Opinion

Ian Bremmer

This is not Ukraine: Venezuela will erode, not explode

By Ian Bremmer
February 28, 2014

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

Comments
7 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

And however bad things get before they get better…

Don’t expect Venezuelans to hand their country and their resources over to the USA any time soon.

As far as Latin Americans are concerned: Been there, done that. Short of an old-fashioned American armed intervention, those days are gone forever.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive
 

Ian Bremmer, this is a very good analysis of the situation of my country (i’m venezuelan). The situation will get much worse and you nailed it when you said he has the support of the military. That was not always the case. Unfortunately, Chavez did a good job of slowly removing anyone who opposed him within the military. In other words, the majority of officers that were known to be anti-chavez were either put in jail (in Los Teques) or forced to retire. Also, after 15 years of new officers being formed with communist ideals, a good deal of the army has formed a career by supporting the chavez government. Finally, it is well known that all of the high ranking officers (generals) are involved in corruption and cannot risk saying anything or else they go to jail because they are dirty. So, many of these chavista officers have no choice either. To make things worse, there have been many reports of Cubans wearing military uniforms, which means the ties to Castro are pretty strong. As you said, Maduro’s government will continue for some time.

Posted by CommanderOtto | Report as abusive
 

Ian Bremmer, this is a very good analysis of the situation of my country (i’m venezuelan). The situation will get much worse and you nailed it when you said he has the support of the military. That was not always the case. Unfortunately, Chavez did a good job of slowly removing anyone who opposed him within the military. In other words, the majority of officers that were known to be anti-chavez were either put in jail (in Los Teques) or forced to retire. Also, after 15 years of new officers being formed with communist ideals, a good deal of the army has formed a career by supporting the chavez government. Finally, it is well known that all of the high ranking officers (generals) are involved in corruption and cannot risk saying anything or else they go to jail because they are dirty. So, many of these chavista officers have no choice either. To make things worse, there have been many reports of Cubans wearing military uniforms, which means the ties to Castro are pretty strong. Maduro inherited this army. As you said, Maduro’s government will continue for some time.

Posted by CommanderOtto | Report as abusive
 

Mind explaining what a “semi-rigged election” is?

Posted by retrovette | Report as abusive
 

The ‘Chavista-Cuban’ circus act has been quite effective with it’s multi-pronged strategy.
1. It buy the consciousness of semi-literate, uneducated people at the lower end of social strata by pretending to represent their interests wholeheartedly.
2. It engages in some ‘social policies’ to sponsor and cement that illusion.
3. It takes over the free media or prohibits or threatens them to change their tune.
4. It creates a permanent state of national psychosis based on an illusionary enemy, – ‘the Empire’, the USA.
5. It manipulates EVERYTHING in public life to distort or hide it’s own obvious corrupt and inefficient policies.
6. It either indoctrinates or bribes it’s own military to insure their support.
7. It creates a personality cult around ‘great leader’ Chavez and presents him as a Venezuelan Robin Hood, with Maduro his loyal successor.
8. It buys the consciousnesses of as many poorer Latin & Caribbean countries as possible, using cheap oil and hard cash, in order to support the illusionary notion of ‘strength’ on the world scene.
9. It subverts transparency and it’s own Constitution at will and expediency of the moment.
10. It hands it’s own country over to Cuba and their far more efficient state-thugs to control dissent.
11. Meanwhile, most if not all of the ‘socialist’ Ă©lite have amassed vast fortunes and imagine they’ll be able to live ‘happily ever after’ once the charade falls and innocent Venezuelans who still believe the ‘red Robin Hood’ fable, are shown the truth.
12. The myth that the US is particularly interested in Venezuelan oil, is exactly that – a myth created by Chavez for his own convenience. Venezuela needs the US far more than the other way around. The US will soon be energy self-sufficient, already export oil and certainly exports the refined gasoline Venezuela needs to keep it’s vehicles moving. This quite apart from essential food produce.
13. The entire ‘Socialism of the XXI Century’ marketing crappo, is nothing but a sick joke for the millions there who will see their life expectancy seriously degraded by lies, manipulation, ineffciency, corruption and not least one of the highest murder rates on the planet.
14. The only thing Chavez and his badoleros have been good at, is the perverse marketing of their lies to their own innocents!

Posted by Earthtourist | Report as abusive
 

V is heading towards hyperinflation, which will make the official exchange rate untenable. V does not have sufficient FX reserves to maintain current imports at the official rate. The CB is exhausting its reserves in an attempt to keep import prices low. At some point, the official exchange rate will have to rise much closer to the parallel rate. That will result in huge price increases. It may also force V to default on its external debt. Right now, the protesters are the middle class, but when prices shoot up, the working class will also revolt. The Bolivarian Socialist Revolution will be bankrupt–as will be Cuba.

Posted by nixonfan | Report as abusive
 

Ian Bremmer gets a lot of thing right in this article; particularly his conclusion that, for Maduro, “surviving this battle is very different from winning the war.” That probably encapsulates the situation as it now stands–and pay attention here because what follows is important–so long as the official organs of the Venezuelan government continue to manage the situation for the regime.

There is something important missing from this commentary, which is the presence and role of the so-called “Colectivos” from within Chavismo. These are paramilitary gangs, who usually distinguish themselves in public by the wearing of red t-shirts and their penchant for riding motorcycles in unison. They are lightly-armed, mostly carrying pistols but also possessing automatic weapons, which they are fond of brandishing when they stage what can only be described as the “ceremonial intimidation” of the political opposition in their home neighborhoods, a tactic they have been using for at least the last seven years, following Chavez’s re-election in December, 2006.

Chavez gave the Colectivos the resources they needed when he organized them to function in a manner similar to the Cuban paramilitaries Fidel Castro and his brother Raul have used to curb dissent on their island. And what is so important here is that the Colectivos are the ones responsible for most of the deaths of student protesters, as well as for a significant number of both public and private beatings that have occurred since the protests began.

The questions remain: “How well coordinated and controlled are the Colectivos?” “Will they continue to show the same level of restraint as the official organs of state police power?” (If the word ‘restraint’ can be used to describe a regime engaging in violent repression which stops just short of open murder.) “Will Maduro and Chavismo find themselves completely delegitimized before world opinion as a consequence of uncontrolled and deadly violence meted out by the Colectivos?”

Up to now, the regime in Venezuela has managed to keep the minority in the country who support it, even Bremmer seems to admit it noting the “low 40′s” approval rating of Maduro, together as a unit in the face of the protests. But the Colectivos are not popular anywhere in Venezuela and if they lose restraint the entire situation will change.

The Colectivos are the wild card in the Venezuelan deck.

Posted by jjsulzbach | Report as abusive
 

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