What next for Venezuela?

Venezuela is on the edge and the ripples of collapse will be felt across the region. Could the crisis trigger the next stream of refugees? In fitting with its renewed role as a humanitarian leader, Canada should prepare to help.

By: /
June 17, 2016
A street cleaner works in front of a graffiti with the colours of the Venezuelan flag, on a street in Caracas, Venezuela, June 8, 2016. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

There is no way to sugar-coat it, Venezuela is close to disaster. Earlier this year, the International Crisis Group, a think tank that focuses on early warning systems for possible violence, placed an alert for Venezuela calling for “regional organizations and the wider international community to act.”  The country is facing food and medicine shortages, skyrocketing inflation and high murder and crime rates. TIME magazine has called the situation “catastrophic.” The Guardian, among other media, has a series of articles that progressively show the deteriorating conditions for everyday Venezuelans. Mass protests and looting are a daily occurrence in the streets of Caracas.

I won’t dwell anymore on how bad the situation is, since other outlets have made it painfully clear. Former Canadian ambassador to the Organization of American States recently gave a brutal, personal account on the state of Venezuela elsewhere on this site.

The almost inevitable collapse poses challenges well beyond Venezuela’s border — even as far as Canada. Just this week, Citizenship and Immigration Services in the U.S. reported that in March, Venezuelans took second place for asylum seekers in the country.

Officials here in Canada — and across the region — would now be wise to prepare for a influx of refugees and the impacts of further instability.

Political standstill

A resolution to the current economic, social and political crisis isn’t likely to come in the near future. The Venezuelan government is in a complete standstill. The National Assembly, which fell to the opposition on December 6 last year, has been doing everything in its power to depose of President Nicolas Maduro. The Supreme Court, which was hastily stuffed with regime supporters before Election Day, has stood behind Maduro for the most part. 

This political jousting for power between the three branches of government has worsened the socio-economic crisis. Despite talks between opposition and government late last month in the Dominican Republic, the parties seem uncompromising in their stances and they are nowhere near open, honest dialogue. Opposition leader, Henrique Capriles seemed hopeless at best. “There has been no dialogue here, the culture of dialogue has been destroyed," Capriles said at a news conference on June 3.   

The National Assembly, which is the main legislative body in Venezuela, has been pushing hard for a recall referendum on Maduro’s mandate. The petition gathered 1.87 million signatures in a few short weeks of campaign. The Supreme Court deemed the referendum on Maduro’s mandate as constitutional and allowed it to carry on. However, the National Electoral Commission, which has the final say on the matter, has been ambivalent on their position and it has tried to slow down the referendum process.

The back and forth between the branches of government, specially the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Commission, signals that Maduro’s grip over the whole government apparatus is not as strong as previously thought. However, Maduro seems to be preparing to fight tooth and nail for his political survival. In the December elections, Maduro vowed to hold on to power by whatever means necessary.  

Tensions are rising. On May 16, President Maduro decreed a State of Exception and Economic emergency, which suspends constitutional guarantees and protections, empowering the president, military, and civilian branches loyal to the ruling party. In defying rhetoric, Capriles, who is viewed as moderate in the opposition camp, told Maduro to “bring on the tanks.” 

The military is divided

Both opposition and government officials have appealed to the military to intervene on their behalf. Capriles, who sits as governor of the state of Miranda has openly called on the military to revolt against Maduro. “I tell the armed forces: The hour of truth is coming, to decide whether you are with the constitution or with Maduro," he said. 

Later, the governor retracted his statement, saying he wasn’t calling for an outright coup d’état. The damage was done, nonetheless. The regime has recently run several military exercises in a clear display of power designed to quell opposition rumblings.

The regime’s control over the military is weak. The December elections serve as strong proof of Maduro’s tenuous control over the military. On the lead up to the legislative elections, Maduro threatened to achieve victory “by whatever means necessary,” and to take to the streets with his supporters if he lost. The opposition candidates constantly called on the National Armed Bolivarian Forces (FANB) to respect whatever the end result of the ballot was. The vote was filled with uncertainty and delays, and many expected violence, coming from “colectivos (regime-sponsored, armed gangs that claim to be defendants of the Bolivarian revolution) or the military under Maduro’s orders.  

Despite Maduro’s earlier warning, neither the military, nor the colectivos, took matters into their hands.  Interestingly, the delay in results and the armed forces’ ambivalence throughout the whole process signaled a divided military and one that is unwilling to blindly follow Maduro’s orders. Furthermore, the regime’s insistent proclamations that the armed forces are loyal and undivided, only raises more doubts about the validity of these claims and about the power struggles behind the scenes. Maduro’s constant warnings against dissidents within his ranks show that the regime fears for its survival.

So far, the military has remained largely neutral. However, this perceived neutrality shouldn’t be mistaken with professionalism or respect for civilian authorities. The FANB has had no qualms about intervening in civilian matters in the past. Most notoriously, factions of the armed forces rose in arms against Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, in 2002. The coup failed and the Chavistas proceeded to purge the military of anti-government factions. In an attempt to prevent future coup attempts, Chavez cut spending on the armed forces, fostered schisms between the different service branches and favoured those units and individuals most loyal to him. 

Retired and mid-ranking officers could revolt against Maduro. After all, Chavez also attempted a coup against a democratically elected government in 1992 as a coronel. The comandante failed and landed in jail, but the taboo of a power grab by mid-brass was broken. Furthermore, civilians that hold Boliviarian ideals, but repudiate Maduro, could support a new regime as well. Intelligence firm Statfor views a military intervention as a likely scenario. 

More worrying is that Chavistas within the military are conflicted about their support for Maduro. The late president Hugo Chavez was viewed as a buffoon by dissidents, but a competent buffoon nonetheless. Chavez inspired loyalty among his ranks and, to this day, there is a strong personality cult built around him. More importantly, Chavez kept his people fed and his allies pampered. Maduro is clownish, despotic and ignorant on basic public policy. The fall in oil prices has affected his capacity to sustain a network built on clientelism. Maduro, who viewed revenue generated by the oil industry as his personal chequing account, can no longer count on oil-money to prop up his regime. 

Possibility of conflict and a refugee crisis

The situation in Venezuela is chillingly reminiscent of that of despotic regimes during the Arab Spring. The military is divided between those loyal to Maduro and disaffected Chavistas. Civilians are bitterly divided between regime, Chavistas, and opposition.

Extreme action by any of the involved parties could lead to a collapse of the state and further instability. First, no faction has enough hard power or legitimacy to gain complete control. The Maduro regime is wildly unpopular, the opposition is composed of various political interests only aligned by their hatred of chavismo, and disaffected Chavistas are a series of grassroots movements with no clear goals. Any rash or violent action against protests will tilt a faction of the military against the regime. Any action by the military will trigger those loyal to Maduro to intervene, including violent para-state forces. Protests by any form of opposition might be violently crushed.

The danger in the situation lies in that no faction is strong enough to rapidly gain control of the state, Maduro made sure of that by alienating Chavistas within the government, weakening the military, and arming thugs to do his bidding. A power grab by any faction will be contested, perhaps by armed means, plunging Venezuela into chaos and violence.

Venezuela’s neighbours are fretting about Venezuelan collapse. The president of the Red Cross in Curacao, an island country approximately 60 kilometres north of Venezuela, mentioned in an interview that the island nation and the local Red Cross have preparations set in place “in case the situation in Venezuela worsens.” The Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF), Brigadier Mark Phillips, says the GDF has been placed on alert in the wake of reports that Venezuelans could flee to neighbouring countries as economic hardships continue to grip the country and members of the opposition in exile in Peru have asked the government there for a clarification on the legal status of “hundreds of Venezuelans fleeing to Peru every week.”

Venezuelans have migrated en-masse ever since the Bolivarian revolution brought instability to the country. In the period between 2005 and 2010, the number of Venezuelan residents abroad climbed from 378,000 to 521,000.

According to figures from Citizen and Immigration Canada, the number of Venezuelans granted permanent residence each year in Canada has more than doubled since 2004. In the year 2015, the number of Venezuelans that entered the neighbouring Colombia was at 150,000. In August of last year alone, 40,000 Venezuelans made their way across the border, according to Simon Gaviria, director for the National Planning Department.

Granted, the large bulk of migrants are of the economic variety, as it is mostly the case in places like Europe.  However, if Venezuela descends further in to conflict, its neighbours should prepare for refugees with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Already, approximately 400 Venezuelans overran border officers at a Colombia-Venezuela crossing on June 16. The most concerning reports cite people saying that they forced their way through “because they were hungry.”

A large influx of refugees adds more headaches to an already troubled region. Colombia is undergoing a critical phase in its peace negotiations with a 60-year-old insurgency.  Instability at the Colombia-Venezuela border adds stress on an already strenuous process. A refugee crisis in Brazil’s border would be the cherry on top of the biggest political impasse the country has faced in decades. Mexico is already under scrutiny for its dealings with Central American migrants. 

Change may come soon to Venezuela, but the current situation points to a violent resolution. Canada’s generosity might be tested once again if Venezuela collapses — the Trudeau administration should be prepared now for whatever impact that may have.