Associate professor, Carleton University
Given the scale of its problems and the “quality” of its government, Venezuela could have collapsed into a civil war years ago. It did not. The restraint shown by the opposition and especially the fact that most weapons were on the Chavista side kept the lid on the pot.
The crisis is now deeper than ever, with deadly department stores’ looting now joining crippling shortages of basic necessities, increasing unemployment, the world’s highest inflation rate, stratospheric levels of corruption, disintegrating public services, crumbling infrastructure and terrifying levels of criminal violence.
At the same time, the government’s quasi-monopoly of violence is breaking down. President Nicolás Maduro’s control over the military and party militias has always been partial with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, in particular, keeping a much-purged and corrupt military for himself. There are rumbles, however, both on the party militia side and within the military. Without surprise, the regimes’ much used but long unruly street gangs’ loyalty is less assured than ever. When it comes, in other words, the violence will start from within Chavista ranks.
Parliamentary elections are approaching and the chances of a government victory in a clean process are dismal. Maduro is a dull-witted bully. He has never been popular and, for obvious reasons, he is now less than ever. While the opposition brings back his asinine declarations about Chavez’ reincarnation into a little talking bird, Maduro’s putting his wife at the head of the government party’s list further reveals the depth of his ineptitude. Arguably, he doesn’t have much choice, Chavez and then himself having made sure no one would emerge from the party’s ranks to challenge their authority, but Cilia Flores —The Mrs— has to be the worst option.
To make things worse, the government can’t use populist spending to secure the masses that have traditionally supported it. The forced sale of electronics at government-set prices, which the government has used before, was a one-shot wonder but it has understandably discouraged retailers from importing any more. With oil production declining, and international prices remaining low, the “system” is now simply running out of fuel. Once the Chavista crust has taken its share of what’s left, almost nothing remains to buy votes. In other words, the electoral fraud will need to be even more blunt than the last time and nobody will be on site to defend the government: even the Carter Center, which shamefully joined UNASUL and the OAS in 2015 to give a legitimacy it did not deserve to the elections that kept Maduro in power, is packing and leaving the country—officially because of the cost of operating at the surreal official exchange rate. In spite of its help the last time, the government has pre-emptively dismissed the OAS—although it is now led by a progressive Uruguayan diplomat—as an agent of U.S. imperialism and no other regional organization could offer at once a modicum of global legitimacy and guaranteed backing. Given that the Chavista system depends entirely on the money it extracts from the state-owned oil company PDVSA’s coffers, it can’t abandon its lifeline and, unavoidably, “authorities” will do whatever it takes to ensure that the opposition loses the election.
Believe it or not, however, the problem is much deeper than that.
The shrinking pie and apparently limitless appetite of the Chavista leadership are turning the sharks against one another. Maduro’s abysmal incompetence and his unpopularity make him an appealing target for a military coup that Cabello and his friends could present as the beginning of a way out. Maduro’s family network and retinue, however, are unlikely to leave the scene quietly. Division at the top would reverberate all though the party’s shaky apparatus and its already mutinous informal tentacles. And all those people have guns.
A bleak but not impossible way out
Who could do something? Who could convene the parties, including the opposition, to some kind of national dialogue that would defuse the current crisis or help find a way out after violence explodes? Who could offer a comfy exile to Maduro and Cabellos, taking them out of the game? Well, at this point and unfortunately, the picture is bleak.
As mentioned, and even though it covered the regime’s fraud in the last election, the OAS has already been dismissed. UN intervention would be met by all South American countries as an affront to national sovereignty and to the region’s much asserted ability to deal with its own problems on its own—pure grandstanding in this case, but still enough to keep it out. The regime’s allies in UNASUL—Bolivia, Ecuador and, for now at least, Argentina—ensure in turn that the organization won’t be trusted by the opposition.
The real bulwark could have been the region’s big players, Colombia, Argentina and especially Brazil. Given the two countries’ love-hate relationship, any Colombian attempt to interfere would quickly be seized by the regime as an opportunity to drum up nationalist sentiments, which would obviously serve no useful purpose whatsoever. Decades of silliness have disqualified Argentina as a serious international or regional actor. Brazil could have been the exception and while in power, Lula had used his immense regional legitimacy to effectively control Chavez and keep tensions down. Lula is gone, however, and with his successor and party eye-deep in corruption scandals, the government has turned completely inward. Brazil’s refusal to push earlier for reform and reconciliation, as well as the prominence within the foreign ministry of a PT-pushed nationalist and “sovereigntist” phalanx, moreover, have no doubt burned its long-respected diplomats in the eyes of Venezuela’s opposition.
Who is left? Oddly enough, what would perhaps work best would be some kind of joint U.S.-Cuba initiative. Obama is now undoubtedly the global figure that enjoys the most legitimacy and he is very popular in Latin America. The opposition would trust him. The Castro brothers may be on their way out, but the strong presence of their intelligence and military services in the Venezuelan state apparatus and their deep links with all sides in the Chavista establishment gives them more leverage on that unruly crew than anyone else.
The idea may look odd, but think about it: one more feather on Obama’s cap, and a decent exit from the international scene for the Castros.
Jean Daudelin is currently in Recife, Brazil, as a visiting researcher at the Núcleo de Estudios de Política Comparada e Relações Internacionais – NEPI, at the Federal University of Pernambuco.