Maduro’s unintentional allies

Patricio Navia @patricionavia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 4, 2014


Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro can thank the crisis in Ukraine and the political opposition at home for the decreasing political pressure on his government. Although the structural economic problems persist and there is little hope that his government will have the ability to find a sustainable way out, Maduro has been able to temporarily weather out the crisis. He is not fully off the hook yet — and if he continues to run the country as he has, he will soon find himself in deeper trouble — but for the time being, he is holding on to the Presidency of Venezuela.


In recent days, the street protests that rocked the country in January have decreased in intensity and number of people involved. Since Venezuela has entered the festive carnival period — further extended by the government this year in a bid to divert attention from economic problems—the likelihood that the current wave of protests will escalate has diminished.


At the height of the protests, there was a reasonable chance that Maduro could be forced out of office. Few now expect that the protests will lead to regime change in Venezuela.


The dire economic situation that triggered the protests has not gone away, but the domestic and international mood has changed. The move by the more radical opposition to transform the protests against inflation and scarcity into a protest to demand the resignation of the president ended up backfiring. Many Venezuelans — if not a majority — are fed up with inflation, crime and government corruption. Yet, the alternative offered by the radical opposition was even less attractive for the majority of Venezuelans than keeping Maduro in office. As the two more radical leaders of the opposition — Leopoldo López, the radical leader now jailed by the government, and Corina Machado, the vocal upper class member of the National Assembly — seized control of the protests, the movement evolved from a demand for policy reform into a demand for regime change. That scared away many people who are either not politically motivated or who dislike the conservative opposition more than they dislike the Maduro administration.


Preferring the radical rather than the moderate opposition as its leading adversary, the Maduro administration seized the opportunity and went after López, inducing his detention. As the movement became more polarized, Henrique Capriles, the presidential candidate in 2012 and 2013, who leads the moderate opposition, found himself between a rock and a hard place. He would have preferred a different path, but he had to choose between supporting the radical opposition or being perceived as cozy with the government. He reluctantly chose to strengthen his criticism of the administration, thus alienating a sizeable margin of public opinion.


The electoral calendar allows for a recall referendum in 2015, but rather than transforming the protests into a movement that could democratically drive Maduro out of office next year, the ambitious radical opposition ended up estranging many Venezuelans who suffer from economic despair. Venezuelans are tired with the government, but disappointed in the opposition.


As the protests became politicized, the movement weakened, and Maduro strengthened. If the economic protests had led many leaders of the Chavista movement to consider a way out that included Maduro’s departure, the polarization of the protests forced chavistas to throw their support behind Maduro.


Maduro’s luck was further aided by political developments in Ukraine. As the situation in the Central European country worsens and the fear of a confrontation between Western Europe, with support from the United States, and Russia grows, fewer people outside Latin America are paying attention to developments in Venezuela. Without international pressure, the street protests in Venezuela have far less effect on forcing the government to implement policy change and agree to start a political dialogue.


Other Latin American countries have reacted cautiously to the protests in Venezuela. No country wants to meddle in other countries domestic issues. Moreover, as several countries have and will likely continue to experience protests, national governments want to avoid sending the message that they support street demonstrations. Because Maduro is perceived as a member of the left-leaning club of Latin American governments, many democratic authorities in Latin America overlook unquestionable government’s excesses and violations of press freedom. As if respect for human rights was only an issue when rightwing governments commit violations, some Latin American leaders have remained disappointingly quiet about the way the Venezuelan government has dealt with street protesters and opposition leaders.


Maduro has benefited from political developments at home and abroad. He is likely to cling on to power for the coming weeks. However, the structural problems that afflict the Venezuelan economy have not gone away. Inflation remains high and scarcity continues to be a problem. Venezuelans might be celebrating carnival this week and they will continue to mistrust the opposition in the coming weeks. Yet, if the Maduro administration does not offer a credible solution to economic woes, international developments and actions by the opposition might not be able to protect the man who remains the constitutional president of Venezuela.