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Troubled Waters along the Guyana-Venezuela Border
Troubled Waters along the Guyana-Venezuela Border
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro talks to Venezuela's Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López during a ceremony commemorating the 200th death anniversary of independence hero Francisco de Miranda in Caracas, on 14 July 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Slow-motion Coup in Venezuela?

Nicolás Maduro was elected president of Venezuela in April 2013 by a narrow margin. His term is due to end in January 2019, unless the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance can force a recall referendum this year – and win it. But does President Maduro really run the country?

In recent weeks Nicolás Maduro appears to have taken a back seat to Venezuela’s top general, defence minister Vladimir Padrino López, who also – unusually – holds the post of operational commander of the armed forces.

On 11 July, Maduro announced that he and Padrino would jointly head a newly-created “Civilian-Military Presidential Command”, charged primarily with resolving the country’s acute shortage of food, medicines and other basic goods. All other ministries and state institutions have been subordinated to this body, whose functions not only cover stimulating production, controlling prices and overseeing distribution and imports of food, but also the country’s security and defence.

The prominence of the military in determining Venezuela’s political future was illustrated once again by the appointment on Wednesday of Néstor Reverol as interior minister. Unlike Padrino, who rose through the army, Reverol hails from the National Guard. His alleged criminal connections – he was promoted to the post of minister after being served a US court indictment the day before for assisting drug traffickers – suggests that different factions in the military may now be jostling for shares of influence in the state.

None of this is unprecedented. For most of its history, Venezuela has been ruled by men in uniform. The last military dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, fled the country in 1958. Although none of the coup attempts since then has been successful, the leader of a failed attempt to overthrow the government in 1992 – Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo Chávez – was elected president six years later and installed what he called a “civilian-military” regime. In 2007, the armed forces adopted the defence of Chávez’s “socialist revolution”, rather than the defence of the nation, as their raison d’être.

Just before his premature death from cancer in 2013, Chávez anointed his then foreign minister, Maduro, as his successor. Amid accelerating economic decline and a looming humanitarian crisis, the opposition MUD won a resounding victory in the parliamentary elections of December last year. But the government has used its control of the Supreme Court (TSJ) to block every parliamentary initiative since then. Maduro now rules by decree under sweeping emergency powers twice rejected by the legislature but ratified by the TSJ. After five months, the government-controlled electoral authority (CNE) this week finally authorised the MUD to make a formal request to gather the signatures required to trigger a presidential recall referendum, as provided for in the constitution. No date has yet been set for this next stage in the referendum process.

With over 80 per cent of the electorate – according to recent opinion polls – keen to see Maduro leave office, by constitutional means, as soon as possible, the armed forces’ ability to maintain control of an increasingly restive population may be critical in determining whether he remains in power. Order is currently being ensured by riot squads from the National Police (PNB) and the National Guard (GNB), but episodes of mass looting have become a frequent occurrence in recent months, stretching their resources.

No one knows for certain how the army would react if ordered onto the streets, but most experts suggest the officer corps would be reluctant to order troops to fire on mass protests. Nonetheless, new rules of engagement introduced under Padrino theoretically allow the use of deadly force in crowd control under certain circumstances. Human rights groups and the UN say the rules, contained in a defence ministry resolution in January 2015 and ratified by the TSJ, run counter to the constitution, and have voiced concern over the vagueness of the resolution’s wording.

The defence minister himself is the subject of much speculation regarding his motives and intentions. Padrino rose to prominence through his unwavering loyalty to Chávez, having been one of the officers who stood by the late president when he was briefly ousted by a coup in 2002. But it is widely rumoured that he blocked a move by elements in Maduro’s government to steal last year’s legislative election, earning himself the enmity of the regime’s erstwhile number two, Diosdado Cabello, himself a former army officer. Both deny the story. Padrino’s retirement has twice been postponed, and his longevity as defence minister in the face efforts to unseat him suggests he has the backing of a majority of senior officers. 

For Maduro, who belongs to the radical, civilian left of the chavista movement, the armed forces represent a double-edged sword. A greater percentage of current cabinet ministers are military officers, both serving and retired, than under Hugo Chávez, while almost half the ruling party’s twenty state governors are former members of the armed forces. In December, the president announced a “very well-thought-out and detailed plan” to de-militarise the administration by sending officers currently serving as public officials back to the barracks. His well-thought-out plan came to naught: barely a handful actually left their jobs. Now he seems to have felt compelled to put the armed forces in charge of the single most pressing issue facing the regime: how to stop public anger over the lack of food and medicine bringing down the government. The gradual expansion of military powers in response to the regime´s loss of legitimacy is starting to resemble a slow-motion coup.

There is no doubt the current situation is dire. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that Venezuela’s GDP will fall by around 8 per cent this year, following a 5.7 per cent contraction in 2015. Inflation figures leaked from the Central Bank (which provides little by way of official data) suggest prices may be rising at an annualised rate of 1,000 per cent. Many basic goods, including food and medicines, are almost impossible to obtain except on the black market. The recently published Latin American Study of Nutrition and Health (ELANS) showed that already by 2015 more than a fifth of Venezuelans were eating fewer than three meals a day. Average calorie consumption was well below the recommended level.

What is in doubt is the army’s ability to improve the situation. The state-run food and agriculture apparatus has long been dominated by the generals and managed according to the principles of a command economy. The government has responded to inflation and scarcity with ever more stringent controls, on everything from pricing to inventories to the movement of goods. The result has been a collapse in domestic production and rampant corruption and smuggling. After opposition legislators claimed that two brothers-in-law of former food minister General Carlos Osorio made millions from contracts to import food, the courts slapped a gag order on them. State prosecutors and the government auditor’s office have so far shown no interest in investigating the allegations.

Despite the appearance of an increasingly military-dominated government, General Padrino has said that he does not want to “militarise” the administration but to “restore order” in the face of a “lack of governance” – a strange choice of words, given that any such lack must be attributed to his commander-in-chief. But he too has shown no sign of moving against fellow officers accused of stealing billions of dollars in public money. Instead, he has reiterated the government’s claim that it is facing an “economic war” waged by the opposition and its foreign allies, led by Washington. True to this logic, the government’s Resolution 9855 of 22 July allows it to force companies to provide workers to boost productivity in the food and agriculture sector – a move rejected by the trade unions, who say they were not consulted and have declared that they will not obey a decree one union leader said seeks to turn “workers into soldiers”. The government has since stated that firms would only contribute workers on a voluntary basis. However, the dismissal this week of the relatively business-friendly Industry Minister Miguel Pérez Abad and his replacement by bureaucrat Carlos Faría confirms an overall reliance on state economic planning.

There is no doubt that Padrino is now the second most powerful man in the country – if not the most powerful. Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz remains in his post but has, at least for now, taken a back seat. At recent celebrations marking the birthday of the father of the nation, Simón Bolívar, it was Padrino, not Istúriz, who stood in for an absent Maduro.

With so much power concentrated in the hands of the military, understanding what their goals are is paramount. Rather than merely shoring up an increasingly unpopular president, the aim of the generals may be to control the transition in a way that protects their own interests. The military can be expected to be particularly attentive to their sources of revenue, some of them illicit, to their political powers, and to their reputation as custodians of Venezuela’s peace and sovereignty. Different priorities may well correspond to distinct factions within the armed forces.

The defence minister’s new role means “the dialogue [over] transition will be with the military”, as one defence expert put it. Padrino has in the past questioned the legitimacy of holding a recall referendum. But some who know him say the defence minister is not as diehard a chavista as his public statements suggest, and may support a referendum if he believes it to be in the military’s best interests. Assuming the opposition is unable to force a referendum this year, the departure of the president could in principle be managed, under the constitution, without triggering an immediate election. Instead, during the last two years of his term, an appointed vice president would take office, affording a potential route for military and civilian factions to be reshuffled under the auspices of the current regime. But if the army cannot halt the slide into economic and social chaos, the crisis could take the generals with it too. So far, there is no sign of a workable plan in that regard.

Cuyuní River from the plane between Georgetown and the Etheringbang airstrip. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Troubled Waters along the Guyana-Venezuela Border

Gold and migrants stream across the stretch of the Cuyuní river that marks the Guyana-Venezuela border. Guerrillas and criminal organisations control much of the flow. Their turf wars are already spilling over and could intensify if foreign powers intervene to topple Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Just outside Etheringbang, a tiny Guyanese outpost in the jungle on the Venezuelan border, the Cuyuní river that separates Guyana from Venezuela winds through banks thick with undergrowth. On the northern side, locals tell me, lies a camp for Colombian guerrillas living some 700km away from their homes, while other armed groups also operate nearby. From my vantage point by the water I cannot discern the camp, but I do see three men dressed in black – one carrying a large-calibre firearm – standing in a small clearing. I keep a safe distance and watch as a passenger boat putters by and the men in black demand that the captain stop. It is the first of a series of checkpoints – this one manned by the guerrillas, another by criminal gang members and a third by Venezuelan security forces – where passing boats submit to extortion before reaching the gold mines further along the river.

Etheringbang sits on the western edge of the Essequibo region, 160,000 square kilometres of nearly impenetrable rainforest. Along with an offshore oil field, Essequibo is the subject of a territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela, predating the former country’s independence from Britain in 1966 and now pending before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. But to the Guyanese authorities, that legal battle is a less immediate concern than their frequent skirmishes with the illicit profit seekers who work along the Cuyuní.

The river snakes through landscapes filled with lush vegetation but overrun by criminal enterprises.

The river snakes through landscapes filled with lush vegetation but overrun by criminal enterprises, primarily in illegal gold mining and human trafficking. The latter business is fuelled by the crisis in Venezuela, where government and opposition are slugging it out amid an economic catastrophe that is producing mass emigration, including to Guyana.

Even though Washington has seemingly dialed back its bellicosity toward Caracas, senior military officers in the Guyanan capital Georgetown worry about the possibility of a foreign military intervention to topple the government of President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas. An army major tells me about his concern that intervention could push various non-state armed actors now sheltering in Venezuela into Guyana. These actors would likely include members of the Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN), guerilla opponents of the government in Bogotá who have long been in Venezuela, but have expanded their presence in the past three years and aligned with Maduro in the face of the international pressure upon him to step down. They would also include organised crime groups known as sindicatos that feed off the explosion of the illicit economy in Venezuela’s mining regions.

On his smartphone the major flips through pictures of armed men he says are now active on the border, taken from social media accounts. Foreign intervention, in the major’s words, could spark the “synchronisation of all Venezuelan criminal elements” as they push into Guyana. Even absent an intervention, the complex and violent dynamics among the groups sparring to control Venezuela’s mineral wealth are already pushing armed actors over the border into this small Caribbean state with only 3,500 men under arms.

Streets of Gold

It is hard to overstate the remoteness of Etheringbang.

It is hard to overstate the remoteness of Etheringbang or how far it seems from the authorities in Georgetown. The town doesn’t appear on many maps. The small aircraft that I take to the outpost carries four other people – a Guyanese miner and two Venezuelan women accompanied by a man. The other seven seats are stacked with vegetables and mining equipment.

Throughout the 90-minute flight from Georgetown, our plane never climbs above the clouds, giving us an unrivalled view of the rainforest. Some distance to the right of our flight path is the site of Jonestown, where an infamous mass suicide by a fanatical U.S. sect claimed over 900 lives in 1978. Every few minutes, a patch of brown appears in the green vastness, pitted with pools of stagnant water, sometimes stretching along a dried-out riverbed or creek. These are the scars of gold mining, a major driver of environmental degradation in the Amazon basin.

After making a sharp turn above Venezuela, our plane heads for an unpaved airstrip, an ochre scratch in the verdant carpet below. Next to our landing spot is an office of Guyana’s Geology and Mines Commission and another building shared by the local police and a single migration officer.

Etheringbang, which is a one street town by the Cuyuní River. You can't find Etheringbang on google maps, but it's located across San Martín de Turumbán, which lies on the Venezuelan side of the Cuyuní. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Etheringbang has no mayor. The town is not much more than one unpaved street along the Cuyuní, lined with nightclubs, brothels and restaurants as well as humble convenience stores and a few palm trees. Around 8pm, reggaeton starts blasting through the wooden dance palaces’ speakers, drowning out the generators growling along the riverbank.

The main currency in Etheringbang is gold.

The main currency in Etheringbang is gold. At the convenience stores, the prices are even denominated in it – 0.2g for a big jar of Nescafé, 0.3g for peanut butter. The town is far from any bank dispensing Guyanese dollars; the more readily available Venezuelan bolívar is nearly worthless, given the hyperinflation across the river.

Twice a day, in the morning and at the end of the afternoon, a few police officers take a tour of town. They walk down the main street in shorts and flip-flops, sporting machine guns. On my second day in town, as I browse a convenience store’s wares, I meet the police chief, who wears dark sunglasses after twilight, a thick gold necklace, watch and wristband, and a ring with a big Mercedes-Benz logo. He greets me suspiciously, and his body language tells me that he has no interest in conversation.

Tied up outside the store, dozens of motorised canoes cluttered with empty plastic oil barrels float on the Cuyuní’s calm waters. The men who operate these improvised riverine fuel trucks are temporarily out of work because fuel supplies from Venezuela have been paralysed. The collapse of the Venezuelan oil industry due to the country’s political and economic implosion, exacerbated by U.S. oil sanctions imposed in January, halted the flow of both oil and gasoline across the border. Deprived of Venezuelan fuel, a main prop of the local economy, Etheringbang’s people are left with just a few means of survival: gold mining, work in the music-blaring bars and the sex industry.

Migration and Exploitation

There are more than 36,000 Venezuelans in Guyana, a country of 780,000. Some are refugees who have come themselves; others are victims of human trafficking. The Cuyuní is one of three major migration routes from Venezuela into Guyana. From San Martin de Turumbán, the Venezuelan town nearest to Etheringbang, migrants and refugees cross the river, which demarcates the border for a 100km stretch before curving inland. They can reach Guyanese cities after three days by boat.

The second route goes through Brazil, traversing Roraima state and its capital Boa Vista, and entering Guyana through a village called Lethem. A bus then takes the migrants and refugees on an eighteen-hour drive through the jungle to Georgetown. Guyanese media warn of corrupt police officers “shaking down” foreigners on this route and demanding cash or gold payments at checkpoints. I ask a local NGO employee working with refugees if the shakedowns are frequent. “It is the rule”, she answers. A representative of the International Organization of Migration confirms that extortion is common at checkpoints.

The third means of entry is by sea. In one of the places where the boats arrive, the town of Mabaruma near the border, hundreds of Venezuelan refugees sleep on the streets, as the Guyanese police have barred them from travelling further. Since a ferry bearing some 140 Venezuelans arrived in Georgetown in May 2019, the authorities have tried to halt the influx of migrants into the capital.

On any given day, Etheringbang itself hosts over 500 people who mostly do not live in town.

On any given day, Etheringbang itself hosts over 500 people who mostly do not live in town, according to a local doctor’s estimate. Most of them are Venezuelans, of whom many are female sex workers. The other temporary residents come to town to rest, buy supplies or look for entertainment after weeks or even months of hard labour in the mining pits scattered nearby.

Juliette (not her real name) is a 22-year-old mother of two from Caracas. Five months have passed since she arrived in Etheringbang. Before then, she worked in the illegal gold mines of Bolívar state, Venezuela, which she left after contracting malaria. She then spent time as a migrant in Colombia before she returned to Venezuela and eventually crossed into Guyana.

“Survival sex” is the term that local sex workers give their occupation. Each client used to pay her about one gram of gold, but because of the fuel shortages clients now tend to pay 0.5g or less. “It barely covers room and board”, Juliette complains. She is three days late with her rent, and may be unable to send money home to her kids.

Etheringbang, which is a one street town by the Cuyuní River. Most inhabitants are Venezuelan sex workers and Guyanese miners. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

“This Constant Threat”

The roots of this border outpost’s burdens and challenges – the population influx, the sublimation of legal currency to gold, the police venality, the prostitution – lie in the southern Venezuelan states of Bolívar and Amazonas, which border Brazil and Colombia, as well as Guyana. In 2016, President Maduro’s government, seeking to compensate for the country’s severe economic contraction, designated a massive area in these states for extraction of gold, coltan, diamonds, rare earths and other valuable minerals, branding it the Orinoco Mining Arc. Foreign investors have generally steered clear of the initiative, but non-state armed groups, often in cahoots with local security forces, have expanded their reach across these territories and captured much of the mineral wealth. In so doing, they have exploited the stream of migrant workers fleeing the desperate lack of economic opportunity elsewhere in Venezuela.

In Venezuela’s mines, Colombian guerrillas, above all the ELN, and, to a lesser extent, dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (whose main body demobilised in 2016) clash for control with Venezuelan sindicatos. Their firefights have pushed the latter – as well as many ordinary Venezuelans looking to make a living – toward the disputed border with Guyana.

To ward off intruders, Guyanese soldiers are deployed deep in the jungle, but they tend to avoid actions that might lead to escalation with any potential foe. “They do not want to rock the boat”, explains a Guyanese entrepreneur, who owns a mine close to Venezuela. He crosses the Cuyuní with drums of fuel, equipment and food for his workers, navigating the three checkpoints along the way. All are armed with rifles while the guerrillas also carry grenades, he says. “We have this constant threat”, he adds, referring to the various armed actors situated along the border.

The expanding violence in southern Venezuela has already spilled across the river. In November 2018, a Guyanese policeman in a boat was shot from the Venezuelan bank of the Cuyuní. Sindicatos attacked Guyanese mining camps in January, and one of their members was killed in the shoot-out.

Containing the Risks of Violence

Authorities in Guyana are hard-pressed to contain the risks lurking in the beautiful rainforest that surrounds Etheringbang. The border with Venezuela is distant from the capital and hard for state institutions to reach. Guyanans tend to agree that the solution for Etheringbang’s problems lies not in Georgetown but in Caracas – and in hopes for a political settlement that could end Venezuela’s economic freefall and allow the state to wrest control back from armed actors that prey on the region’s population. Conversely, any attempt to end Venezuela’s political showdown by force, whether a coup attempt or foreign intervention, could have disastrous consequences for Guyana’s security.

Life along the Cuyuní ebbs and flows according to the state of the criminal economy.

In the meantime, life along the Cuyuní ebbs and flows according to the state of the criminal economy. Back in Georgetown, I swap messages with a mine owner I met in Etheringbang. Without fuel to run his operations his business is languishing. But a few weeks later, word arrives that fuel is coming in to the outpost again. Straight away, he boards a plane back to the jungle. The wheels of Etheringbang are spinning once more – the mines are up and running, gold is moving along the river and parties are raging at night on the southern bank.

Etheringbang, which is a one street town by the Cuyuní River. You can't find Etheringbang on google maps, but it's located across San Martín de Turumbán, which lies on the Venezuelan side of the Cuyuní. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus