Venezuela: Running Out the Clock in 2016

By Michael McCarthy*

venezuela-military

A military exercise in Caracas, Venezuela. The Venezuelan military remains tolerant, if not actively supportive, of President Nicolás Maduro’s government. / Cancilleria del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Despite continuing high tensions in Venezuela, neither President Nicolás Maduro nor the opposition appears likely to gain an upper hand in their years-long confrontation over the next couple months.  Venebarómetro polls buttress press reports and observers’ impressions that the opposition is slowly making gains, but support for the government – while extremely low – has stabilized.  A plan to reschedule 2017 debt owed by the national oil company will probably give the administration some breathing room, especially if oil prices continue to recover – a more likely scenario thanks to OPEC’s announced production cut agreement.
  • The very high turnout for the opposition’s Toma de Caracas demonstration on September 1, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, showed the depth of support for the anti-Maduro platform. The Electoral Tribunal’s announcement last week of onerous requirements on the opposition to schedule a referendum to recall Maduro (requiring, for example, the signatures of 20 percent of residents of all states, rather than nationally) rekindled opposition anger and unity.  A Venebarómetro poll earlier this month showed that 90 percent of Venezuelans view their overall situation negatively, and 71 percent support Maduro’s immediate resignation, but that only roughly 50 percent identify with the opposition.  The Mesa de Unidad opposition coalition is under great pressure to satisfy different constituencies – promoting street mobilization and pursuing dialogue at the same time – even when these initiatives seem at counter purposes.  Hamstrung by coalitional politics, anti-Maduro forces have not shown the cunning needed to force a course reversal from the Electoral Tribunal.
  • While Maduro’s popular support remains extremely low (22 percent), an internal party revolt against him appears unlikely. The government’s big push for a deal under which PDVSA creditors would swap debt coming due in 2017 for generous new 2020 bonds is making headway, according to the press.  Enhanced short-term liquidity may result in increased imports, a development which cannot come soon enough for a government that faces a restive population that has seen quality of life deteriorate dramatically during the crisis.

The common wisdom that the military is at least tolerant, if not actively supportive, of Maduro still stands.  Armed Forces chief Vladimir Padrino López showed an independent streak during last December’s Parliamentary election but this has not translated into a public rivalry with Maduro.  He moved into the spotlight when Maduro tasked the military with taking charge of food distribution, but he has since kept a lower profile.  Other senior commanders’ political leanings are even more difficult to discern.  Appealing to the military is a key element of the opposition’s current strategy, but there are still no signs of an increase in the institution’s willingness to press Maduro to step down or even change policies.

Maduro’s time-buying strategy looks likely to prevail for now.  His repressive tactics toward the opposition – keeping pressure on while occasionally offering negotiations, prisoner releases, and other gestures – are gaining the government time but failing to address any of the underlying causes of the ongoing crisis.  The debt swap is also a palliative that only delays the implementation of major reforms.  Popular unrest, political instability, and even violence are the factors that might conceivably persuade the military that its support and patience are misplaced.  However, with the world watching, most of the opposition leadership wants to play by constitutional rules.  Those who consider the chances of success justify the human price of further ramping up protests may see their hand strengthened if government obstructionism kills the referendum this year.  Few Venezuelans, moreover, view possible talks with the Vatican and the United States as likely to produce a breakthrough.  Even if the government alleviates the pain a bit to generate some Christmas cheer, the country will wake up with a terrible national hangover in 2017.

September 30, 2016

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.  He is international associate for Venebarómetro polling and publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

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