The Two Ingredients Needed for Maduro’s Fall

Exit strategy depends on regional coordination
August 7, 2018 Updated: August 9, 2018

Those who follow events in Venezuela have been wondering for months how long the socialist regime of Nicolás Maduro can last and how much worse the economic and social crisis can get. Many experts predicted that the Maduro regime would fall in a matter of months.

I previously suggested that the end would come only if two conditions were met. First, the exit costs for Maduro, his inner circle, and the highest-ranking military officers—who are neck deep  in the international drug trade—would need to be settled peacefully through outside mediation. Second, the political opposition would have to create a unified front to provide a semblance of the government that would replace the Maduro regime.

Today, Venezuelans are dramatically worse off than they were just three months ago. Petroleum exports, which provide the bulk of government revenue, continue to decline. International pressure on the regime has increased. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on more than a dozen Venezuelan officials. The United Nations and Oxfam have made public statements regarding the country’s desperate social conditions, and the Organization of American States has formally condemned the regime.

However, the opposition is not much closer to joining forces today than it was three months ago, and those nasty exit costs have not been resolved.

Downward Spiral

The situation inside Venezuela has gone from desperate to dystopian. More than 2 million Venezuelans have fled the country since the “socialist revolution,” approaching 10 percent of the country’s total population of 31 million.

Hyperinflation became a reality months ago. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that inflation would reach 1 million percent by the end of 2018, putting Venezuela in a tiny group that includes 1923 Germany, as well as Zimbabwe at the beginning of the last decade. Money is worthless, contracts are abrogated. The IMF forecasts that the economy will contract by 18 percent, the third year it has shrunk by double-digits. The regime has pauperized Venezuelans, with a few lucky exceptions.

Medicine and food are imported, and military-run networks are in charge of distributing them. Hospitals are closed or offer limited services, and public transportation is sporadic and unpredictable. Food in supermarkets is available only after waiting in line for hours each day. Schools are closed because the government isn’t paying teachers and there are no supplies for the students.

At the same time, oil exports, which provide the state with revenue to pay for the imports, are declining. Just last month, Venezuela’s oil output fell below 1 million barrels per day, a level not seen for more than 30 years.

The national petroleum company, PDVSA, does not have the money to maintain the wells or pay for the rigs to produce the oil. It may also lose its tanker fleet because it can’t afford to pay more than $2 billion that is owed to ConocoPhillips, And the U.S. company has now managed to get a court to authorize the seizure of PDVSA assets as compensation. There are several other such payment defaults by mining and petroleum companies that will make it difficult for PDVSA to reverse the downward spiral of production.

While the decline in oil revenue will ultimately doom the Maduro regime, it is too slow to rescue the Venezuelan people from starvation and social cataclysm. So why doesn’t the regime fall? The simple answer is that Maduro has succeeded in capturing the critical institutions of the state and has won two rigged elections—one in May to reelect him to another presidential term and the other in 2017 to elect local and regional authorities.

When the ruling party last lost an election, in December 2015 for control of the National Assembly, Maduro simply created another legislative body. That was the Constituent Assembly, a move that left the opposition-controlled National Assembly impotent. He won the last two elections because the opposition refused to participate and because the regime manipulated the electoral process by jailing opposition politicians, barring unfriendly parties, and using the government’s control over the food supply to make sure that people went to the polls to vote for him.

High-tech control over the distribution of food—through Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP)—also helps to explain why there has been no revolt in the face of such deprivation. The regime gives loyal supporters and the poor a special ID card, dubbed the “motherland card” (carnet de la patria), with an electronic chip. With the card, they can get food and other supplies at government distribution centers. In the May election, officials told them to take their card to the polling place and, after voting, visit one of many government-run kiosks to have their chip recharged. The socialist regime is using its control over food supplies as an instrument of suppression.

Rising Authoritarianism

The Venezuelan case is of interest to students of geopolitics because it fits into a growing discussion of how so-called hybrid regimes use the trappings of democratic systems to disguise their authoritarian character, and how elected officials can undermine democracies. The United States is seen as the country prompting the most speculation, while the European Union is also under intense scrutiny. The minimum definition of democracy is that electoral results must not be predetermined. That is no longer the case in Venezuela.

The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has indicated that her office is opening an investigation into the Venezuelan crisis. Will Maduro end up like former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic? Again, that requires some form of community consensus.

On July 22, a U.S. federal prosecutor filed a criminal complaint in Miami alleging that Venezuelan officials had laundered some $1.2 billion. Although this may make the U.S. government appear as if it were getting ready to intervene, nothing can be done so long as the opposition can’t get together.

If we look at the rise of nationalist populism and threats to democracy in Europe over the past few years, we can see that the success of authoritarian movements often depends on the weakness of the regional community. Who or what group will help push Maduro from power, and how can outside pressure succeed without a coherent domestic alternative?

The regional organizations in the Western Hemisphere have been unable to devise a strategy to accomplish a peaceful transition to a more democratic government.

Roles for Cuba and Mexico

The road to a peaceful solution goes through Havana and might include Mexico City. Can Cuba offer a safe haven for Maduro, perhaps as a bargaining chip for a broader settlement with the United States? Venezuela continues to supply Cuba with cheap oil, even going so far as to buy crude on the open market to supply Cuban refineries. Cuba’s military and intelligence forces help the Maduro regime control its own population, so to play the role of peacemaker, Cuba must agree to remove all military and intelligence operatives.

The new Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), is a wild card. He wants to revert to the so-called Estrada Doctrine of nonintervention. If so, Mexico would not join the rest of the Lima Group—an alliance of 17 countries established in August 2017 to find a peaceful resolution in Venezuela—in pressuring Maduro to leave quietly. However, AMLO might ask his new foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, an extraordinarily talented policymaker, to offer Mexico’s services as a mediator and put forward the country as a safe haven for those most threatened by legal proceedings under a new government.

Joseph S. Tulchin is a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. This article was first published by GIS Reports Online.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.