For the second consecutive spring, Venezuela is a powder keg. For weeks, demonstrators have been protesting the unpopular government of President Nicolás Maduro, and the country’s food shortages and foundering economy. The catalyst for this year’s demonstrations came in the form of the government shutdown of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Opposition leaders are pushing for early presidential elections, presenting the option as a means of avoiding further strife — and more deaths. But bans and threats against opposition politicians have sparked more protests, fueled by pent-up outrage at the prolonged economic recession. Opposition-led protests are gaining traction within Venezuela’s working classes, including urban centers that were once strongholds of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez. With few allies in the region and Venezuela’s international reserves dropping to new lows, Maduro is coming under increased pressure to negotiate an electoral solution. Here are five areas to watch:
1) Maduro can try to hunker down, but it won’t be easy
Last week, Venezuela gave its formal notification to withdraw from the Organization of American States (OAS) after the group’s secretary general accused the Maduro regime of ignoring the OAS Democratic Charter to protect human rights and democracy. The exit costs for this authoritarian regime — the United States sanctioned the vice president for narco-trafficking, for instance — are already very high, and leaving the OAS may be a sign that the Venezuelan government is preparing for a fierce battle. This hunker-down scenario faces the formidable challenge of economic collapse. A GDP contraction of more than 25 percent from 2014 to 2016 impoverished 80 percent of the population, a staggering development considering the country’s massive oil reserves. A 20 percent drop in oil production forced the government to seek costly financing schemes to pay its foreign bond debt, and now the opposition is seeking to block the government’s ability to monetize gold reserves to make upcoming bond payments.
2) Maduro made huge blunders and has not bounced back
Maduro’s authoritarian overreach sparked this round of protests. On March 29, the pro-Maduro Supreme Court issued a sentence usurping the Assembly’s powers as well as awarding the executive the authority to rewrite strategic legislation in the hydrocarbons sector. This led to a startling turn of events. The attorney general publicly criticized the decisions, and Maduro called on the court to backtrack, which it did, but only by reversing the part of the decision that usurped the National Assembly’s powers. The double blunder of shutting down the Assembly and then backtracking made Maduro look weak — and opponents capitalized on a humiliating video of protesters pelting the president with eggs at a pro-government rally.
3) Looting is on the rise — but what message does this send?
Looting generally does not signal pro-opposition support, but if it takes place in parallel with political protests, such co-occurrence can give a powerful message that the authorities are to blame for the meltdown. In Venezuela, there is often little police presence in poor urban neighborhoods. Other informal armed organizations — pro-regime paramilitary groups, opportunistic criminal gangs and ideologically formed collectives — provide highly coercive protection while battling the state police and each other. Opposition leaders have accused the government of infiltrating the protests using members of these informal armed groups. The looting, along with disruptive protests and a growing sense of instability and lawlessness, creates further problems for the government’s political legitimacy.
4) The military remains tolerant, if not actively supportive, of Maduro
Venezuela’s military is also a conglomerate of business interests. The high command manages the critically important food import sector, has been accused of profiting from food shortages and has interests in the strategic state oil and mining industries. The armed forces chief, who comes from the army, was muted during the constitutional crisis. He has shown an independent streak but has not stuck his neck out in favor of the opposition. To date, the National Guard and National Police have been on the front lines to repress the protests. If popular discontent continues to swell, creating the need for the army to step in, there could be a major change in the political leanings of the military high command. The army may be corrupt, ideological and pro-government, but it may not be willing to radically change its professional role to repress Venezuelans on behalf of a discredited government.
5) There is growing international pressure for an electoral solution
The Trump administration supported the multilateral strategy of applying the OAS Democratic Charter against the Maduro government. Some in the U.S. Congress are calling for unilateral sanctions. Venezuela’s formal notice to exit the organization will launch a two-year withdrawal process. But international support for dialogue is growing stronger, with Latin American countries calling for the Vatican to resume suspended international mediation. The end goal of an internationally supported dialogue would be a commitment to the democratic process — and published dates for regional and presidential elections, along with the participation of international monitors to ensure free and fair elections.
What’s ahead for Venezuela?
While the protest cycle could evolve into a sustained nonviolent movement, continued brutal repression may lower protest participation — but create decentralized conflicts between state armed forces and informal armed groups and rebellious youth protesters. It’s possible, of course, that massive, uncontrollable protests could topple the government. Another scenario sees the government eventually regain control of the streets but at such a high cost of repression that key military officials abandon ship. With Maduro unlikely to resign, these schisms would have to evolve into some sort of a coup-then-interim-government arrangement. The opposition, meanwhile, continues to gain greater legitimacy on the world stage by participating in international efforts to bring an end to the conflict. With more protests and countermarches from the government announced for the weeks ahead, the clashes seem likely to continue. What we have learned is that whether Venezuela reaches a tipping point depends not only on popular mobilization but also on whether the government cracks under the combined international political and economic pressure.
Michael McCarthy is a research fellow at the American University Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, adjunct professor at George Washington University, and editor of Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuelan politics. Follow him on Twitter @MikeCaracasWire.