Don’t Focus on Regime Change in Venezuela

How Maduro has held on to power, and why what follows him won’t likely be better.

Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech outside the presidential palace in Caracas on March 12, 2015. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)
Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech outside the presidential palace in Caracas on March 12, 2015. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)

Ever since Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro assumed office in March 2013, observers have predicted his regime’s imminent demise. In the last few years, with Venezuela apparently nearing state and economic meltdown, chavismo’s collapse really did seem just around the corner. Yet Maduro hasn’t fallen, and how he has managed to hang on can tell us a lot about what could follow his rule.

Today, there seems to be no floor to Venezuela’s suffering. Just when it looked like things could not get any worse, the International Monetary Fund recently reported that hyperinflation will reach 1 million percent this year. Since 2013, the country’s economy has shrunk by half. Meanwhile, the oil industry, representing nearly 90 percent of government revenue, has just about melted down. Oil production has fallen from nearly 3 million barrels per day in 2013 to about 1 million in 2018.

With no economy left to speak of, an unimaginable 87 percent of the population now lives in poverty. Food, medicine, electricity, and other basic items are hard to come by. No wonder that a projected 3 million Venezuelans will have departed the country for neighboring nations between 2014 and the end of 2018, which have very limited capacity to absorb them.

Despite the socioeconomic meltdown, however, there has been no serious challenge to Maduro’s power. This is a riddle, and without understanding why the regime has been able to hold tight to power in Venezuela, it will be difficult to make sense of the scenarios under which change may eventually come.

The first explanation for the Maduro administration’s survival could apply to all nondemocratic governments: control of state institutions and repression. In 2002, Maduro’s predecessor, President Hugo Chávez, began a process of effectively purging, penetrating, and ultimately absorbing civil institutions into his so-called Bolivarian revolutionary process, through which he repressed nearly all political opposition. This process deepened with Maduro, particularly as Venezuela’s socioeconomic crisis worsened. Today, the regime controls enough institutions of state, such as the National Electoral Council and the judiciary, that the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela, known by its Spanish initials as the PSUV, can easily prevent the opposition from challenging Maduro’s rule.

Following a failed coup in 2002, the regime has also aggressively neutralized and politicized the military. The armed forces had previously been one of the more professional, apolitical militaries in the region, but through purges, politically controlled promotions, corruption, and a restructuring of its roles and mission, the new Bolivarian National Armed Forces became a loyal instrument of regime preservation. Both Chávez and Maduro have deepened the force’s ties to the PSUV by giving it a stake in the survival of their leadership. The military not only runs strategic industries (including oil) and controls the distribution and rationing of food items, but a high number of active-duty and retired officers also hold of key positions as Cabinet members, governors, legislators, mayors, and heads of expropriated and state-owned businesses.

Meanwhile, the regime has virtually discarded the constitution and made a joke of the rule of law. For example, the government quashed the opposition’s hope of holding a constitutionally sanctioned recall referendum on Maduro in 2016, and in March 2017, the supreme court temporarily stripped the National Assembly, where an overwhelming majority of seats were held by the opposition after the December 2015 election, of all of its powers. And through it all, independent sources of information and media outlets have been nearly erased. On the streets of Venezuela, the Bolivarian National Police, the National Guard, and other armed civilian bands (known as colectivos) intimidate and violently repress the opposition, journalists, or anyone displaying too much independent thought. Finally, the regime continues to use so-called emergency powers to nationalize industries and prevent normal politics in the country.

A second explanation for Maduro’s staying power, linked to the first, is the culture of fear and distrust that the government has sowed among citizens. The colectivos, which are not directly linked to the government but are funded and managed by some government officials, use violence to create suspicion and anxiety. Meanwhile, Bolivarian grassroots movements and communal councils serve as the government’s eyes and ears at the neighborhood level. Citizens’ constant fear of being reported by neighbors leads to self-policing and self-censorship. It is hard to build a mass protest movement when you believe that your neighbor might be a government informant or that you might lose access to scarce government-distributed food and medical supplies if you are accused of opposing the regime.

Beyond keeping the opposition and the public weak and divided through control of state institutions and repression, Caracas has also focused its attention on keeping the private sector in check, which is the third reason it has been able to stay in power. Since 2005, the Venezuelan government has sought to shrink the private sector as a way to both consolidate economic power and deny resources and opportunities for the business sector to undermine the regime. The Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Production—the main business union—once had considerable political and economic clout, but the government’s expropriation, intimidation, and coercion of it has left it largely impotent. Another means for controlling the private sector has been a massive expropriation campaign by Chávez and Maduro and severe restrictions on accessing dollars, which forces business to rely on the state for foreign exchange.

Caracas also uses scarcity to maintain control. As in Cuba, the Maduro regime uses low stocks of consumer goods and rationing as a way to keep the population in line. Citizens need to be on good terms with government or PSUV officials to receive their allotment of formal sector jobs, rationing cards, Carnets de la Patria (or “homeland cards,” which are issued to those who qualify for social programs), and other benefits. Government control of consumer goods has been particularly effective in middle-class neighborhoods in Caracas and some larger urban areas in the interior of the country, where citizens have to rely more on the government’s distribution system than on growing their own food. Also worth considering is that the daily struggle to find food items and medicine, particularly in times of intense scarcity and hyperinflation, leaves very little time to organize anti-government mass protests and other activities. In short, economic adversity has not generated anti-government behavior; in fact, it has had the opposite effect.

To be sure, there are many, many discontented Venezuelans. But even there, Venezuela has been able to use migration to take the pressure off. Exporting the opposition allows the government to rid of itself of the most unhappy and threatening elements of the opposition. Since the early years of Chávez’s revolution, those with financial means to leave (and to challenge the regime) decamped to Colombia, Miami, and Panama. By 2015, as opposition intensified, Caracas decided to allow just about anyone who wanted to exit the country. Millions of hungry, frustrated, and desperate Venezuelans have opted to leave rather than suffer or confront the dictatorship.

* * *

Under these constraints, there are a few plausible scenarios for Venezuela’s future. There is reason to believe that the most likely one is that Maduro and the PSUV continue to muddle through by taking advantage of existing political and socioeconomic conditions. Perhaps counterintuitively, scarcity and economic meltdown seem to favor the regime more than the opposition. Maduro will continue to use his emergency powers and control of state institutions, including the military and security forces, to suppress dissent and divide the opposition, limiting its ability to truly challenge the ruling party, either through protests or some constitutional mechanism. So, although life will continue to get worse in Venezuela, the regime will most likely retain its hold on power through the remainder of this year and into the next.

The second most likely—and most dangerous—scenario is an implosion, something like the fruit vendor suicide in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring. The Venezuelan government’s persistent unwillingness or inability to mitigate the deepening political and humanitarian crisis does mean that at least a few people may become more and more willing to act out. Although the regime has found a way to endure, the country’s overall conditions are dire enough that one emotional trigger could ignite a tinderbox of uncertainty, despair, and anger. Such an event will produce high levels of violence and likely divide key institutions, such as the military and PSUV. An incident of violence by the state resulting in a number of fatalities could well bring more people onto the street than security forces can address.

A soft coup in the PSUV also remains a possibility. Senior party leadership—both the civilian and military sectors—are undoubtedly worried about their own hold on power if Maduro remains in the presidential palace. It is possible that Diosdado Cabello, the president of the Constituent National Assembly and the second most powerful figure within the PSUV, could join forces with the defense minister, Gen. Vladimir Padrino, to force Maduro to step aside for the good of the party (and the good of their own personal political and economic interests). Leaders within the party might see a soft coup as a way of stemming a potential implosion and ensuring a soft landing in a post-Maduro world. In that case, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez would likely assume power and move quickly to make small concessions and overtures to the opposition and international community, while taking measures to safeguard the party elite. It is important to note that Rodríguez belongs to the most radical wing of the PSUV.

Finally, there is still some room for a military coup. Despite a few isolated and disorganized incidents, this scenario does not seem imminent nor very likely, though. The regime has gone very far to ensure the loyalty of the military, mostly through corruption and politicization. One should also not underestimate, moreover, an effective military counterintelligence apparatus purportedly supported by Cuba, which ensures that any dissident movement within the ranks is quickly quashed. Nonetheless, some of the fractures that exist throughout society do also plague the military, particularly along generational lines, rank, and access to economic opportunities for enrichment or subsistence. An emotional trigger could serve as a catalyst for a coup or rebellion, especially if the military in pressed into violence against citizens.

It is likely that in the next six to 12 months the dictatorship in Caracas will continue to endure in the face of a deepening humanitarian crisis. The international community recently began to intensify pressure on the regime by imposing economic sanctions (mostly on government officials) to isolate it. The United States, Europe, and Venezuela’s neighbors do not have many other options, other than comprehensive economic sanctions and a military intervention, each of which would come with significant negative consequences. The Venezuelan opposition is starting to work together in the face of enormous challenges, but it remains deeply fragmented thanks to infighting and government manipulation. Despite the regime’s inability and unwillingness to restore even a semblance of economic and political stability, it will continue to effectively use the economic and political system it created to deter threats from within and outside the state, allowing it to continue plodding along.

Frank O. Mora is Director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, Florida International University. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere, 2009-2013.

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