Presidents beleaguered by mass protests seem to use the same phrasebook. After protests turned exceptionally violent in Ukraine, the security agency waged an “anti-terrorist operation” in retaliation. Within days, President Yanukovich’s support had crumbled, he had fled, and the “radical forces” he disparaged had seized power. In Venezuela, President Maduro has dubbed the billowing unrest a spree of “fascism” aiming to “eliminate” him; he urged the opposition to halt its acts of “terrorism.”
But Venezuela is no Ukraine, and it’s unlikely that Nicolas Maduro will soon suffer Yanukovich’s fate. Here’s why.
Things have not been going well for President Maduro, with massive protests stemming from a steady rise in economic turmoil, crime and inflation. A weak opposition initially made progress through electoral channels: former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles came within 1.5 percent of beating Maduro during last year’s semi-rigged election.
But the prospect of waiting until 2018 to take their next lawful whack at Maduro has left the opposition demoralized and increasingly radicalized. The opposition could try to force a recall referendum sooner, but the Maduro government would make it exceedingly difficult to proceed. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has called for Venezuelans to take their disapproval to the streets. When the regime accused Lopez of — what else? — terrorism and murder, Lopez turned himself in (after an impassioned speech, of course). That has only solidified his support, and puts Maduro between a rock and a hard place: release Lopez to lead future protests, or incite the opposition with his imprisonment.
Maduro is a weak president, to be sure, and these protests represent by far the most severe challenge to his authority to date. But Maduro holds many cards that Ukraine’s Yanukovich did not. He retains control of (and loyalty from) the key apparatus of the state — military, police and security forces, parliament, and state-owned oil company PDVSA (Venezuela’s main source of revenue). There is no unified command within the security forces that could turn against him in an organized fashion, and the security forces are much more willing to repress and support the regime than they are in Ukraine.