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: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized

A series of gestures from Caracas suggests that President Nicolás Maduro’s government might be more willing to negotiate with rivals and enact partial reforms. Washington should respond in kind with phased sanctions relief and diplomatic gestures that can be reversed if Venezuela backslides.

On 4 May, Venezuela’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National Assembly, swore in a new electoral authority, two of whose five principal members are from the opposition. It was perhaps the most significant of a series of gestures by President Nicolás Maduro’s government over the past two weeks. While nothing suggests that Maduro is ready to make concessions that might threaten his grip on power, his recent moves do signal a willingness to negotiate and might provide a rare opportunity to temper a crisis that has brought the Venezuelan economy to its knees and caused Latin America’s worst humanitarian emergency. Reciprocal moves from foreign powers opposed to Maduro are necessary to ensure that this chance, however slim, is not missed. Washington is best placed to make comparably conciliatory moves by offering modest relief from the sanctions it has imposed and initiating low-profile diplomatic contacts to assess the odds of further progress.

These moves represent partial responses to demands laid down by the U.S.

Several other developments preceded the new election rectors’ appointment. The first came on 19 April, when Caracas finally signed a long-awaited agreement with the World Food Program, granting the agency access to the country to attend to the dire and growing child malnutrition crisis. The second occurred on 30 April, when the chavista government released six imprisoned oil executives from Venezuela’s Houston-based Citgo corporation – five of whom hold U.S. citizenship – into house arrest. A day later, the country’s chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab took a third step, announcing charges against low-ranking officials in three high-profile political killings for which the government had hitherto denied any responsibility. These moves represent partial responses to demands laid down by the U.S. and other external allies of the opposition movement led by former National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó, who since 2019 has asserted a claim to the “interim presidency” of the country.

The changes to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, or CNE, by its Spanish acronym, were the most significant concession yet. Chavista domination of the CNE has been crucial to the government’s campaign to shut down any and all electoral threats. It ultimately led to the standoff with Guaidó and pushed many other opposition figures into exile. Opposition parties mostly boycotted parliamentary elections in early December 2020 – as they had the presidential contest in 2018 – and the small number that took part in the poll, some of them mere appendages of the government, obtained only twenty seats in a 277-seat Assembly. Even today, conditions for the opposition remain forbidding. Despite the new rectors, the electoral playing field remains deeply skewed in Maduro’s favour. Still, permitting a more balanced electoral authority marks a tentative step toward restoration of political competition.

For Maduro, greater opposition representation on the CNE could have benefits. First, this year’s elections, due in December, are local and regional, so there is less at stake for the president in any case. Moreover, he can sell the CNE deal to his own supporters as opposition recognition of government institutions and a strategy for reducing Venezuela’s international isolation. 

News of the reformed electoral board has divided opposition ranks. Even before Maduro announced the new CNE line-up, the alliance headed by Guaidó had rejected it as illegitimate. Its stance has not changed since, despite the two new opposition rectors’ strong credentials. (One is an experienced politician and former deputy chair of the Assembly; the other is a systems engineer whose role as an opposition elections expert was so important that the government jailed him for six months in 2017.) The opposition alliance maintains that the Guaidó-led parliament, a rump of which continues to meet, is the only body with the power to approve a new CNE. Guaidó himself, whom Washington recognises as the country’s legitimate president, blasted the appointment via Twitter, saying it would “drag the country toward a greater disaster”. 

Others take a different view. Notable among them is two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who, prior to the December elections, made fruitless efforts, with EU backing, to negotiate conditions that would allow his party to take part. Together with other opposition politicians, some of whom prefer for now to remain anonymous, Capriles rejects the “all-or-nothing” approach of Guaidó and his party, Voluntad Popular, which is led by the exiled Leopoldo López and has campaigned without success for Maduro’s immediate overthrow. Support for the new electoral board is also strong among regional and municipal politicians and party activists, especially those in opposition-held states and municipalities, who fear oblivion if the policy of boycotting elections is maintained. The issue threatens to fracture several parties, and could even lead to a formal split in the opposition coalition as a whole, which would also favour the government.

Venezuelan civil society is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force.

Another important element in this complex equation is Venezuelan civil society, which is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force, committed to a negotiated resolution of the country’s protracted political crisis. Four of the fifteen CNE members (the five principal rectors plus ten reserve members) appointed on 4 May were proposed by groups linked to the recently launched Foro Cívico, which brings together NGOs, trade unions, the main employers’ federation, professional syndicates, faith-based organisations and others. The Foro has played a role not only in the CNE negotiations but also in pushing for agreement between the government and opposition on importing COVID-19 vaccines, seeking economic reforms and setting up mechanisms for attending to the humanitarian emergency. Broadly speaking, the Foro leaders support a more conciliatory approach, along the lines of that promoted by Capriles, seeking areas where they can engage the government to alleviate ordinary Venezuelans’ suffering. 

Yet it is Washington’s response that is most keenly awaited. Under President Donald Trump the U.S. pursued a “maximum pressure” policy toward Venezuela, on the assumption that external action, particularly in the form of severe economic and financial sanctions and diplomatic isolation, would force the Maduro government to step down and accede to free elections. That approach failed. President Joe Biden came to office committed to a more pragmatic stance, but for various reasons related largely to the attention given to other pressing concerns – notably the pandemic and migrants at the southern U.S. border – little beyond the rhetoric has changed to date. Washington has demanded “concrete measures” from Maduro if it is to relax sanctions. It must now decide whether the gestures by Caracas merit a response in kind.

All the Venezuelan government’s steps thus far are political gambits; they are tentative and reversible; and, again, in themselves they do not create conditions for credible polls or in any way jeopardise Maduro’s hold on power. On the key question of election conditions, the opposition presence on the new CNE is only a start, albeit a promising one. Much more is needed. The government must legalise opposition parties, for example, most of which are barred from electoral participation and some of which have seen their names and assets transferred to minority, pro-government factions. The electoral authorities need to thoroughly audit voter lists. Most importantly, the Maduro government will also have to scale down its apparatus of state repression if it wishes to convince the U.S., the EU and its neighbours of its good faith.

Still, given the gridlock in Venezuela’s political standoff and the country’s appalling humanitarian suffering, outside powers should respond to and seek to encourage any signs of movement. Crisis Group has argued for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of sanctions that inflict humanitarian harm alongside a phased lifting of other punitive measures in response to the gradual restoration of civil and political rights. The most obvious and pressing humanitarian need is for a restoration of permits to allow Venezuela to swap crude oil for diesel, of which there is a critical shortage. Diesel is vital, among other things, for food production and distribution. The U.S. could also consider steps like renewing licences and lifting sanctions that prohibit certain activities by U.S. and other foreign oil companies, with the understanding that these steps could be reversed if Caracas backtracks or fails to make further progress.

Also important is that Washington and Caracas set up channels of communication, either direct or through third parties, so that each can correctly interpret the other’s moves. Biden will pay a political cost for any easing of pressure on Maduro, with no likely immediate return. U.S. politicians are naturally – and perhaps increasingly – reluctant to incur the hostility of the Venezuela lobby in their country. The Maduro government will have to factor in that reality, just as Washington will need to take into account the difficulty the Venezuelan president may have in selling any rapprochement to his own coalition. Contact would allow each side to feel its way with more confidence.

The worst thing the U.S. could do now is to sit on its hands and await further concessions without any corresponding move on its part.

The worst thing the U.S. could do now is to sit on its hands and await further concessions without any corresponding move on its part. Such a course would strengthen the hand of those in the Venezuelan government who argue that however much they concede, Washington is interested only in getting rid of Maduro. It may well be that the Venezuelan president has no intention of going further, but the only way to find out is to engage in a process of gradual, reciprocal change. The ball is in Washington’s court.