Filling the void left by a charismatic leader is always a challenge, and Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, has struggled to command the authority of his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez. The burden of succession has proved all the more onerous as it has fallen to Maduro to address the difficult decisions that were deferred or bypassed by Chávez, who died a year ago.
Among the challenges bequeathed to Maduro, who assumed the presidency by a razor-thin majority in elections last April, two have been pressing: an appalling problem of crime and corruption that has propelled Venezuela into the top 10 of global corruption and homicide indices; and a dysfunctional economy.
Crime and corruption are longstanding, inherited by Chávez from the politicians of the old regime who sought to remove him in the failed coup of 2002. They were exacerbated by constant ministerial turnover and the government’s failure to engage with these issues as social and institutional problems, rather than facets of capitalism that would fade under Chávez’s model of 21st century socialism.
High inflation and shortages are the result of an overbearing state that is intended to frame the socialist economy. In the early 2000s price and exchange controls had logic in the context of private-sector lockouts, massive capital flight and the need to ensure access to high-price goods and services for the poor – Chávez’s core supporters. But the rationale for their retention has long expired.
Instead of addressing the root causes of these problems, Maduro has tinkered at the edges. This is partly because he doesn’t want to be perceived as betraying Chávez’s legacy. High oil export prices have helped him, but the opposition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática – MUD, an alliance led by Henrique Capriles – has increased the political pressure on Maduro’s government.
At first Chávez’s successor appeared to have time on his side, facing no significant challenge to his six-year term aside from the possibility of a recall referendum permitted by the constitution in 2016. But in recent weeks students savvy in the use of social media have launched a wave of destabilising protests. The initial mobilisation focused on the government’s failings on crime, corruption and the economy, but this quickly morphed into demands for la salida – the exit – of Maduro. This brought students into alliance with elements of the hardline opposition of Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado, committed to removing Chávez and now Maduro by any means. Like the student movement, the anti-regime radicals have benefited from foreign funding, largely from the US and designated as “democracy assistance”.
López and Machado were defeated by Capriles in opposition primaries, but they rejected Capriles’s willingness to enter into dialogue with Maduro on public safety following the murder in January of Mónica Spear, a former Miss Venezuela. Fearing that he had lost ground in the grassroots anti-government movement, Capriles moved behind the protests. This may prove to be his, and not Maduro’s, undoing: as happened in the 2002 coup, anti-government leaders have not acknowledged the widespread opposition to violence, disruption and disorder, and the protests are now petering out.
Particularly damaging for the protest movement, and accounting for the reluctance of many journalists to cover events in the country, was the circulation via social media of fabricated images of alleged brutality by the National Guard – including claims of sexual violence tweeted by one local actress – subsequently revealed to be doctored pornography, or abuses carried out by the Egyptian, Bulgarian and Chilean police. These efforts to internationalise support and inflame opinion ignored the ordinary Venezuelans who support the democratic process, and who mostly back Maduro.
Venezuela faces serious economic and security challenges. These need no exaggeration, and Maduro recognises that they can only be addressed through a national dialogue. An initial peace conference convened at the end of February was boycotted by the radicals and Capriles, but attended by lower-profile opposition figures. They, rather than Capriles, may prove to be the beneficiaries of the popular frustration with Maduro, who for now finds his position strengthened.
Julia Buxton is professor of comparative politics at Central European University, Budapest.