Power Moves: How Venezuela’s Maduro Is Shoring Up His Defenses
If the mood on the streets of Caracas is a guide, Venezuelans are increasingly reconciling themselves to an uncomfortable idea: President Nicolás Maduro isn’t going anywhere.
Despite Venezuela enduring one of the most profound economic and political crises of any Latin American country in recent memory – and amid yearlong calls for Maduro's ouster in 2016 – the president's grip on power appears unexpectedly secure. After two decades spent consolidating control over the country’s institutions, Chavismo will be harder to dislodge from power than many had hoped.
But the administration’s veneer of control has plenty of weak spots – and the government knows it. Maduro and his allies are desperately trying to navigate four major vulnerabilities, any one of which could see them quickly removed from power. The question now is whether the administration will succeed in its effort, or whether the opposition – or other forces – can break them down first.
There are factions inside the ruling Venezuelan Party for Social Unity (PSUV) that fear losing any hope of a future in power if the current administration further diminishes their brand. These moderate groups within Chavismo may hope to save the revolution by scapegoating Maduro and introducing policies that at least give the impression of an economic recovery – steps like simplifying currency exchange controls, making price controls more flexible, and welcoming humanitarian aid. They may even believe this would be enough for them to rescue the party’s image before 2018 presidential elections.
Up until Jan. 10, Maduro was necessary for party moderates because, by law, his ouster would have led to new presidential elections (which they would not have been able to win legitimately).
Since Jan. 10, however, a recall on Maduro would leave his vice president in office for the remainder of his term. The Jan. 4 naming of Tarek El Aissami as vice president was a move by Maduro and the radical block within the party in anticipation of this threat. If Maduro is ousted now, El Aissami, who was recently sanctioned by the United States for corruption and drug-trafficking charges, would become president, hardly desirable for PSUV moderates. That Maduro felt the need to choose such a radical figure as his deputy suggests that he is not taking the divisions within the party lightly.
As they were for his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, oil subsidies are the fuel that Maduro uses to maintain the good will of his supporters. But the heady days of $100/barrel oil have long since passed, and Venezuela’s economic situation is dire. Despite a recent uptick in oil prices, things are expected to get even worse as wrong-headed economic policies continue to destroy productivity and increase inflation. Maduro’s economy is in urgent need of oxygen – or more precisely, money.
That’s why the government has been so active in negotiations with other major oil producing nations as it tries to propel a rise in the price of crude. Maduro has also been knocking on the doors of international banks in Russia and China, and of certain multilateral organizations, including the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF) and the Inter-American Development Bank.
But Maduro has found himself obstructed: these international entities refuse to place resources at the president’s disposal without the approval of Congress, which is today in the hands of the opposition and which the government has effectively stripped of any meaningful power.
In response, the regime has started floating the possibility of giving Congress back some degree of authority, holding elections, and re-authorizing some opposition political parties, all as persuasion tools to obtain more foreign debt. Although some groups within the opposition are willing to yield in exchange for concessions, the odds of Congress approving a lifeline for the government are slim. Still, creating the image of a dialogue with the opposition may be a way to reduce investors’ and lenders’ fears of even further instability.
A direct consequence of the economic drama is the abrupt descent in the government’s popularity over the last two years. The government won the 2013 elections with a little over half the votes, and now it would hardly obtain more than 20 percent. The effect of this fading popular support was evidenced in the parliamentary election of December 2015, when the opposition under the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition achieved a crushing victory, as well as in the multitudinous marches of 2016. The government then closed ranks and, using its control over the electoral institution and over the Supreme Court of Justice, has not only postponed or eliminated the possibility of elections, but has also placed obstacles in a registration process that some opposition parties have to go through this year.
Added to that, the government has sought to de-legitimize media covering the crisis, both nationally and internationally. It blocked CNN Español’s signal this month, as it did with NTN24 in 2014.
Even still, the regime seems to recognize that it won’t be able to avoid elections forever. As a result, it is trying to find ways to become competitive again. Maduro announced a “restructuring” of the PSUV to “ensure victory” in future elections, saying on national TV that the “political-electoral capacity of the PSUV has been absolutely exhausted.”
U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed his concern with the crisis in Venezuela and appears more willing than his predecessor to take actions that would explicitly block Maduro’s access to external sources of finance. If he were so inclined, Trump could prevent Maduro from accessing Russian money, bring the Organization of American States to reconsider suspending Venezuela, and potentially influence MERCOSUR, a South American regional body, to do the same. That’s why Maduro’s regime has been cautious with Trump, avoiding much mention of him apart from saying that he can’t be worse than former President Barack Obama.
Even after the sanctions against El Aissami were announced, the government didn’t come out strongly against Trump, limiting itself to rejecting the action and accusing the business representative at the American Embassy in Caracas of instigating the reprisals. Answering Trump’s tweet about the urgent need to release opposition leader Leopoldo López from prison, Maduro responded not by repudiating the president but by blaming the media and the opposition for trying to turn Trump against him.
While the government is conscious of its risks and taking steps to minimize them, the MUD coalition has been unable to take advantage. Outside the electoral terrain, in which the MUD has been very successful, the coalition has made too many mistakes, showing fissures in its machinery and not being able to come to consensus. The government has been able to address its own weaknesses and get past difficult moments without paying high costs, feeding the perception of solidity.
While it remains to be seen whether the MUD will be able to unify after a recently announced relaunch, the immediate political future of Venezuela will equally be determined by how effectively Maduro is able to shore up his defenses. If he can stay out of Trump’s crosshairs, find an economic lifeline and fend off internal challengers, he may indeed be secure. If not, the winds of inevitability could change direction in a hurry
Séijas Rodríguez is a Venezuelan political analyst and statistician, Ph.D. He is the director of the Delphos poll.