This is not Ukraine: Venezuela will erode, not explode
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.
Maduro is also popular. While the international media focuses on the opposition protests, Maduro’s approval ratings are still hovering above 40 percent, and the ruling PSUV party retains important levels of support, as was clear in its performance during last year’s December regional elections. The protests have not spread significantly beyond the opposition, nor have they infiltrated Maduro’s Chavista base; in fact, they present an opportunity for the president to shore up his support and legitimacy among his hardline supporters.
In terms of international opinion, the United States is opposed to Maduro, but he has generally reasonable relations with most Latin American countries right now. We’ve seen lament from many neighbors, but little in the way of outright criticism. Venezuela’s state-owned oil company has bought favor with many countries in the region through generous energy deals.
So what is Maduro’s strategy going forward? He will dig in, distract, and divide. He recently announced the extension of annual Carnival festivities, expanding it into a six-day holiday. He will stick to his all-or-nothing approach, refusing to grant significant concessions to the opposition, giving them little to feed momentum. He’ll hope that over the next few weeks, the opposition will realize they haven’t obtained anything meaningful from the government, and things will gradually die down.
Maduro has no incentive to resign, and there is no clear institutional mechanism to make him do so. It is very hard for either the opposition or the military — if it began to view the president as too much of a liability — to transition away from Maduro within the rigid constitutional framework. If the military, which is broadly supportive of Chavismo, did remove him, they would have to call elections that the opposition would likely win — a non-starter.
So we are unlikely to see Maduro flee the country any time soon. But surviving this battle is very different from winning the war, and Venezuela loses out as Maduro clings to power. The economy will continue to suffer, and there’s no political will in the government to take strong measures to address rapidly rising inflation and a deteriorating fiscal environment. In fact, the public dissatisfaction that is playing out right now makes Maduro even less likely to implement painful reforms that could lead to reinvigorated protests. That means we will see further rounds of social discontent down the road.
If Maduro had strong leadership skills and the willingness to reform, he could probably get himself out of this box. But his administration has badly mismanaged the economy, and it’s only getting worse. The government’s response continues to be weak, inconsistent and internally divided. However, with Maduro enjoying support from most of Chavismo and the security apparatus, the most likely outcome is one of a disorderly and uncertain transition as the situation erodes rather than explodes.
This is no Venezuela Spring. Expect things to slowly, consistently, worsen before they can get better.
*Correction: An earlier version of this column did not mention the possibility of a recall referendum prior to the 2018 election. The column has been corrected.
PHOTOS: Elderly protesters carry a flag during a march for peace in downtown Caracas February 23, 2014. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters as he arrives at a rally with workers in Caracas February 25, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva