Argument

What’s Good for Maduro Is Bad for Chavismo

The more atrocities Venezuela’s dictator commits, the less likely his regime is to survive him.

Motorcyclists ride past graffiti depicting late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and current President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas on Feb. 27. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
Motorcyclists ride past graffiti depicting late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and current President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas on Feb. 27. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Last weekend’s much-anticipated showdown between Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his opposition rival Juan Guaidó over the delivery of international aid triggered a dramatic wave of violent repression along two of Venezuela’s international borders. By the time the resultant smoke and tear gas clouds had cleared, Maduro’s control over the military and security forces remained largely intact, no regime governors or field generals had switched allegiances, and the brunt of the opposition’s promised aid shipments had failed to reach their destinations.

But this outcome—so frustrating to the Venezuelan opposition, its growing list of international allies, and most of the national population—may play to their benefit in the long term. What was a marginal tactical win for Maduro personally is likely to have been a great loss for the future prospects of the movement he nominally leads.

It is necessary to distinguish between the increasingly radical Maduro himself and the Chavista government he has led since 2013. The former is merely the most prominent malignancy of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, an ideological menace that has long ago spread across all levels of Venezuela’s bloated military and civilian bureaucracy. These powerful interests have always stood to outlive Maduro. Given the scant hope that Maduro’s leadership will ever recover, it’s always been likely that at some point—likely a matter of months rather than years—the Chavista party will attempt to distance itself from its present leader to protect its own interests and power.

Consider what has taken place in Ecuador, which under the leadership of Rafael Correa was once Venezuela’s most radical leftist ally. Today it has morphed into arguably the region’s most successful neoliberal reformer (and one of more than 60 countries that have declared Maduro illegitimate) despite the same cadre having remained in power throughout. Under President Lenín Moreno—Correa’s handpicked successor within his PAIS Alliance—the government has indicted the exiled Correa personally for a long list of crimes, while nonetheless preserving overall impunity for most of the party’s establishment.

Ecuador’s playbook for political rehabilitation would as such seem a natural one for Chavismo to attempt to follow in some not-too-distant Maduro-less future.

Step 1: Ditch Maduro and publicly scapegoat him for everything that’s gone wrong.

Step 2: Find a fresher face to run under a Hugo Chávez populist banner next election.

Step 3: Gauge the mood among voters, and if it seems disadvantageous to 21st century socialism, then drop that part and run as something completely different (mimicking Chávez’s winning populist style but eschewing the substance).

Step 4: Rinse and repeat.

While Maduro and the small but influential cadre of Cubans surrounding him are therefore incentivized to do whatever it takes to forestall a transition of any kind, the long-term interests of his party only overlap with his in terms of stopping Guaidó—not in salvaging Maduro.

Even if an Ecuador-style rehabilitation while at the helm may be an unrealistic ambition for Chavismo, given the ferocity of international opprobrium currently aligned against it, a longer-term rehabilitation is certainly possible. In the aftermath of either, if regional history is any guide, some party leaders will go to jail for corruption or crimes against humanity, and many others will emerge too sullied for politics. A critical mass will receive a pass, however, and the party will begin to rebuild. Following at most a beat or two on the sidelines, perhaps leaving the opposition the thankless task of reforming Venezuela’s broken economy, a neo-Bolivarian brand would emerge anew: perhaps first as a gadfly, then as growing populist insurgency, and eventually as an electoral force to be reckoned with. Ultimately Chavismo could morph into a kind of Caribbean Peronism: an ideologically plastic, populist power mafia masquerading as a political party (cum personality cult).

Venezuela’s neighborhood has no shortage of examples where former authoritarian populist parties have managed to transform themselves into competitive, even dominant, democratic platforms. Not beholden to clear ideologies, and largely unfettered by past sins, parties like Argentina’s Peronist Justicialist Party and Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party thrive through reinvention. Fetishizing power and impunity, such parties secure support through patronage and public appeals to sweeping historical narratives instead of specific policy preferences. Free to radically shift ideologies every few years to match public sentiment without breaking stride, they excel at winning elections, even free ones.

Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution would have seemed a natural candidate to join them; the base ingredients for just such a future were clearly on hand for Maduro’s heirs. The movement’s venerated founder, Hugo Chávez, died at an opportune moment for legacy-building. In 2013, oil prices were high, Venezuelan life was still largely livable, and the transformation into today’s undernourished, violent, hyperinflationary pariah state was still years away. Chávez left the hangover and the cleanup to Maduro, a uniquely unpopular minion. Maduro’s dearth of personal charisma, criminal mismanagement of the economy, and far harsher hand against dissidence—exacerbated by his ill-advised tendency to dance, poorly, in open celebration of various atrocities—have allowed Chávez to shine all the brighter in memoriam.

Earlier this month, while visiting Cúcuta, the Colombian border town bearing the brunt of this weekend’s tragic descent into violence and chaos over the humanitarian aid crisis, I had the opportunity to meet Venezuelan refugee families fleeing on foot over the border. These were good people, many traveling with small children or elderly relatives, hoping to cross vast distances to reach Bogotá or Lima or Buenos Aires and reunite with family. They lacked the funds, proper clothing, or geographic knowledge to realistically reach their destinations, instead carrying vivid recent memories of persecution and deprivation under Maduro—whom they uniformly blamed and despised. Several made it a point to mention they did not consider their circumstances to be Chávez’s fault, however.

Further afield, among the European left, or the progressive wing of the American one, one can readily see a similar dichotomy already underway. Much as apologists once exonerated Vladimir Lenin, arguing that but for Stalin’s hijacking and perversion of the Russian Revolution it could have worked, a Good Chávez/Bad Maduro reboot among similar lines is already with us internationally.

The highly visible U.S. role in Maduro’s likely final chapter, coupled with President Donald Trump’s uniquely unpopular international image, would likewise seem to bolster Chávez’s eventual position within the hallowed pantheon of Latin America’s Marxist martyrs—seated at the left hand of El Che alongside Jacobo Árbenz and Salvador Allende—no matter how low his successor ultimately brings the country.

Despite the plummeting living standards under Maduro’s watch—harrowing shortages of food and medicines, unprecedented levels of corruption and infant mortality, international isolation, prolonged hyperinflation, normalization of political imprisonments, state censorship, and extralegal executions—by populist Latin American standards one could hardly ask for firmer ground on which to rebuild.

Yet the damage now being done daily by the current regime represents the best possible antibody to an eventual Chavista resurgence. Each new crossed red line and international outrage makes it that much harder for any post-Maduro party to credibly try to swap Maduro out for someone more globally palatable in exchange for a negotiated transition to eventual free elections on better terms. By making it more likely that the military will ultimately turn on the party before the party has a chance to turn on Maduro, the likelihood rises that the next government will be an opposition one, rather than some form of reformed Chavismo.

The more Maduro’s uniformed thugs and their corrupt paramilitary allies extralegally execute and abuse unarmed citizens with impunity, or arrest and harass foreign journalists, the more internal pressure rises for individuals at all levels of the party establishment to come out publicly to support the ever-increasing radicalization, lest their loyalties be called into question. Almost without exception, movement leaders at all levels—those who might someday have inherited the mantle following Maduro’s inevitable fall—have by now publicly celebrated the torching of international food convoys en route to a near-starving population. Modern technologies—cell phone cameras, YouTube, Twitter—will keep such images fresh and vividly permanent. In defending the indefensible today, generations of would-be future Chavista leaders have been rendered wholly unelectable down the line.

Feb. 23, 2019, is now a date that will be long remembered in Venezuela. It could very well play the ultimate spoiler to what could otherwise have been a rather promising political afterlife for the broken Bolivarian revolution. Seen this way, this weekend’s tragic events will have marked a far more devastating defeat for Bolivarianism than if Maduro had actually been marched out of the palace in chains. In denying desperately needed food and medicine to countrymen he considers enemies, Maduro has robbed his own of something far greater—a future burned to cinders with those humanitarian aid convoys.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

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