Expert Commentary

No Easy Way Out for Venezuelans

Michael Shifter
President, Inter-American Dialogue
Ben Raderstorf
Program Associate, Rule of Law, Inter-American Dialogue

Chaos, it seems, has become a new norm in Venezuela. In the past month, masses of peaceful protesters opposed to President Nicolás Maduro have been violently dispersed by state security forces almost every day. Masked demonstrators burn barricades and face off regularly with armed quasi-paramilitary motorcycle gangs, known as colectivos, controlled by the government. So far, in the last month of unrest, nearly 30 people have been killed.

The current turmoil in Venezuela began when the Supreme Court, packed with Chavista loyalists of the Maduro regime, issued a ruling on March 29 that essentially dissolved the already-marginalized National Assembly and assumed the country’s legislative powers for itself. Although the court quickly reversed the ruling in the face of domestic protests and international outcry, the episode revealed the fragility of even a semblance of constitutional order in the country and sparked long-simmering tensions. 

Meanwhile, the economy continues to grind to a relative halt, shrinking well over 10 percent last year. The actual rate of inflation is difficult to measure, due to countless distortions and price controls, but reliable estimates put it at more than 700 percent, making it the world’s highest. The state-owned oil industry – Venezuela has the largest proven reserves in the world – has been hobbled by mismanagement, corruption, and lack of investment. As a result, the economic and humanitarian crisis has grown severe. There are reports of mass shortages of food and medicine, and the security situation has deteriorated. According to most counts, there are more than 100 political prisoners in Venezuela.

Last year, the Chavista government refused to hold a recall referendum on President Maduro that was constitutionally guaranteed. On Monday, it announced a new national vote to create a new “constituent” assembly – apparently an attempt to sideline the opposition further.

Through this upheaval, critics of the Maduro government – especially abroad – struggle to find a clear strategy to help resolve the crisis. Many countries at the Organization of American States (OAS) have ratcheted up pressure, seeking to issue a formal condemnation. In response, Maduro has announced his intention to withdraw from the organization – increasing his government’s diplomatic isolation, but also cutting off one of the few multilateral mechanisms that could be used against him.

There is a sense expressed by many in Caracas that these protests are a new chapter in Venezuela’s saga in which the government will have a tough time putting such unrest back in a box. But what comes next is difficult to know. Broadly speaking, there are two plausible scenarios: Maduro could collapse, replaced by a military or opposition-led government, or the crisis could continue to drag on, potentially with the Chavistas cracking down and doing everything to preserve their power – including far bloodier repression. 

Scenario I: Maduro collapses

The opposition clearly hopes that the end of Chavismo is near. After almost two decades in power, starting with former President Hugo Chávez in 1999, the Chavista government could fall fairly quickly and be replaced by an interim government – either from the opposition or the military, or with a pact between the two to hold new elections. Maduro could also face a palace coup in which the government doesn’t so much collapse, but instead is eased out in favor of another faction attempting to placate the protesters with incremental change. This could be an orderly process, or the government could simply implode, possibly resulting in uncontrolled lawlessness, widespread violence, and near-total economic paralysis.

The best evidence for this scenario is just how broad-based the protests have become. There are reports that – for the first time – Venezuela’s poor (who formed the bedrock of Chavismo’s support) have begun to join the protests, which previously were made up of mostly middle class citizens.

If this continues, the military may simply not be willing or able to engage in the sort of repression necessary to quell such a popular uprising. There may be a point when the government simply splinters and certain factions are unwilling to support Maduro any longer.

The key sector to watch is the military. If a substantial number of senior officials abandons Maduro, his time in office will likely be cut short. The armed forces are already a key pillar of the government and in charge of critical functions such as food distribution.

Scenario II: Maduro holds on

At the same time, Maduro has defied predictions of government collapse for several years. The challenges have long seemed insurmountable, but still, the government endures. To be sure, the economic and political stresses on the government will only continue to grow, but its resilience has consistently been underestimated. Maduro seems to have dug in, just waiting for the price of oil – which sustained Chávez’s prosperity and popularity – to rise again.

While the opposition is united today in some respects, fractures may emerge quickly as the situation unfolds. Differences over strategy and leadership could again become debilitating. The Chavistas have cleverly manipulated these divisions for years and hope to continue to do so. Without a clear political alternative in place, Venezuelans will continue to have difficulties translating street protests into real change.

Similarly, there is hardly a clear path to resolving the economic crisis. The country is in massive debt, the oil industry is crumbling, and most productive businesses have closed or fled the country. As much as the Venezuelan people are struggling now, an adjustment plan could bring about even more suffering, at least in the short term. For many, government rations and price controls are the only thing that makes food, gasoline, and other necessities affordable in the face of skyrocketing black market prices.

In this scenario, greater repression and concentration of power cannot be ruled out. Maduro may shutter congress, send soldiers out to disperse the protesters in an even more violent way, and attempt to imprison the opposition en masse.

The best evidence that the Chavistas will resort to anything they can to stay in office is just how much they, personally, have to lose. They could eventually be held accountable for human rights violations, and there are reports that most senior members of the government are deeply involved not only in embezzling public funds from oil money, but also in drug trafficking and other illicit activities. Political power could be the only thing protecting them from eventual prosecution for criminal activities.

Many fear that the Supreme Court ruling and the decision to pull back from the OAS were signs of ongoing preparations for a brutal crackdown as the government turns increasingly inward. Chavismo may be testing the waters and weighing repression among its options.

Conclusion

In any scenario, the United States and the rest of the countries of the hemisphere should be prepared to respond. A multilateral and carefully considered strategy of diplomatic pressure and humanitarian assistance will be essential. Yet regardless of what happens in Caracas – and how Washington chooses to respond – there will be no easy way out for Venezuela.  

The Author is Michael Shifter

Michael Shifter is president of the Inter-American Dialogue. Since 1993, Mr. Shifter has been adjunct professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, where he teaches Latin American politics. Prior to joining the Inter-American Dialogue, Mr. Shifter directed the Latin American and Caribbean program at the National Endowment for Democracy and, before that, the Ford Foundation's governance and human rights program in the Andean region and Southern Cone where he was... Read More

The Coauthor is Ben Raderstorf

Ben Raderstorf joined the Inter-American Dialogue in 2015 and is a program associate with the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program. He coordinates the Dialogue's program work and research on corruption, citizen security, and judicial issues as well as U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America. He also organizes the Dialogue's Working Group on Latin America and many of its regular events, conferences, and meetings. Raderstorf previously worked for the Chilean Ministry of Finance in... Read More

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