By Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pont*
Chávez’s legacy for Venezuela goes well beyond the Bolivarian government he left in Nicolás Maduro’s hands. Three conflicts overshadow the country’s future and contribute to many uncertainties:
- The first, and most urgent, is the standoff between the two main factions of the ruling PSUV over how to overcome the current economic crisis, characterized by the IMF as “difficult and probably unsustainable.” The pragmatists focus on making currency controls more flexible, and the ideologues are oriented toward increasing state control over the economy.
- The internal party conflict between President Maduro and his supporters, committed to building the “socialismo del siglo XXI,” on the one hand, and the pragmatic sector of the governmental party (pragmatic in the sense of ensuring their businesses operate without interruption) led by the President of the General Assembly, former army officer Diosdado Cabello, with the support of high ranking military and businessmen who benefited from the “revolutionary” process through legal and illegal business.
- The conflict between the PSUV, wielding the power of the government, and the opposition, which it accuses of being an “enemy of the revolution” linked to the “external enemies” (basically the United States) who want to derail the revolutionary process.
The dire state of the economy is aggravating each of these conflicts. By the end of September, according to government data, inflation rates hit 4.4 percent per month, and rose to 38.7 percent in 2013 so far. The opposition estimates an annual inflation rate of 49.4 percent—the highest since 1997. According to the 2012 UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) report, an increasing number of Venezuelans are living under the poverty line – with a 29.9 percent increase in the poverty rate last year – with income no longer enough to fulfill basic needs. Shortages of food and other necessities are severe; the depreciation of the Bolívar has accelerated in the currency black market, and the Central Bank is printing paper currency in an attempt to cope with the financial deficit. Within this context, the struggle between the pragmatic and the ideological fronts of the PSUV only contributes to the chaos.
Caracas’s international relations are also a factor in the internal tensions and are fueling concerns within the armed forces, according to NGOs and others with good contacts in the military. The economic crisis has affected the government’s ability to continue its “petro diplomacy” – diminishing its influence – and the opposition has continued persistent accusations of inadequate management of the relationship with Guyana and the claim over the Essequibo, contested territory along their common border. In addition, a recent incident involving a maritime exploration ship of Panamanian flag with a U.S. crew detained by the Venezuelan Navy in waters under dispute with Guyana aggravated the current national and international political scenario. The government usually resorts to nationalist appeals, but criticism of its handling of these problems is likely to grow.
The core issue in all of these situations continues to be the potential scenario of a social outbreak driven by the shortages, rising inflation, the broad sense of insecurity, and perceptions of blatant corruption in government. These frustrations appear to cut across all sectors of Venezuelan society regardless of ideological identity. Given the historical reluctance of the armed forces to intervene (particularly since the experience of the “Caracazo” of 1989), most observers still wonder when and if a social explosion will move them to action. The economic and social crises, the internal tensions in the government, and the polarization with the opposition, along with the possibilities of an international incident, may add up to enough to move the military, perhaps with the support of several state governors, to act, but determining that breaking point – the Venezuela analyst’s greatest challenge – remains elusive.
* Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pontare members of the analysis team of the Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales (CRIES), a Latin-American think tank.