Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Are Maduro’s Days Numbered?

Venezuelan Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz said Sunday that an opposition-led petition drive for a referendum to remove President Nicolás Maduro from office would not be allowed to move ahead, accusing organizers of committing fraud in collecting signatures. Meanwhile, last Friday Maduro declared a 60-day state of emergency, ordering military exercises to prepare for what he called “foreign threats.” On Sunday, he told a crowd of supporters that all businesses and factories closed down by their owners would be “given to the workers” so production could be restarted. Given recent developments, how likely is Maduro to complete his term? What scenarios could develop that would trigger a regime change in Venezuela? What other countries have gone through similar crises as Venezuela’s, with rampant inflation and shortages of basic goods, and what do their experiences foretell about what might happen in Venezuela?

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue: “Despite Venezuela’s unrelenting economic and humanitarian crises, it is not inconceivable that Maduro will remain in office until the end of his term. The opposition remains relatively weak and divided, unable to capitalize on its majority in the national assembly to drive the country’s political dynamics and policy agenda. The government controls key institutions, including the judiciary and the electoral council. As if there were any doubt, the Vice President’s statement makes it clear that the government will shut down the recall process. With institutional channels blocked and the government displaying its military muscle, the opposition is more likely to resort to the streets. The role of the armed forces will be crucial, though it remains uncertain. There are few precedents of a social and economic calamity of this magnitude. Only Zimbabwe under Mugabe (who Chávez greatly admired) has certain features in common with Venezuela, given its extremely high levels of inflation and the president’s tight control of all state institutions. Venezuela should best be compared to other oil-based economies. It is hard to understand the reality without taking into account that fundamental characteristic. The government’s stability would be put at risk by a government default, which many economists are predicting, or the collapse of the black market, where millions of Venezuelans acquire basic goods, even at exorbitant prices. There are signs that the black market may indeed be collapsing. Until then, however, Maduro could well stay in power, despite the heightened repression and utter mismanagement of the country’s affairs.”

Gustavo Coronel, a founding board member of PDVSA: “Obviously, the regime in power, supported by high ranking officers from the armed forces, has openly decided to execute a coup. There is no other word for what is going on in Venezuela. However, the National Assembly insists on continuing the constitutional process leading to a referendum while increasing popular mobilization to apply pressure to the regime. At the same time, the regime is openly fracturing, as General Clíver Alcalá Cordones (fingered as a narco-general by the U.S. government) has been openly challenging Maduro as a legitimate president during the last few days, possibly as a prelude to an internal counter-coup led by the narco-generals. The situation in Venezuela is rapidly becoming more chaotic. Maduro will not complete his term. The country seems convinced that not only Maduro but the whole regime has to go. A potential game changer, a scenario consisting of massive popular protests and an indefinite general strike, supported by some armed forces groups, is becoming more probable by the week. I have been advocating this scenario as the only realistic way out of the Venezuelan tragedy. Such a scenario could receive great support if the democracies in the region openly denounced the Maduro regime. I can cite two countries in which a similar crisis as Venezuela’s has taken place. One, France under Louis XVI, ended with the king losing his head. The other, Zimbabwe under Mugabe, ended with Mugabe holding on to power supported by the military. Maduro will keep his head but not his job.”

Julia Buxton, professor of comparative politics at the School of Public Policy of Central European University in Budapest: “Venezuela is in uncharted territory and remains wildly unpredictable. This is because its challenges and dynamics are country-specific, and relate mainly to its status as an oil-dependent economy. Scenario analysis is complicated by shadow actors, such as the military; the flux and petulance of its political leaders; and the extraordinary tolerance and democratic orientation of the majority of the population. It is quite astonishing that despite the catastrophic economic situation, two recent opinion polls demonstrate that Maduro still commands significant popular support—a third of the electorate are of the view that his administration is doing a good job. This relatively strong poll showing will embolden Maduro and underpins the renewal of the state of the emergency. A recall referendum appears inevitable despite the inflammatory claims of Istúriz. The timing is more difficult to anticipate. Undoubtedly the government will seek to obfuscate and delay past the year’s end to ensure even if Maduro is recalled, no new elections can take place and Vice President Istúriz assumes the presidency for the remainder of the term. That may actually be the preferred option of many voters and interests who despair of Maduro but who are fearful of the factionalized, incoherent and frequently vengeful opposition MUD. As ever, much depends on the MUD, for whom strategic missteps are common. Efforts to induce regime change through accelerating protests (including over the recall process) or inducement of military intervention will serve only to alienate the center ground and even stabilize Maduro.”

Charles Shapiro, president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela: “The Venezuelan opposition, not a party but a conglomeration of parties, has worked three miracles: winning the majority in the National Assembly in November, maintaining unity since, and collecting 1.8 million signatures to trigger the first stage of a possible recall election. Each of these is the political equivalent of landing a manned spacecraft on the moon. Each subsequent step will be more difficult. Since the 2004 referendum, much has changed in the domestic and international area regarding Venezuela. Oil prices are low, Brazil is distracted and cannot pour money into Maduro’s campaign, the OAS secretary general knows what democracy is and isn’t afraid to say so and Cuba has diversified its strategic options, among other factors. The opposition obviously will call the government’s bluff by ignoring Maduro’s declared state of emergency and Istúriz’s assertions that the recall will not proceed by continuing with the recall process, which is based on the constitution written by Hugo Chávez. The opposition has advantages in a recall referendum. Namely, opposition unity appears stronger than at any time over the past 16 years. Meanwhile, Maduro’s inept economic policies and his tin-ear for politics are alienating his own base of support. Finally, the economy continues to go from bad to worse and then worse again. However, the government does have certain advantages. For one, it has the supine Supreme Court and a subservient Electoral Council (CNE). We can also expect the government to implement a foot-dragging Operación Morrocoy to delay each and every step of the recall. If there’s a dirty trick, they will find it. And we should not forget that hardcore Chavistas are willing to stay the course. The unknown factor is the Venezuelan military. The recall referendum is a pressure valve built into the Venezuelan political system to allow a channel for the expression of popular discontent. Viewed from that perspective, it allows the military a more palatable option than intervening in domestic politics and assuming responsibility for this chaos. My bet: if the opposition can remain unified and focused, it can achieve another miracle by recalling Maduro and winning a subsequent presidential election. The hardest challenges have yet to come.”

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