, most Venezuelans continue to focus on the economy and crime, subjects that Maduro has tried to sidestep in the run-up to the important Dec. 8 municipal elections that are seen as a referendum on his first year of rule. He has gone after Capriles’s First Justice party, charging that its leaders are corrupt. Meanwhile, a joke is going around that people will start taking Maduro’s anti-corruption drive seriously when he arrests his entire cabinet for misappropriation of funds. More worrisome, however, is that as part of his anti-corruption drive, he has asked the National Assembly, the country’s legislature, for special powers that would enable him to pass laws without legislative approval. "They want to use this law to persecute, abuse, and threaten … the people," Capriles said in televised remarks.

Taking a page out of Chávez’s playbook, Maduro has accused the country’s opposition, which he calls fascist and counterrevolutionary, of plotting to assassinate him and the head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. Anything that goes wrong, it seems, is due to nefarious outside influence.

A massive power outage on Sept. 3 was the result of saboteurs, as was last year’s explosion at the Amuay refinery that claimed 47 lives, Maduro claims, saying that the incidents are aimed at undermining his rule. (In the latter case, the government says that saboteurs loosened bolts on a pipeline connecting a fuel tank to its feed. However, the state oil company’s own unions, which supposedly are Chávista, said the explosion was due to lack of maintenance and investment in safety devices. The state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, has also acted somewhat suspiciously: It hasn’t filed an insurance claim, as that would mean the insurance company would send investigators, and it seems leery about letting anyone from the outside into the refinery.) The government has made no arrests in either incident.

"He wants to divert people’s attention from domestic issues, such as the economy and crime," says Yorde, the political consultant. "The National Assembly opens its fall session on Sept. 15, and I am sure we’re going to see a witch hunt take place against the opposition as part of the anti-corruption drive." Yorde says the government has also moved to quell the almost daily protests and criticism by stifling the media. The country’s last remaining television station that backed the opposition — Globovision — was purchased by government backers, who immediately changed its format. After Maduro publicly complained that the station was still anti-government, the new owners again tinkered with its format, leading to an exodus of reporters and commentators.

"The government and its supporters have also bought up regional newspapers or taken out massive publicity in them to control the news that is being reported," says Yorde. "They are also using currency controls to regulate what newspapers get newsprint." The effect, analysts say, is to control what news is being reported and to stifle the possibility of nationwide demonstrations if a local protest broke out.

"Repression is too strong of a term as I don’t see violence on the horizon," says Smilde, the scholar at the Washington Office on Latin America. "What is clear is that the Maduro government is reducing spaces for the opposition." But as the economy crumbles, that may not be enough. Years of exchange and price controls have distorted the economy, leading to rampant inflation as shortages mount. Twelve-month trailing inflation through August was 45 percent, the highest in the Western Hemisphere. The currency, the strong bolívar, continues to plummet as the government has curtailed access to dollars to protect falling international reserves. Although the government has fixed the bolívar’s value at 6.3 to the dollar, the black market rate is 42 to the dollar. And if oil prices were to fall, Venezuela’s economic day of reckoning could occur even earlier: Venezuela derives 90 percent of its hard-currency earnings from oil sales.

"In countries that have a lot of oil, high prices can pave over a lot of problems," says Susan Purcell, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy.

Given the stakes, December’s municipal elections are widely seen as being a referendum on Maduro. Fears that the vote could be postponed or canceled have largely faded. In contrast to the opposition, which held primaries to determine its candidates, Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) handpicked their standard-bearers, including several actors and sports figures, which alienated many rank-and-file members.

"I think the opposition is going to win the big cities, and the PSUV the rural districts," says Yorde. "It will depend on the abstention rate."

If the PSUV loses urban centers, Maduro’s erstwhile comrades in his own party may seek to ease him from office. "When you have an autocratic state like Venezuela, members of the elite will often unseat the president to protect their vested interests," says Purcell. "Maduro has the problem of being highly incompetent and paranoid. He’s no Hugo Chávez."

Yorde agrees, saying that Venezuela may be headed toward a Russia-style democracy, with the ambitious and powerful Cabello, a former military officer, the kingmaker who wants to become king.

But for Castillo, the homemaker back in La Victoria, her main concern is finding milk, not whether Cabello is Venezuela’s new Vladimir Putin, waiting for his moment.

"I am tired of this revolution and the constant drama," she says, adding that she is going to vote for the opposition for the first time in 14 years. "I think it’s time to give them a chance to do better.

"They can’t do any worse."

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