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.

Venezuela: Vicious Cycle Continues

By CLALS Staff

Photo Credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Photo Credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

UNASUR has shown energy and flexibility as a facilitator during the Venezuela crisis, but neither the government, nor its opponents, nor the opposition’s allies in Washington have matched it – prolonging the vicious cycle that’s been plaguing the country for years.  Speaking as UNASUR, the foreign ministers of Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador reflected the continent’s frustration when they threw up their hands this week and left Caracas after another failed attempt to get a national dialogue on track.  Their statements represented a balance between the UNASUR members that are generally perceived as tolerant of the Venezuelan government’s “Bolivarian” revolution and those perceived as opposing it.  They reiterated calls, issued officially in Suriname on 16 May, for both sides to “achieve a broad dialogue that permits Venezuelans, without interference, to reach an accord that guarantees peaceful coexistence and stability in the country.”

The government, opposition and Washington have not heeded the appeal by UNASUR and the Vatican’s nuncio to be constructive and patient.  The government’s attack on opposition and student camps in early May and subsequent arrest of more than 200 protestors highlighted the authoritarian tendencies that have given momentum to the demonstrations.  The Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD), representing important sectors of the opposition, gave the foreign ministers yet another list of demands – including a Truth Commission investigating rights violations (and not headed by the pro-government president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello) and the selection of an entirely new National Elections Council.  The MUD’s executive secretary declared that he has no interest in participating in a peña or chit-chat session, and said, “The ball is in the government’s court.”  Although U.S. Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson said during a hearing that sanctions were premature (a statement that she attributed to “confusion”), the foreign affairs committees in both house of the U.S. Congress – without objection from the Obama Administration – have passed bills authorizing an array of punitive measures against Venezuelan officials.  The legislation also authorizes an additional $15 million dollars in aid to the government’s opponents.

The less overtly political agenda that first sparked the protests in February – soaring crime rates, rocketing inflation, and shortages of basic goods and services – has been overshadowed by the shouts of opposition leaders eager to force President Maduro from office and by Maduro’s defenses from the plotting against him.  Demands that Maduro negotiate with a foreign-funded opposition that has as its clear goal his removal as constitutionally legitimate president – something no head of state in the hemisphere would accept – naturally keep his bases on edge.  Political leaders on both sides manipulate popular opinion and claim el pueblo as supporting them.  Another of each side’s real strengths is its ability to portray itself as a victim of the unfairness of the other – because their victimhood rationalizes whatever actions they wish to take.  In that regard, the U.S. sanctions against the government and subsidies to the opposition play into Maduro’s hand.  Washington’s extra $15 million is a drop in the bucket for the well-funded opposition, but the U.S. support is as clear a signal as any of its desired outcome.  With both the United States and important segments of the opposition appearing to aim for nothing short of regime change, UNASUR is wise to step aside and see if anyone decides to get serious about ending the crisis.  Should the situation on the ground deteriorate further, however, UNASUR will probably ramp up its engagement and press both sides to make concessions in exchange for regional support.