Venezuela: Stalemate in a War of Attrition?

By Michael McCarthy*

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Members of Venezuela’s opposition march against President Maduro at a demonstration in April 2017. / A. Davey / Flickr / Creative Commons

The pace of provocation and counter-provocation in Venezuela has reached a new high, and there does not seem to be a stabilizing force that can induce a de-escalation.  It’s unclear if the country’s power struggle is experiencing a new cycle in its multi-year confrontation, or if two months of protests mark the start of a downward spiral that will plunge the country into even deeper crisis.  Neither the government nor opposition appears near the point of exhaustion that would make efforts at a meaningful negotiated settlement fruitful.  An examination of their agendas, moreover, paints a picture of an intractable conflict.

  • President Nicolás Maduro is in raw survival mode – perhaps driven by fear of disgrace as the man who lost the Chávez legacy entrusted to him – and is forcing a rewrite of the Constitution as he lurches toward outright dictatorship. He deeply resents that the opposition never acknowledged the legitimacy of his election, and he was shaken when jeered and egged at a public rally recently.  He has condoned violence by his party’s vigilantes and the Guardia Nacional, but almost certainly grasps its political cost, including within the government and military.  Faced with the certain prospect of persecution by an opposition-dominated government, he probably sees no incentive to negotiate his denouement.
  • The opposition remains heterogeneous and is united almost exclusively in the fervent belief that Maduro – through evil and incompetence – is destroying the country. Government repression and their own self-inflicted wounds have precluded development of a sophisticated strategic planning capacity.  Although opponents’ preferred option is to remove Maduro at the ballot box, some also apparently believe that ratcheting up the violence will force the military – reluctant to intervene – to lean on Maduro to depart.
  • The senior ranks of the military, compromised by corruption and narco-trafficking during the Chávez-Maduro era, show no signs of wavering, but discontent among field-grade officers at the Regional Commands – who will have to serve under a successor government – may become palpable during the military promotion season that formally concludes July 5. As the Guardia Nacional soils its reputation, the military wants to stay off the streets as long as possible.  There’s no evidence of sympathy with the opposition; their primary concern is avoiding being part of the bloodshed.  How the military would orchestrate a post-Maduro era is unknowable.
  • The country’s economic and financial crises have devastated oil production, making it impossible for Maduro to pump his way out of the crisis and increasing his reliance on foreign capital. Indebting itself further at an extremely high cost, the government bought some time by selling $2.8 billion in bonds to Goldman Sachs – through a counterparty – for $865 million in cash.
  • The sectores populares are highly agitated but lack leadership. The working class has largely fallen into poverty, now estimated at 80 percent nationally, and neighborhoods previously home to chavismo’s base have shown tolerance for the opposition and outright disdain for the ruling coalition, including knocking down statues of Hugo Chávez.

Neither the government nor opposition has yet shown concern that its resources and energy are nearing exhaustion – and the military, so far, is not prepared to tell one or the other to give up the struggle.  As long as both sides think that they can break the other, moreover, the prospects for either regime collapse or a mediated settlement seem unlikely, and it is hard to imagine the emergence of a stabilizing force that can mitigate conflict.  External forces may try to facilitate a resolution but are unlikely to succeed.  Brazil’s corruption scandals have removed it as a player; UNASUR’s failures have rendered it irrelevant; and Maduro preempted any final OAS censuring by announcing withdrawal from the organization (though his foreign minister will attend its General Assembly this month).  Washington continues to rely on sanctions – most recently freezing the assets of eight members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court – but seems reluctant to get more deeply involved, and given the turmoil that characterizes the Trump administration, it may in any event be incapable of doing so.  Absent the emergence of a viable formula within Venezuela to overcome the costly stalemate, the war of attrition between regime and opposition will likely continue without meaningful involvement of external actors.

June 5, 2017

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

Prospects Dim for Better U.S.-Venezuela Relations under Trump

By Timothy M. Gill*

maduro-tillerson-face-off

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and U.S. President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson’s past dealings with Venezuela may lead to increased tensions between the two countries. / President of Russia website / Creative Commons / William Muñoz / Flickr / Creative Commons / Modified

U.S. President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team have expressed similar criticisms of the Venezuelan government and, while giving off contradictory policy signals, appear headed toward a policy focused on sanctions rather than continuing the dialogue that the Obama administration recently opened with its counterpart in Caracas.  As the U.S. Senate continues its confirmation hearings of Trump nominees, Latin America has featured very little in the discussion thus far, but passing mentions of the region suggest greater consensus among the Trump team than on other issues such as the threat of Russia and the Iran nuclear agreement.

  • In September, Trump expressed support for the Venezuelan opposition. He asserted that he will “stand in solidarity with all people oppressed in our hemisphere … [and] with the oppressed people of Venezuela yearning to be free.”  He blamed “the socialists” for running Venezuela “into the ground.”  He has also recently shown interest in the cases of Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo López, two opposition leaders that respectively remain under house arrest and in a Venezuelan prison.
  • Several of Trump’s cabinet selections also seemingly harbor animosity toward the Venezuelan government. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, nominated to be Secretary of State, concluded a case against the Venezuelan government in an international court in 2014 involving the expropriation of his company’s facilities.  Venezuelan President Maduro accused ExxonMobil of inciting conflict between Venezuela and Guyana when it announced that it would work with the Guyanese government to drill oil in an area that both countries claim.  General Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has included Venezuela (and Cuba) in the “enemy alliance” that the United States faces “in a global war.”  General John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, has condemned the Venezuelan government for its alleged involvement in drug trafficking.

While the Trump team is obviously unhappy with Caracas, their statements so far shed little light on what they’ll concretely do differently from the Obama Administration.  Obama designated the Venezuelan government “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to the national security of the U.S. in 2015 and sanctioned a handful of state security leaders.  But there has also been renewed interest in recent months on the part of both governments to dialogue.  In late 2016, Maduro met with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary Tom Shannon.  Despite disparaging Trump during the campaign season, Maduro extended his congratulations to him on November 9, and publicly reiterated his hope for better relations.  On January 16, Maduro stated that he was “surprised at the brutal hate campaign against Donald Trump,” and he welcomed the Trump administration, saying that Trump “won’t be worse than Obama.”

Aggressive rhetoric from Trump is a given, but his true position on Venezuela – as well as many other countries – is not entirely clear.  Businessman Trump undoubtedly grasps that strategic relations are founded on Venezuela’s role among the United States top five international suppliers of crude.  He has at times been dismissive of the concept of “democracy promotion,” which drives much of Washington’s advocacy in places like Venezuela.  He shows a penchant, however, for the sort of double-standard that most irks Latin America – criticizing Cuba and Venezuela’s political systems but praising Kazakhstan and Russia.  Moreover, he may be tempted to throw a sop to U.S. politicians who have led the effort to impose sanctions on the Venezuelan government.  During Tillerson’s confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, Senator Marco Rubio – with whom Trump had bitter exchanges during their party’s primaries last year – made criticisms suggesting continuing tensions, but Venezuela would be an easy issue for Trump to throw Rubio’s way as a peace offering to the lawmaker from Miami.  Indeed, while it’s far too early to make concrete predictions, it seems safe to say that Obama’s late-game efforts to reset the relationship with Venezuela will not continue under the new Administration – and we might expect Trump to more intensively target the Venezuelan government in the coming years.

January 23, 2017

*Timothy M. Gill is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy Research at Tulane University.

Venezuela: Maduro versus Capriles, again

By Michael McCarthy*

Henrique Caprile / Photo Credit: ICP Colombia / Foter.com / CC BY-SA and  Nicolas Maduro / Photo credit: OEA - OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Henrique Capriles / Photo Credit: ICP Colombia / Foter.com / CC BY-SA and
Nicolás Maduro / Photo credit: OEA – OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Venezuela’s municipal elections on December 8 didn’t conclusively answer the single question on people’s minds:  Would the parties aligned under the leadership of President Nicolás Maduro or those under opposition leader Henrique Capriles win a commanding victory?  Attention centered on this question because Capriles had rejected the results of the April 14 balloting as fraudulent and this time called on voters to give a clear majority to his opposition “electoral bloc.”  Maduro came out ahead in last Sunday’s contest, with its complex ballot asking voters to choose mayors and councilpersons in 335 districts.  His alliance, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) plus left-wing parties, totaled 49 percent of the vote, and parties aligned with the opposition received 42 percent.

But Maduro’s crowing about a “great victory” that propels the Bolivarian Revolution forward with “greater force” and legitimates a “deepening of the economic offensive” rings hollow.  Some of the 9 percent of the vote that went to candidates identified as independents may lean toward him, but the PSUV aspires to be a hegemonic party, claiming a much stronger base, and some hardcore chavistas are complaining about the opposition’s resilience in major urban centers and victories in the capitals of three interior states, all chavista strongholds, including former President Chávez’s home state of Barinas.  In broad strokes, Maduro’s economic populism – attacks last month on so-called economic criminals and measures forcing stores to lower prices – gave him a late boost.  Polls indicate that, with annual inflation running at 54 percent, the move paid off.  Maduro’s blitzkrieg gave urban working-class voters a means to afford items ahead of Christmas and showed the radical base of chavismo his commitment to challenge crony capitalism.  The opposition failed to mount an effective counterattack.  Preparations next year for 2015 National Assembly elections will tell the staying power of this victory for Maduro and the effectiveness of his “economic offensive.”   Capriles, who offered a calm post-election speech, sounded confident of his strategic game, but some in the opposition are probably disappointed that they did not take more Chavista strongholds.

Even though the opposition didn’t win the global numbers game, its significant presence in city halls around the country gives it a position from which to build the outline of a governance model.  One important winner appears to be the electoral process itself, in which the technical machinery ran smoothly and no sustained allegations of fraud were made.  A second winner was governability.  Notwithstanding some bullying of Capriles campaign workers, no violence transpired during the campaign or on voting day, and both sides can claim victories.  Maduro’s triumphalist rhetoric confirms that Venezuelan politics is going to remain far from harmonious, but even a modicum of governability could go a long way as the country faces many tough, if not intractable, questions in the coming year and beyond.

*Michael McCarthy is Lecturer, Latin American Politics, at Johns Hopkins University, School for Advanced International Studies.

Venezuela: The True Scope of Chávez´s Legacy

By Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pont*

Hugo Chávez / Photo credit: ¡Que comunismo! / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Hugo Chávez / Photo credit: ¡Que comunismo! / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

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.

Chavismo Wins a Battle But the Tide May Have Turned

By Eric Hershberg

Inauguration of Nicolás Maduro | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Inauguration of Nicolás Maduro | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

President Nicolás Maduro’s inauguration last Friday marked a new stage in the contest between chavistas and the Venezuelan opposition.  Maduro’s surprisingly weak showing at the polls – winning by a meager 1.8 percent margin despite the huge (and abused) advantages of incumbency – plus tensions within his party and his own rhetorical excesses, suggest that chavismo without Chávez confronts challenging odds.  Chávez attracted more votes alive than he could in death, as his hand-picked successor could not match his patron’s appeal at the ballot box.  Looking forward, Maduro and the Partido Unido Socialista de Venezuela (PSUV) will be judged on the basis of their performance.  The road ahead will not be easy for Maduro, as the government  confronts growing economic and security problems, and his ineffective campaign may energize potential competitors from within Chavismo.

Henrique Capriles’s strong showing in the election bodes well for the opposition.  However, athough Maduro’s blanket reference to them as “fascists” is absurd, their apparent eagerness to use the vote recount – reluctantly agreed to by the electoral council hours before Maduro’s inauguration – to remove him from office could breathe life into his allegation that the opposition consists of  golpistas obsessed with taking power.  Overreaching could be their undoing, as it has been in the past.

Latin American presidents, through a UNASUR statement of support and participation in the inauguration, have endorsed Maduro’s ascendance to the Presidency.  Their strong interest, for a variety of reasons, is in a balance between continuity and change in Venezuela. Although there are signs that both Chile and Colombia wavered momentarily, South American governments overall were united in their preference for a chavista government, as this would favor both  internal and regional stability.The United States, on the other hand, has appeared timid.  Maduro’s accusations of U.S. attacks on him and the presence of Iranian leader Ahmadinejad at the inauguration made it impossible for Washington to send a senior emissary to the swearing-in.  Yet the evident absence of the United States, even after the UNASUR endorsement, was petty.  Through statements calling for a recount of 100 percent of the votes both the State Department and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations came across as unable to outgrow a grudge match with Chávez or to grasp that the American position would isolate Washington once again from prevailing sentiment in South America.

There were two winners in the Venezuelan election:  Maduro, who is now the elected President, and Capriles, who managed to secure nearly half the votes in the face of overwhelming odds.  The latter comes out ahead in the long run, but only if he manages his cards wisely.  Washington, meanwhile, seems still not to understand two things:  First, after Bush v. Gore, it will be at least another generation until Americans can say anything about how to count votes.  It was legitimate and appropriate for the OAS to demand a recount, as its record in election monitoring is impeccable.  Secretary General Insulza achieved the core objective of the Organization and should be recognized for having done so.  For the American government to have taken the position that it did suggests an inability to understand the consequences of the 2000 election in Florida for its credibility in election-related issues in the region.  Second, democratic change in Latin America is typically an evolutionary process.  This may be less satisfying to some policymakers who would prefer to see a foe’s outright defeat, but it may be better, for Chavismo’s enemies in both Washington and Caracas, than having their favorite step in at this particular time of high tensions.  If Capriles and his coalition can brand themselves as democratic reformists rather than golpistas, they have a good chance of coming to power when Maduro’s six-year term is exhausted, or even before, and if they convey a message of responsible opposition, key South American governments might well approve of an alternation in power the next time around.

After Chávez?

Photo by:     UKBERRI.NET Uribe Kosta eta Erandioko agerkari digitala | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: UKBERRI.NET Uribe Kosta eta Erandioko agerkari digitala | Flickr | Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s solemn appearance on national television on December 8 may have marked more than his departure for a fourth round of cancer treatment in Cuba.  His designation of Vice President and former Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro as his successor in the event he could not continue his duties indicated an initial farewell from politics as well – with wide-ranging implications in- and outside Venezuela.  Chávez asked “with all my heart” that his supporters elect Maduro to continue the Bolivarian revolution in the event of his death or inability to continue his mandate, with a clear eye to the constitutional requirement for emergency elections to be held within just 30 days should the president die or become incapacitated within the first four years of the term.  On Tuesday, Maduro announced that the president was recuperating after a six-hour procedure in Havana.  He did not declare a sure and speedy recovery but rather asked for Venezuelans’ prayers.

Speculation about the domestic scenario, including struggles within the ruling party, is intense.  Maduro’s most frequently mentioned rival to succeed Chávez is Diosdado Cabello, who was also alongside Chávez as he made the announcement last week.  While Maduro and Cabello both have had years of government experience and demonstrated political loyalty, questions remain about whether they – or anyone else – could replicate Chávez’s connection with poor voters and keep their weak political party together.  Informed speculation about the long-term impact on the region, if the succession stumbles, ranges from predictions of a cutoff of subsidies and subsidized oil, that would destabilize Cuba, Nicaragua and others to, among those who never saw Chávez as effective regionally, shrugged shoulders.

An even greater unknown is how well the opposition would do in the event of a snap election.  It is far from certain that these forces would re-unite around former candidate Henrique Capriles so shortly after he lost the October 2012 election.  The new system of primary elections that produced the single candidate last year would be difficult to replicate so quickly.  With both the ruling and opposition parties vulnerable to tensions and splits, a scenario of instability could easily result.  If Chávez’s health permits, he could conceivably resign the presidency and oversee elections that, although probably skewed, will help maintain the institutional order. If Venezuela is indeed on the brink of a succession process, the fortunes of both Chavismo and the opposition, and indeed of the Venezuelan population, will depend in large part on the capacity of both sides to maintain unity around alternative candidates for the Presidency.

Venezuelan Elections: Chávez Wins, but Confirms Country’s Divide

Henrique Capriles Radonski and Hugo Chávez | Venezuela’s Globovision | Flickr | Creative Commons license

Following a tense day of voting on Sunday, incumbent Hugo Chávez has won the Venezuelan presidential elections.  With 90 percent of the ballots counted, Chávez had approximately 7.4 million votes (about 54.4%) while opposition candidate Henrique Capriles won 6.15 million votes (44.9%).  The president won every state in Venezuela except Táchira and Mérida, and secured a majority of votes in Zulia State, traditionally a bastion of support for the opposition.  Turnout was nearly 81 percent, a very high figure, and thousands of Venezuelans cast their ballots at consulates and voting centers abroad.  As of yet, there have been no allegations of voter fraud or post-electoral violence and both candidates appear to have accepted the result.  A delegation from UNASUR “accompanied” the vote and has affirmed that the electoral process was legitimate.

Chávez will embark on his third consecutive presidential term in January 2013 and, health permitting, will remain in power until at least 2019.  The ruling PSUV has a sufficient majority in parliament to ensure that Chávez will be able to legislate comfortably.  However, should Chávez’s health prevent his completing the term, the PSUV lacks an obvious successor who could carry forward with the Bolivarian Revolution.  Regardless, the Chávez agenda faces huge challenges, particularly with an economy rife with distortions and a security situation spiraling out of control.

While Capriles and the opposition were defeated at the polls, his candidacy galvanized an opposition that is far better organized and more united than at any point since Chávez’s  rise to the Presidency 14 years ago.  The 6.15 million votes Capriles received was the greatest number ever for a losing candidate in a presidential Venezuelan election, and kept Chávez’s margin of victory within single-digits.  Clearly, a large segment of the population opposes further expansion of the Bolivarian Revolution.  It remains to be seen whether a united opposition can complicate Chávez’s efforts to move Venezuela further down the road to his brand of socialism.