icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
The Darkest Hours: Power Outages Raise the Temperature in Venezuela
The Darkest Hours: Power Outages Raise the Temperature in Venezuela
Will Maduro’s Supporters Abandon Him?
Will Maduro’s Supporters Abandon Him?
A general view of the city during a second day of blackout in Caracas Mario Bello

The Darkest Hours: Power Outages Raise the Temperature in Venezuela

The crippling blackouts across Venezuela are a grim portent of things to come as U.S. oil sanctions kick in and the country’s crisis deepens. All concerned to end Venezuelans’ suffering should vigorously pursue a negotiated transition leading to a power-sharing deal.

On Thursday 7 March, at around five in the afternoon, the lights went out in Venezuela. Within a couple of hours, as the tropical night descended, around 90 per cent of the country was plunged into darkness by a massive failure of the electricity generation and transmission system, run by the state-owned Corpoelec.

Venezuelans, especially those living outside the capital Caracas, have grown used to frequent lengthy blackouts. The electricity minister, an army general, promised that this one would be fixed in “three hours”. But it soon became clear that this was a national emergency, heralding a new and more critical phase of the country’s protracted crisis. In one part of Caracas, the lights came on after 22 hours, but soon went off again. The second power cut lasted 32 hours. After 100 hours, many parts of the country were still not receiving power, and a week after the lights first went out, full service has yet to be restored.

Normal life came to a virtual halt as people struggled to obtain basic goods and services. Crumbling infrastructure immediately began to fail. Water supplies dried up as pumps stopped working. Half the country’s hospitals have no back-up generators: newborns could no longer be kept safe in incubators (many reportedly died), 95 per cent of dialysis machines ceased operating and patients with needs as diverse as oxygen and insulin faced life-threatening interruptions to their treatment. Long queues formed outside the few petrol stations still pumping and motorways filled with parked vehicles at the few spots where a mobile phone signal could be picked up. Desperate inhabitants of some Caracas barrios began collecting water from the Río Guaire, an open sewer that runs through the capital. In the north-western city of Maracaibo, public fury at the lack of power boiled over into mass looting, affecting an estimated 500 businesses.

Information was also effectively blacked out. The government provided limited news, and few independent mass media have survived economic constraints and state bullying and censorship. Social media and online news sites made heroic efforts, but without electricity or data connections, most people had to rely on rumour and speculation.

In an already devastated and hyperinflationary economy, the U.S. dollar became the principal currency. A carton of eggs could cost $4; a tanker truck of water, if you could get one, $150. Local bolívar banknotes are almost worthless and extremely hard to obtain, but card payments were limited to those stores with a generator. The military established control over the few places in Caracas where a truck can take on clean water, and only those with the right connections were able to benefit. Photographs circulated online supposedly showing water deliveries to the houses of prominent officials.

What is clear is that when existing and likely future sanctions take full effect, living conditions in Venezuela will get far worse.

An International Conspiracy?

The government immediately blamed “sabotage”, as it has with virtually every previous major blackout, of which there have been dozens. As the hours stretched into days without power, the claim became more specific. President Nicolás Maduro said a combination of cyber-warfare, an “electromagnetic attack” and direct sabotage of an electricity substation, all carried out either by the U.S. or the domestic opposition, was responsible. Experts had a more mundane explanation: a brushfire beneath overgrown power lines reportedly overheated the transmission cables, causing the hydroelectric generators that supply over 80 per cent of the country’s energy to fail. Thermal power stations that could make up the shortfall operate at a fraction of their capacity due to years of neglect and mismanagement. Government supporters argue that the reliance of the national grid on a few hydroelectric sources dates back to the period before the late president Hugo Chávez took office.

The government has not argued that the blackout was a consequence of the severe sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Venezuela at the end of January. These measures, which block the Maduro government from profiting from the oil sales that previously constituted its principal source of revenue, were designed to force Maduro’s resignation so that Juan Guaidó, who Washington and dozens of its allies recognise as the legitimate interim president, could take power. Whether they will succeed in that endeavour is very unclear; what is clear is that when existing and likely future sanctions take full effect, living conditions in Venezuela will get far worse. Their stated purpose is to strangle the government financially, and they will undoubtedly worsen a meltdown that has already caused over three million to emigrate.

A Deepening Leadership Crisis

The inexorable worsening of Venezuela´s humanitarian crisis and the demise of its public services under a policy of intensifying U.S. sanctions, which has so far failed to achieve its primary goal of unseating the government, makes a political solution more imperative than ever. But so far neither the government nor the U.S.-backed opposition shows public willingness to negotiate a transition.

The government hopes the opposition, which made enormous gains under Guaidó´s leadership at the beginning of the year, is running out of steam. Maduro and his allies take heart from the fact that U.S. military intervention appears unlikely at this stage, due in part to the refusal of other countries in the hemisphere to contemplate it. And its claims of sabotage directed against the opposition are shaping a political narrative that portrays its enemies as bent on removing the government regardless of the cost to the public. It is once again threatening to prosecute Guaidó, in defiance of threats by Washington and its allies of unspecified but severe consequences. The U.S. has closed its embassy, saying the continued presence of its diplomats was a “constraint” on its policy, and European and Latin American governments are considering similar moves. One reason is that they are concerned about the safety of their diplomats; now that the U.S. has withdrawn, they feel that they may be targeted for reprisals.

Meanwhile, the opposition continues to insist on its three-part plan for a new government: ending the “usurpation” of power by Maduro, forming a transitional government and eventually (perhaps after nine to twelve months) holding new polls under a reformed electoral system. The plan is stalled, however, on point one, as Maduro shows no sign of stepping down and Guaidó and his backers in the U.S. and Latin America likewise show no sign of changing their insistence that he do so.

Unless the armed forces withdraw their support from the president, Maduro is likely to remain in power. The loyalty of the military high command to him has confounded the somewhat naïve opposition expectations of a swift rupture in the armed forces. Without a fundamental schism in chavismo, sanctions risk prolonging and intensifying the agony of the population and giving a fresh boost to a migration crisis that is straining the resources of neighbouring countries, above all Colombia, and could become destabilising.

In private, opposition politicians and their foreign allies are beginning to contemplate another path, as supposedly are some government officials. The opposition insists that their overarching objective is to hold free and fair elections, but the U.S. and its Venezuelan allies say this cannot be done with Maduro still in power. Sources close to the government, meanwhile, suggested that early elections under reformed authorities and with full international monitoring might be acceptable outcomes. But they stipulate that an agreement on this issue cannot appear to be the result of foreign pressure on Maduro, least of all from the U.S. The government would also demand that a chavista candidate be allowed to participate in the polls, and should he or she win, that the victory be respected by all countries and parties. Finally, they demand that sanctions be lifted prior to the polls lest they significantly handicap their chances.

An initial agreement on a future election, hard as it now seems, could pave the way for a broader set of public negotiations on Venezuela’s future political and economic arrangements, thereby softening the probable animosity felt by the losing side in the polls. These talks would also serve to persuade senior military officers that the interests of the armed forces as a whole and their personal economic prospects will be adequately protected. The military as an institution is vital to the transition, not least because of the proliferation in the past two decades of heavily armed groups of all kinds, from criminal gangs to Colombian guerrillas and pro-government paramilitaries (so-called colectivos) that have begun to carve up the country into semi-autonomous fiefdoms.

A genuine transition would involve forming an interim administration in which opposition, pro-government leaders, the armed forces and business groups would all be represented.

A genuine transition would involve forming an interim administration in which opposition, pro-government leaders, the armed forces and business groups would all be represented. It would be charged with alleviating the humanitarian crisis and stabilising the economy as sanctions are progressively lifted, while preparing the country for free elections. The opposition-led National Assembly has begun to produce a legal framework for a transition, although it continues to insist that executive power would be held by Guaidó pending elections. In any event, much more needs to be done, particularly in spelling out the future role of the military, the methodology for forming an interim cabinet, and genuine guarantees for the outgoing leadership that chavismo will remain an integral part of Venezuela’s political landscape. Foreign governments and international bodies have a vital role to play in bringing the two sides to the table and acting as guarantors of any agreement.

How Outside Powers Can Foster a Peaceful Transition

Any power-sharing deal will be extremely hard for politicians on both sides to sell. Both have led their supporters to believe that a “winner-takes-all” solution is available. Backtracking from that position threatens to cause serious internal disputes, potentially allowing hardliners on both sides to disrupt a transition. The foreign allies both of Maduro and Guaidó must help by making it clear that they will contemplate neither the status quo nor an external military intervention. Optimally, Washington, Moscow and Beijing would agree on how the crisis should be resolved – a difficult feat, given the current state of tensions between them and their divergent political and economic stakes in Venezuela. The European Union and its recently formed International Contact Group have a role to play in this process, as well as in devising a path toward internal negotiations.

No one involved – including those beginning to see the inevitability of such a plan – has any illusion that this path will be easy. It will involve many extremely difficult and unpleasant decisions for all involved, as well as compromises on dearly held beliefs, which they are only likely to take if they are convinced the alternatives are worse. But the power cut has shown that, if negotiations do not take place, prospects for Venezuela are extremely grim. All involved with an interest in avoiding further violence and suffering need to pursue talks vigorously.

Will Maduro’s Supporters Abandon Him?

Originally published in Foreign Affairs

As Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro tightens his white-knuckled grip on power, his supporters argue that in at least one respect, they were right all along. The first principle of Chavismo, the movement created by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, is that Chavistas are locked in a permanent struggle with the imperialist United States and its lackeys in the Venezuelan oligarchy. For 20 years the state drilled this message into the public’s heads, at times using it to justify secret police raids, empty shop shelves, and soaring prices.

The American bogeyman apparently turned real on January 23: opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president, and the United States, Canada, and many countries in Latin America rushed to endorse his claim. “The fundamental issue in our revolution is independence,” one Maduro loyalist told me. “No one accepts the capitulation of the government or ultimatums from the United States.”

Earlier this month, I traveled with colleagues from the International Crisis Group to Caracas, where we spoke to current and former high-ranking officials in the executive branch, the pro-Maduro National Constituent Assembly, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and in regional governments. Our interlocutors insisted that Guaidó’s claim to the post of interim president, his recognition by other governments, and the application of fearsome new sanctions against the Maduro government have not fractured the ruling coalition; instead, they claim that these measures have fused disparate and at times competitive parts of the Chavista movement into a seamless bloc of resistance. “Before the 23rd, we were internally in flames,” one former minister said. “Since then, we have been united.”

Openings for negotiations exist, though they are fragile and could easily vanish in the face of Washington’s current hard-line position toward Maduro and socialism across the Americas.

These statements could be the bravuconadas (boasts) characteristic of a movement built by Latin America’s most bombastic twenty-first-century leader. But they come from senior officials who don’t hide their criticism of their government. Over the course of our long conversations, these officials expressed vitriol toward the United States and Guaidó, but they also reckoned painfully (and occasionally dishonestly) with the errors of their two decades in power, and they struggled with the question of whether and how to compromise with the opposition. Some even suggested that the Chavista leadership could and maybe should change, although none were sure exactly how. Openings for negotiations exist, though they are fragile and could easily vanish in the face of Washington’s current hard-line position toward Maduro and socialism across the Americas.

Neither Good nor Bad

Despite their indignation against the United States, none of the senior Chavistas we spoke with downplayed the severity of Venezuela’s economic crisis. Maduro has blamed the country’s problems on U.S. financial sanctions, introduced in August 2017, when shortages, hyperinflation, and mass emigration were already on the rise. These officials disagreed. Maduro, one argued, “does not understand economics”; another complained that the president “takes an eternity to make a decision.” Their comments were matter-of-fact. The great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges once said that Peronists, members of another populist Latin American movement with authoritarian hues, were “neither good nor bad, but incorrigible.” Chavistas see Maduro in much the same way.

Yet this tolerance toward Maduro is difficult to square with the anguish of an empty stomach, familiar to all but the most powerful or corrupt officials. A reasonably experienced senior state employee earns around 20,000 bolivars a month, equivalent to $6.05. I invited one official to eat at a sandwich shop. His meal—melted cheese, a few slices of turkey ham, a small baguette, and a fizzy drink—cost around 16,000 bolivars. He was glad not to pay: the light lunch would have consumed almost his entire monthly wage. The state now provides citizens with monthly boxes of subsidized rations that offer high-carb sustenance—pasta, rice, and flour—along with a few tins of tuna. According to a recent independent social survey, these boxes are now provided to more than seven million households, or around 90 percent of the population; a high-level government source estimates the cost at more than $400 million a month.

But the state’s food supply is now in peril. At the end of January, the United States sanctioned Venezuela’s state-run oil firm, PDVSA, which until then had been the Maduro government’s single largest source of hard currency. By freezing the proceeds on its purchases of Venezuelan oil, the United States hoped to starve the regime and convince factions within the government to abandon Maduro, making way for Guaidó and free elections. Instead, Venezuelan officials have rushed to find alternative sources of income: shipping gold to Turkey, for example, or selling oil to third parties through Russian facilitators. “We are looking into how we can cope,” one top official said.

The practicalities of survival now dominate government discussions. How can Venezuela refine its heavy crude? What will China and Russia—both of which publicly support Maduro but are reluctant to bail him out—demand in exchange for help? How will the military’s top brass respond to the country’s deepening penury, which risks sparking civil unrest? Over the weekend, pitched battles occured along Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil, as forces loyal to Maduro blocked humanitarian convoys from entering their country. Over 100 members of the Venezuelan security forces reportedly bolted across the border to Colombia to defect. How long until that trickle turns into a flood, or until Venezuela’s generals call on their troops to open fire?

Room for Compromise?​​​​​​​

The prospect of a drawn-out battle to survive the international boycott raises an uncomfortable question about Chavismo as a political project. The movement’s first principle is resistance to U.S. imperialism and the Venezuelan haute bourgeoisie, but it is no less committed to fighting hardship, inequality, and political exclusion. Campaigning on these issues helped Chavismo win elections fairly and emphatically for its first 15 years in power, and has allowed it even now to retain the support of at least 20 percent of the electorate. If holding onto power undermines those objectives, should Chavistas temporarily suspend their cause—“for now,” as Chávez famously declared after his failed 1992 coup—and agree to a political transition? Or is power always worth having, regardless of the costs and suffering?

When probed, several Chavistas were willing to countenance concessions to placate the United States and the opposition. They were ready to consider bringing greater political balance to the body that runs the electoral system, the National Electoral Council; restoring the legislative powers of the National Assembly, which is led by the opposition; and accepting credible international observers for the next election. We spoke to the chief adviser of a Chavista, known for his pragmatism, who is often cited as a leader of the movement’s next generation. The adviser pointed to a recent interview in which Maduro refused to rule out holding early presidential elections—a core opposition demand—as evidence that the regime was willing to negotiate. A member of the unanimously pro-government Constituent Assembly, a loyal but critical Chavista, even mooted the prospect of an interim military administration to pave the way for eventual elections without Maduro. The idea, which the official raised but did not endorse, was that the generals could take power for a year or two, negotiate a settlement with the opposition and the international community, and then hold elections before returning power to civilian leaders. Pragmatic members of the opposition have floated similar plans, but they would have to be approved by Maduro, meaning that they are unlikely to come to fruition.

The Chavista leadership has reason to worry about how far it can push the country’s military in resisting an attempted overthrow.

Yet there are also signals that any accommodation with the opposition will be at best halfhearted and at worst a tactical sop to be cast aside at the first opportunity. The same Chavistas who point to these possible concessions refuse to acknowledge their leaders’ role in thwarting earlier dialogues with the opposition and, since 2016, distorting the electoral system to ensure government victories. We spoke with one dissident Chavista and former government minister who remains close to party leaders. He was convinced that Maduro had brought the current crisis upon himself. “The government,” he said, “blew up the electoral route for any sort of challenge by the opposition, and the result is Guaidó.”

Most other officials disagreed with this assessment and blamed the opposition for its own failures. Not even the most pragmatic Chavistas were willing to countenance a release of Venezuela’s political prisoners, of which there are an estimated 966. On matters of political and judicial reform, they are defensive, meeting their critics with counterarguments and caveats. A Spanish journalist recently probed Maduro on why he created the Constituent Assembly in 2017, dislodging a National Assembly controlled by the opposition. The journalist jokingly asked whether Maduro would create a “third parliament” to deal with the current crisis. Maduro responded: “I won’t answer. It’s irony. Ask another question … Venezuela had powerful reasons to launch a constitution-making power. You don’t understand? Respect us. The only thing we ask from you is respect.”

The Road Ahead

The Chavistas’ defensive swagger could well be bluster. Although they are now calling for national unity and pride in the face of what they consider U.S. aggression, Chavista officials, as well as members of the military, are operating under immense domestic and foreign pressure. They could eventually buckle and switch loyalties in the coming weeks or months. How the movement’s base will respond to a changing political environment remains to be seen. And the Chavista leadership has reason to worry about how far it can push the country’s military in resisting an attempted overthrow, should opposition efforts escalate.

Listening to the Chavistas, however, we heard some pragmatism and openness to negotiation. The opening is a narrow one and full of mistrust. Before embarking on the dangerous path to regime change, outside powers—and in particular the United States—should take advantage of this receptivity, doing everything possible to include the Chavistas in their attempts to create a stable future for Venezuela.