Arrow Left Arrow Right 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 Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Venezuela: “Zero hour”
Venezuela: “Zero hour”
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.
 

Venezuela: “Zero hour”

As the Venezuelan government prepares to create an all-powerful constituent assembly to replace the country’s democracy, unrest is likely to reach new levels of violence. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Second Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to support regional actors’ efforts to bring about genuine negotiations while insisting on the restoration of constitutional rule.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – Second Update.

Venezuela approaches a key moment in its protracted political crisis: the government is preparing to replace the country’s ailing democracy with a full-fledged dictatorship by means of an all-powerful constituent assembly, due to be elected on 30 July under rules that effectively exclude the opposition. Nearly 100 people have died in over three months of street demonstrations across the country, many of them shot dead by police, national guard or civilian gunmen. Beginning a week before polling day, the army will be deployed on the streets to guard against any disruption. There is a grave danger of violence on a scale so far unseen, and a fresh wave of emigration is probably imminent. The accelerating breakdown of health services and other vital infrastructure, growing hunger and shortages of basic goods, along with surging rates of violent crime, pose an evident threat not only to Venezuelans but to neighbouring countries and the international community generally.

Democracy Dismantled

In December 2015, the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance won a two-thirds majority in the single-chamber National Assembly, but the government has used its control of the Supreme Court to block every move by parliament since then. When the opposition responded by attempting to trigger a recall referendum against President Maduro, this too was blocked, using the courts and the government-controlled electoral authority (CNE). Elections for state governors, due in December 2016, were suspended. Some opposition leaders have been banned from holding office and/or banned from leaving the country. Others have had their passports annulled and some have been imprisoned. In late March, the Supreme Court attempted to transfer to itself all the assembly’s powers, causing the once loyal attorney general, Luisa Ortega, to declare that constitutional rule had been interrupted and the Organization of American States (OAS) to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter, devised to deal with the breakdown of democracy in a member state.

The opposition alliance launched a campaign of mass demonstrations to demand the restoration of democracy, but the response from the government has been violent. In addition to the deaths, thousands have been injured and thousands more arrested; security forces and civilian gunmen have invaded private residences, destroying and stealing property and carrying out warrantless detentions. Hundreds have been subjected to trial by military courts, and the legal aid organisation Foro Penal puts the number of political prisoners at around 400. On 1 May, Maduro announced he was convening an assembly to rewrite the constitution. The assembly, to be elected on 30 July, will be supra-constitutional and there is no time limit on its authority. Government leaders have said it will be empowered to close down parliament, stripping members of their parliamentary immunity, and “turn upside down” the attorney general’s office, which has declined to prosecute peaceful demonstrators and charged senior military figures with human rights abuses.

With millions of illegal weapons in private hands, arming urban guerrillas might not be difficult.

Around two fifths of constituent assembly members will be elected by “sectors” (including trade union members and “communes”) largely controlled by the government. The remainder will be elected by municipality, under a system that vastly over-represents the rural areas where the government is strongest. The MUD is boycotting the election, which it says the president has no right to convene without a prior referendum. Polls suggest only around 20 per cent of the electorate intend to vote. Fringe elements in the opposition (collectively referred to as La Resistencia), frustrated with the MUD’s non-violent approach, talk in private of armed resistance. With millions of illegal weapons in private hands, arming urban guerrillas might not be difficult. Nor is the MUD itself united: while some parties support a negotiated transition, others are opposed. Despite abundant evidence of discontent in military ranks (including dozens of arrested officers), there has so far been no split in the armed forces. The officer corps would nonetheless be faced with a dilemma if the army were called on to restore public order. Such a move would inevitably bring much higher casualty figures and some would be reluctant to obey.

A ray of light came on 16 July with a massive turnout for a “consultation” of voters ordered by the National Assembly. Over seven million voted to reject the constituent assembly, call on the armed forces to obey the constitution, not the government, and mandate parliament to appoint a new Supreme Court and electoral authority and form a government of national unity. While the government sought to downplay the event, it strengthened demands both internal and external for a last-minute u-turn.

Growing Hunger

Economists project that by the end of 2017 the Venezuelan economy will have shrunk by around 30 per cent in three years. Manufacturing industries are producing at 20-30 per cent of capacity and the main farmers’ federation says only about a quarter of the normal acreage will be planted, due to lack of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, as well as agricultural equipment. Outbreaks of mass looting in many cities have badly hit wholesale and retail food outlets, while imports of food have slumped. The government’s failure to provide enough emergency rations through its CLAP (Local Provision and Production Committee) system of food parcels has led to protests in many poorer areas. Studies show half the population living in extreme poverty. Rare official figures show an alarming increase in infant and maternal mortality. Child malnutrition rose by over 11 per cent from 2015-2016 and nutritionists are beginning to predict famine if trends continue. Shortages of essential medicines continue at critical levels and hospital infrastructure is collapsing. A shortage of vaccines has contributed to outbreaks of formerly eradicated diseases such as diphtheria, while farmers warn that livestock too is vulnerable to epidemics due to the lack of veterinary vaccines.

In the medium term there is a possibility that the Venezuelan government might collapse under the burden of an unpayable foreign debt and domestic ungovernability, although without necessarily triggering a restoration of democracy. While most analysts believe Caracas can make this year’s debt service payments, it faces a severe challenge in October/November, when around US$3.5 billion come due.

Responding to the Emergency

The OAS has so far failed to reach consensus on how to approach the crisis. A handful of mostly Caribbean states, beholden to Caracas for cheap energy supplies and other benefits, have blocked what they call an excessively “interventionist” approach. Without a split in the government (and in particular the military), the constituent assembly plan appears unstoppable, and further violence is likely; the 8 July release into house arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López notwithstanding, the government’s attitude does not appear to have changed.

Still, concerned governments nonetheless should prepare a negotiating structure for when conditions change. In this context, the European Union (EU) should back a proposal by a large group of OAS members, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Peru and Colombia, to form a “contact group” comprising four or five governments agreed on by both sides to the conflict; its goal would be to promote negotiations aimed at averting more violence and restoring democracy. This group probably would have to be created outside the formal framework of the OAS. The EU and EU member states with close ties to the region (in particular to the Caribbean) should use their influence to widen support for this proposal, especially among OAS countries close to the Maduro government.

In addition, the EU, with regional governments in the lead, should develop a concerted response and attempt to bring Russia and China on board insofar as they have greater leverage over Caracas and hold large quantities of Venezuelan debt. Involvement by either or both of these countries in a plan to avert violence and promote genuine negotiations would have a major positive impact. On 16 July, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos reportedly sought Cuban government support for a regional plan to resolve the crisis. As Venezuela’s closest ally, Cuba is in a unique position to influence the outcome, and Santos’ initiative should be supported by the EU and member states.

The EU should make plain that free and fair elections and the restoration of constitutional rule are essential pre-requisites for normal relations.

As an immediate response, the EU and the wider international community should assist front-line states in dealing with the humanitarian and security consequences of the crisis. Colombia, with its delicate post-conflict situation, is highly vulnerable to refugee flows, possible border clashes if the Caracas government seeks an external distraction, and increased activity of non-state armed groups. Although the Venezuelan government has consistently rejected humanitarian aid, some NGOs have been permitted to provide small-scale humanitarian assistance on condition it is not publicised. The EU should seek ways to facilitate this process even as it continues to press publicly for aid to be allowed in.

The EU should make plain that free and fair elections and the restoration of constitutional rule are essential pre-requisites for normal relations as well as for emergency financial support. The EU and member states also should be prepared to offer advice and technical assistance to a transitional government, should one be set up. There is no quick fix for the multi-layered crisis Venezuela is facing. But inaction is no longer an option.