President Maduro: Going, Going… ?

May 11, 2017

Caracas, May 10, 2017: Going, going – but not yet gone. The toppling and dismemberment of a statue of Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez, in the state of Zulia, and the continued public insubordination of the attorney general, Luisa Ortega Díaz, have failed to elicit a visible reaction from Chávez’s annointed and flailing successor, President Nicolas Maduro. Eighteen years into the chavismo era, the president is hobbled by factional in-fighting. But propped up by his military strongmen puppeteers, there he remains.

After two months of anti-government demonstrations during which 37 people have died, at least 400 have been injured and 250 have been detained, opposition leaders – and many ordinary Venezuelans who are not protesting – express a genuine conviction that following years of fruitless protests a tipping point is close.

Few believe that Maduro will remain in power until scheduled elections in December 2018. Many think it unlikely he will last until the end of this year. Yet polls suggest his support hovers around 24 per cent, which is not bad for a Latin American political leader (Brazil’s President Michel Temer has only 9%). But Maduro’s problem is that the other 75% of Venezuelans want him gone, belying his claim to lead a “popular revolution”.

Still, the government continues to boast that it will rule forever. “The only time the opposition will enter Miraflores [the presidential palace]”, said President Maduro in April, “is when I invite them.” His senior adviser Diosdado Cabello, a retired army officer who was the key power broker behind President Chávez, went further: “There won’t be any change in Venezuela. Not even with blood.”

Those that argue change is imminent point to a perfect storm engulfing Maduro. Venezuela is in the deepest recession in its history. Its economy has contracted by 25 per cent since 2013. Four out of five Venezuelans do not believe Maduro’s claim that the food and basic goods shortages, as well as rampant inflation, are the result of an “economic war”, as he alleges. They blame him.

Venezuela is internationally isolated. A shift to the centre right in many regional governments, and wider unease with Maduro’s authoritarian rule, mean he can count only on a dwindling band of genuine allies. The president, who once travelled frequently, now rarely leaves the country, except to Cuba and other nearby islands. Cuba remains Venezuela’s main ally, providing doctors and “security advisors” – Cuban accents are allegedly overheard coordinating the National Guard at the protests – although it no longer receives the oil gifts at the volumes of yesteryear.

The opposition, a coalition of parties held together by little more than a rabid rejection of chavismo, has reached a consensus that prolonged street protest is the key to Maduro’s ousting. Government missteps have helped that happen. The filing of trumped-up charges to bar opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles from seeking political office for the next 15 years persuaded Capriles to lead the demonstrations.

The opposition-controlled National Assembly, although ignored or overruled by Maduro, is successfully deterring foreign investors from signing deals with the government, arguing they will not be honoured by a future administration without the approval of the legislature. As a result China, Venezuela’s main investor, has engaged in discreet talks with the opposition. It was this that triggered the government’s attempt to usurp parliament entirely in March – a move only reversed after the attorney general, Luisa Ortega Díaz, added her voice to the opposition protests.

The risk for Venezuela is that although the Maduro government is weakening, the cost of a political exit for senior government figures is higher than ever. The Vice President, Tareck El Aissami, has been labelled a “prominent drug trafficker” by the US Treasury Department. The Minister of Interior, Néstor Reverol, has been indicted on drug charges in a US Court. Diosdado Cabello, who has retained his senior-level military influence and is believed to control many of the colectivos or armed gangs that hold sway in the poorer districts of Caracas, is also under US investigation for alleged links with the drug trade. The opposition has made it clear it believes many senior members of the Maduro administration, including the president himself, have committed crimes against human rights that could merit imprisonment.

The Venezuelan military, with its top-heavy structure (it has more than 2,000 generals, twice as many as the US) is deeply embedded financially as well as politically in the chavismo project. The army controls state food distribution, several oil service contracts, illegal gold mining, as well as the ports. Military companies have access to dollars at a 10 to 1 exchange rate (the black market rate is 5,000 to 1), which is close to a license to print money. These hugely lucrative patronage schemes are an incentive to back Maduro until the end.

But, as the economy approaches rock bottom (accelerated by the chaos of near daily protests), the corruption pot is growing emptier. Venezuela’s joint military intelligence agency, is monitoring discontent in the barracks, gathering evidence from multiple sources including graffiti in bathrooms and Whatsapp messages on mobile phones. Its reporting is understood to reveal deep unhappiness amongst middle-ranking officers over their pay and the blatant corruption of their superiors.

In March, three army lieutenants released a video declaring they did not recognise Maduro as their commander-in-chief. They have since defected to Colombia. The opposition is now openly calling on the army to consider carefully whether it wants to “sink” with the chavismo project. Leopoldo Lopez, the imprisoned former mayor of Caracas, tweeted (via his wife) on May 7 that after spending three years in prison surrounded by soldiers he can confirm the “immense majority” are against the “dictatorship”. He is almost certainly right.

There is also open rivalry between the various security agencies and the National Guard, for example, which feels it has few of the perks of the main army. The National Guard is itself popularly detested.

A likely catalyst for the final demise of Maduro’s rule remains an internal split, either inside the army or within the political leadership, perhaps with one leading to the other. The most public “doubter” so far is the attorney general, Luisa Ortega Díaz, who described the Supreme Court’s attempt to usurp parliament as a “rupture” in the constitutional order. She has since suggested that President Maduro’s attempt to rewrite the constitution is also illegal.

Part of Ms Ortega’s incentive may be her personal animosity towards the head of the Supreme Court, Maikel Moreno, a murky figure implicated in the murder of one of her predecessors, Danilo Anderson. Ms Ortega investigated the case. Despite her criticisms of the president’s decisions, Ms Ortega remains in her job. The government might spin that as evidence that diverse views are welcomed within its leadership. But a more plausible explanation is that real fault lines are emerging in Venezuela’s leftist regime, and Mr Maduro is too weak to close them.