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Venezuela: In a Hole, and Still Digging
Venezuela: In a Hole, and Still Digging
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.
 

Demonstrators barricade the front of an office of the Supreme Court of Justice during a rally in Caracas, Venezuela, on 8 April 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Venezuela: In a Hole, and Still Digging

Venezuela’s neighbours are at last contemplating tougher measures to counter its dangerous and undemocratic behaviour. The government, helped by outsiders, should now negotiate with the opposition on a transitional regime to lead the country out of its grave social, economic and political crisis.

Images of the bloodied face of Venezuelan opposition MP Juan Requesens, a vicious, diagonal gash across his left temple, graphically conveyed in recent days the lengths to which the government of President Nicolás Maduro appears prepared to go in order to stay in power. Requesens needed more than 50 stitches after an attack by government supporters during a protest over the decision by the Supreme Court (TSJ) to assume all legislative powers. Although later partially reversed, the ruling in late March by the government-controlled Supreme Court caused dismay across Latin America, and triggered long-awaited moves by Venezuela’s regional neighbours to get tough over its increasingly undemocratic behaviour.

Life is hard for the 112 members of parliament from the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition, who form a clear majority in the National Assembly. Just trying to walk with supporters to the assembly can get you beaten, tear-gassed or pepper-sprayed. Several have had their passports annulled: two members of the foreign affairs commission had to cross the Colombian border on foot, without passports, on their way to a session of the Organization of American States’ Permanent Council in Washington late last month. The Supreme Court has recommended opposition members be court-martialed for treason and one MP is already facing a military tribunal. If that weren’t enough, they receive no pay because the government, which claims the parliamentary leadership is in contempt of previous Supreme Court rulings, regards the legislature as illegitimate and has cut its funding.

If Maduro is to stay in power purely through repression, at some point the army may be called onto the streets.

On 1 April, Mercosur, the regional trading bloc from which Venezuela has already been suspended on technical grounds, voted to apply its “democracy clause” – known as the Ushuaia Protocol – which provides for joint action in the event of a breakdown of democracy in a member state. Two days later the Organization of American States (OAS) passed a resolution declaring a “breakdown of constitutional order” in Venezuela and exhorting the government to restore democracy.

The demands are the same as those made by the Vatican after a failed effort to facilitate talks in November: free political prisoners, who number over 100; restore the legislative and oversight functions of the National Assembly and the autonomy of the Supreme Court as well as of the electoral authority (CNE); call elections; and allow in humanitarian aid. The electoral authority last year blocked a recall referendum against Maduro and suspended elections for state governor. It has given no sign that these elections are to be held this year.

The president and other government officials have responded with insults and accusations of a Washington-inspired plot to put a stop to their “socialist revolution”. Far from restoring democracy, the government last week barred one of the MUD’s top leaders, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, from standing for office for the next fifteen years. But their defiance cannot conceal the grave difficulties they face. Not only is their international support dwindling but their grip on power seems less solid than it did just a few weeks ago. Even some longstanding allies, such as Spain’s Podemos party, have found it hard to maintain uncritical support, although the governments of Cuba and Bolivia, among others, have not wavered.

Maduro is trapped in an electoral maze of the regime’s own making. After years of using elections as plebiscites ... the government can now neither muster the electoral support nor find a convincing reason not to hold a vote.

The U-turn over the Supreme Court decision came after the once-loyal Attorney General (fiscal general) Luisa Ortega Díaz stated in a live television broadcast, which was promptly taken off the air, that the Supreme Court had violated the constitution. Such explicit public dissent by a leading regime figure is unprecedented, and the fact that her view prevailed suggests she is not acting alone. The attorney general is the country’s chief prosecutor and Díaz has played a major role in putting leading dissidents behind bars. But since the opposition victory in the 2015 legislative elections she has moderated her stance, generating clashes with hardliners running the intelligence services.

There is speculation that Díaz’s intervention to prevent a further slide into outright dictatorship is viewed favourably by elements of the army. It would not be the first time that the Armed Forces intervened on the side of democracy. In December 2015 the high command ordered polling stations closed when the government was trying to keep them open in an after-hours bid to affect the election result. If Maduro is to stay in power purely through repression, at some point the army may be called onto the streets. This is a scenario military experts say would present officers with a major dilemma, since they are well aware of the danger of subsequent prosecutions for human rights abuses in the event of a change in government.

Maduro is trapped in an electoral maze of the regime’s own making. After years of using elections as plebiscites, confident that oil revenues and the charisma of the late strongman Hugo Chávez would always ensure victory, the government can now – with Chávez gone – neither muster the electoral support nor find a convincing reason not to hold a vote. And with foreign reserves at their lowest in over two decades and billions of dollars in debt payments due this year, it faces the prospect of defaulting or forcing Venezuelans to face even greater hardship from lack of food, medicines and other basic goods than they already are. Political turmoil has exacerbated an already critical financial situation. Many fear the president may use the alleged threat of foreign intervention to close down even the limited democratic space still available. Some government politicians have said they would mount armed resistance to any attempt to oust them from power. But it is unclear whether the army, on whose goodwill they depends, would accompany them down that road.

Dire though the prospects for Venezuela appear to be, the events of the past few weeks have clarified some issues. The OAS, under its activist Secretary General Luis Almagro, has been shown to be the key platform for applying international pressure. Its Inter-American Democratic Charter, which provides for diplomatic initiatives in the event of a breakdown of democracy, and in extreme cases the suspension of a member state, is no magic bullet. But it does offer a legitimate framework for action, having been ratified by all 34 active OAS member states. Almagro has taken the lead, arguing for suspension from the organisation and making even the U.S. appear moderate in comparison. The coalition of some 18-20 countries now backing a regional initiative to persuade the Maduro government to negotiate includes all the region’s most influential nations – Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru, as well as the U.S. It is not only Venezuela’s immediate neighbours who have an interest in seeing the crisis dealt with promptly. Mexico will be hosting the OAS General Assembly in June and does not want it wrecked by skirmishes over Venezuela. Curiously Washington – which on so many other issues is at odds with Mexico – is working closely with it on this issue.

If the opposition are prepared to negotiate a calendar of elections and a transitional arrangement for Maduro ... then it is possible the split between government hardliners and pragmatists could widen.

Moreover, the Maduro government’s ability to use ever increasing repression to contain an ever more restive population is much less apparent than at the beginning of the year. In recent days, large demonstrations in Caracas and other cities have been met with tear gas, water-cannon and plastic bullets, as well as armed civilians on motorcycles, but crowds have often stood their ground. With opposition MPs leading from the front, enthusiasm for protests seems to have been restored after the doldrums of early 2017, although how long the MUD can keep up the pressure is uncertain.

The government has shown little inclination to compromise in negotiations with the opposition, and internal and external pressure has thus far been met with vows to intensify the “revolution”. It is significant that its only important climb-down of recent times – the U-turn over the Supreme Court rulings – was prompted by high-level, internal dissent. If the opposition, and those in the region pushing for a restoration of democracy, are prepared to negotiate a calendar of elections and a transitional arrangement for Maduro and other leading members of the regime should they lose power in these polls – which will necessarily include some form of immunity from prosecution – then it is possible the split between government hardliners and pragmatists could widen, and an agreement be reached. This would need to be brokered by an agreed cast of outside actors, possibly foreign ministers from neighbouring countries. A reappearance of the Vatican in a facilitation role might also be useful.

The alternative is ongoing social misery, with the lid kept on through military dictatorship. Or a collapse brought on most probably by a chaotic default on the foreign debt. Time is running out for a creative solution to the mess in Venezuela.