Ángela (not her real name) handles delivery of the state food rations known as CLAPs in her working-class neighbourhood in Caracas. She is a lifelong supporter of chavismo – the left-wing populist philosophy and command economy preached by the late president, Hugo Chávez – and loyal to his successor, the embattled Nicolás Maduro. But today, with numerous outside powers backing opposition figurehead Juan Guaidó’s claim to the presidency and Venezuela sinking ever deeper into poverty and despair, she admits that she and her friends are “weary”. At what point in the U.S.-driven effort to asphyxiate the Maduro government, I wonder, might she finally give up the cause? At what point might the sanctions and other pressure have the intended effect? Her eyes glaze over at the question. “I cannot live without my medicine”.
As I sit in her front room, a friend or family member passes by with a bag of beef bones. Ángela nods her approval. I am not sure whether she intends to boil them for her family to eat, or to feed them to the slender dog curled up at my side. It could be either, for meat is scarcely affordable for most Venezuelans and the local butchers are now charging prices in U.S. dollars – though Ángela says she has never handled a dollar banknote in her life. But it would be rude to ask. We are in La Vega, a populous district in the capital’s west that ballooned decades ago on the fringes of a factory supplying the concrete that raised the towers and paved the highways of a once-prosperous metropolis. La Vega’s chavistas, and there are many, point to the historic achievements of their idol’s fifteen years of rule. For once, they say, a Venezuelan government heeded the cries of the poor. Thanks to high oil prices, it handed out lines of credit for ordinary working people to build houses. It supplied them with secure jobs and decent health care. No longer were the masses shunted aside by the upper classes, who instead cowered at their political might.
At chavismo’s grassroots, in a place like La Vega, discontent with Maduro and fear of sanctions’ effects are never far beneath the surface. One community activist arrives at our meeting in a nearby housing project in mourning. A 34-year-old female friend has just died of tuberculosis, brought on by malnutrition and aggravated by a lack of antibiotics. The activist chokes back her grief and proceeds to revile the ethics of contemporary chavismo, so decrepit in comparison to the movement’s early days. Where once there was plenty, now there are bare cupboards and vanishing public transport. Where once there was the promise of popular democracy, now there are the raids and killings by police special forces squads (the FAES), the obsession with securing votes and social media propaganda. But she is clear as to who is her political enemy: “I don’t want to go back to the old oligarchy”.
A Brave Front
Guaidó’s challenge is posing similar questions to high-ranking chavista officials and military officers. How long can they continue to back the incumbent if the government cannot provide basic services or ensure that families like Ángela’s have enough to eat? How bad does it have to get before the government caves in?
In the government’s upper echelons, chavistas are counting small, tactical victories over the Venezuelan opposition’s campaign, backed by the U.S. and its Latin American and European allies, to remove Maduro. They chalk up as successes that the military high command has maintained its cohesion; that in February the government thwarted the entry of opposition humanitarian aid; and that the country has withstood repeated nationwide power cuts with only limited, local breakdowns of order. Multiple sources close to government attest that a survivalist logic has seized the state. It ascribes each public service outage, without evidence, to imperialist intrigues; it hardens its anti-opposition stance with each new day. It has placed Guaidó, the would-be opposition president, under a travel ban, blocked him from running for office and stripped him of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution, while jailing his chief of staff.
Beneath the bluster, however, it is not hard to find senior chavistas who understand that the victories they enumerate are pyrrhic. The country’s economic fundamentals are dire and worsening. U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil have collapsed to zero under the sanctions imposed in late January, while the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reports oil production has fallen at least 13 per cent in February alone, though other estimates point to a far steeper drop. Sources close to the government say new banking sanctions imposed by the U.S. in March, days after the arrest of Guaidó´s chief of staff, could compel the state to pay cash for millions of dollars in food imports used for the CLAPs – money the state would struggle to find. Certain Venezuelan diplomats reportedly have to travel to another Latin American country in order to get their wages.
“We are not prepared for a long regime of sanctions”, states one very prominent chavista’s chief of staff. “I think we overestimate our power to resist and underestimate the capacity of gringo sanctions to pressure us”.
A Worried Inner Circle
The circle closest to Maduro – estimated by Elliott Abrams, U.S. special representative for Venezuela, to number ten to twenty people – is not, as critics often suggest, unaware of the scale of the country’s hastening disaster. By giving its consent to the Red Cross to begin distributing humanitarian aid in Venezuela, the government in effect acknowledged the reality of public destitution. Other global humanitarian bodies report direct approaches from the government to begin relief operations. Lack of running water as a result of the power outages is impossible for officials to ignore: it led last week to furious protests in chavista neighbourhoods blocks away from the presidential palace in Caracas, and people regularly fill buckets in the fetid Guaire river that courses through the city. But the government portrays this extreme deprivation as part of a war of attrition, with each new adversity giving a pretext for government leaders or powerful chavista factions to crack down on the opposition with yet more venom.
The inner circle is also conscious that refusing to yield to any opposition demand – with the exception of accepting humanitarian relief – and shunning the gestures that could help initiate serious negotiations could bring catastrophe. A senior chavista identifies three scenarios in which the government could find itself obliged to talk: mass public disorder, akin to the 1989 Caracazo riots that followed a hike in fuel prices, led to hundreds of deaths and helped pave the way for the rise of Chávez; rifts between the civilian and military wings of government; and foreign military intervention.
But several sources close to government note that, even in these extreme cases, civilian leaders may not back down from unbending resistance. The armed forces, led by Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino López, may well need to persuade them to do so. As one source familiar with government thinking said, “when the military high command sees the cost of giving in to external pressure as lower than the cost of keeping internal peace and order, then they are likely to act”. Tensions with the military have reportedly flared in the wake of the March power cuts. For the time being, however, it seems unlikely that the armed forces would wish to stage a coup. There has been no successful putsch in Venezuela since 1958, and conditions for carrying one out now are inauspicious given the intelligence services’ close watch over the barracks and the heavy consequences that suspected plotters pay.
A Sanguine Opposition
The opposition recognises that its campaign to unseat Maduro, establish a transitional government, and stage free and fair elections has run into difficulties. Many are nonetheless unperturbed, saying the chavistas’ recalcitrance is simply what one would expect from corrupt, criminal officials desperate to keep power. Sources close to Guaidó insist that they are patient. They point to the fact that the interim president is now Venezuela’s most popular politician, with over 60 per cent support. Some pragmatists in the opposition are displeased that the Trump administration’s unstinting backing for Guaidó has often taken the form of vows to roll back socialism in the Americas or restore the Monroe Doctrine. Yet others do not mind such rhetorical flourishes: Washington, in the words of one top Guaidó ally, is the “bad cop” offering protection for the smiling “good cop” who will eventually prevail.
Not all members of the opposition, however, think it wise for Guaidó to be associated with the sanctions that are deepening Venezuelans’ hardship and triggering sporadic mayhem. One deputy in the National Assembly – the opposition-dominated parliament that Maduro had stripped of its powers by 2017 – remarks that he visited Maracaibo, the sultry oil capital in the country’s north west, days after a prolonged power cut climaxed in the looting of an estimated 500 businesses. A number of shopkeepers reportedly took up firearms to defend their property after finding the police had taken flight. “My allies there used to attack me for calling for dialogue with the government. Now they have seen what happens when things break down entirely, and they told me: ‘you were right’”.
A Yawning Gap
Alert to the spectre of social chaos, an escalating migrant exodus across the border with Colombia – which remains officially closed – the spread of non-state armed groups, and the dangers of U.S. or Russian military entanglement in Venezuela, figures from both government and opposition in private call for restraint and compromise. International efforts to push for a negotiated solution or to create the conditions under which peace talks could take place, above all the EU-backed International Contact Group, are intensifying. Formulas for unblocking the stalemate between the two sides are proliferating, while secret channels for talks are burrowing underneath the lines. Leading chavistas now speak candidly of the conditions under which they would accept new elections and a possible period in opposition. “Well, at least we had 20 years in power”, says one, stoically, “and the oligarchy had nearly 200”. Leading opposition figures court heresy by accepting that Maduro could stay in office until these new elections are held, possibly by presiding over a government of technocrats.
But these initiatives may fail to yield more than soothing chatter unless they resolve the fundamental differences that the pressure campaign is, if anything, deepening rather than mitigating. Even for pragmatists in the opposition, no negotiation is possible without a clear show of good faith from the government, given the failures of previous rounds of talks. To them, good faith means a landmark concession: a commitment that the government will accept losing power, restoration of the National Assembly’s authority or sweeping reform of the discredited National Electoral Council as a first step toward early elections. A mass release of political prisoners, of the kind that President Daniel Ortega has promised in Nicaragua, would likewise help bring about a thaw.
In the government’s eyes, meanwhile, the economic suffocation that should in theory be encouraging them to consider negotiations instead prompts them to believe that the opposition and Washington desire not the restoration of democracy, but, in the words of one recent minister, the “political annihilation of chavismo”. Whereas the opposition demands a token of government sincerity to begin peace talks, the chavistas insist on guarantees of fair treatment at the end of the process. They wish to ensure that their movement will be respected as a political force, that they will not be prosecuted or exposed to a witch hunt, and that the new government will respect their social policies. They insist that they should be entitled to take part in new elections if these occur, and keep power if they are victorious. And they are adamant that no guarantee or pledge to respect their demands can be trusted so long as the U.S. maintains support for Guaidó´s “parallel government” and imposes sanctions that will not be lifted barring the chavistas’ total surrender.
Distrust and dogmatism make it extraordinarily hard for either side to give what the other wants in order to commence negotiations in earnest. Meanwhile, until talks begin, the campaign of economic pressure will persist and the most vulnerable Venezuelans will feel it most acutely. And the pressure will not necessarily yield the result the opposition hopes for.
Back in La Vega, the chavista community activist finishes with her withering assessment of the Maduro government. It has betrayed the people – of that she is sure. So I ask her how she would feel if Guaidó came to power. She flames with fresh certainty, but of a different nature. “Look at me”, she says. She is black. “I am not going back to being compared with the Guaire river, to the dirty waters of the Guaire. No way”.
Ivan Briscoe, Program Director, Latin America and Caribbean.
This text was edited on 10 April 2019 to rectify an earlier version that incorrectly suggested that Hugo Chávez was in power for twenty years. Chávez was president of Venezuela for fifteen years.