Almost 30 years have passed since the Third Wave of democratization swept through Latin America. Today the region boasts some impressive democratic credentials, with previous military-repressive regimes giving way to relatively stable democracies. Yet, the only hold out in an otherwise optimist looking region seems to be the Socialist Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Under president Nicolás Maduro, political heir to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela has seen mass inflation as well as economic and widespread crisis. Recent allegations written by a former government insider point to Diosdado Cabello, speaker of the national assembly and very likely the most powerful political figure in Venezuelan politics today, as “Venezuela’s Pablo Escobar”. A former Hugo Chávez bodyguard links the Maduro regime to drug trafficking, Hezbollah and the FARC insurgency in Colombia. Although Leamsy Salazar’s allegations read like a Dan Brown novel, they are in line with those of other high-ranking former Chavistas.
No matter how dire the situation is in Venezuela, the lack of toilet paper, the power cuts and the hour-long queues at the market, the corruption, and the sponsoring of terrorist organizations, Nicolás Maduro will remain in power.
A Defeated Opposition
The official opposition is broken. Despite a relatively strong showing in the last municipal elections in Venezuela by the Mesa de Unidad Nacional (MUD), the catchall anti-Chavista umbrella party, the Venezuelan opposition is strongly divided once again. Caracas-based political scientist Nicmer Evans comments on three sub-groupings within the MUD: The first stream is led by Henrique Capriles, who has been the most visible leader of the opposition for several years, and carries the weight of four “electoral” defeats to the Chavistas. Relatively moderate in his pronouncements and actions, which have kept him out of prison, Capriles has called electoral fraud in most elections.
Leopoldo Lopez and María Corina Machado lead the more confrontational wing of the MUD. An arrest warrant against Lopez for instigation of delinquency, public intimidation, arson of a public building, damage to public property, severe injury, “incitement to riot”, homicide, and terrorism was issued last year after Lopez lead massive protests against the Maduro regime. Lopez, fearing violent reprisals against civilians, turned himself in to the authorities and urged protestors to remain peaceful. Arguably, Leopoldo Lopez remains the most high profile political prisoner in Latin America today. Finally, Antonio Ledezma, mayor of the opposition stronghold of Caracas, has led another group comprised of businessmen and traditional elites in their opposition against the regime. He was recently arrested on charges of subversion and high treason and is reported to be in ill health.
In essence, there is no viable civilian opposition to the Chavistas. At this point, the weight of history forces curious onlookers like your author to explore the role of military in Venezuelan politics.
A Starved and Chained Military
In Venezuela there have never been qualms against military intervention in civilian affairs, nor has there been antagonism coming from the population against military rule. Three coups d’etats have been attempted in Venezuela in the last 20 years, two of which were orchestrated by Hugo Chávez but both coups failed and landed their mastermind in jail. Chávez’ role in the coups against a government that was viewed as illegitimate and corrupt was the comandante’s launch pad in to the national spotlight and the hearts of Venezuelans. A third military attempt against Chávez himself, after his pardon and eventual successful bid to the presidency via democratic means, failed.
After his election in 1998, Hugo Chávez militarized Venezuelan politics. Despite accessing power democratically, Chávez would proceed to do what most military strongmen do: politicize the military and militarize politics. By April 2002, there was growing discontent with the Chávez regime. State intervention in the large oil firm PDVSA led to a large scale strike headed by private business and labor leaders. Street demonstrations reached up to 500,000 disgruntled citizens at one rally in Caracas. A population affected by levels of unemployment reaching 25%, an economic contraction of 10% and falling standards of freedom of expression were demanding change. The general strike was seen as an opportunity for a group of military men with strong ties to elite interests to overthrow the Chavista regime. The shooting and killing of 17 protesters triggered the coup plotters, who had been planning to overthrow the regime for over eight months, to take action.
In a televised address, the rebellious faction threatened to bomb the Miraflores palace unless the president gave himself up. Not wanting to see large scale bloodshed, Chávez agreed to be “president in captivity”. The head of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce (FEDECAMERAS), Pedro Carmona, became interim president of Venezuela but he wouldn’t last long in this position. Wide counter-protests against the coup lead paratrooper units and the presidential guard to retake the Miraflores palace and reinstate Chávez without much opposition from the military establishment. The military was highly divided in respects to el comandante before the coup: a pro-Chávez faction, a second faction radically against Chávez and a third faction committed to the new constitution, but not to the president, were at odds.
After the failed coup, Chávez proceeded to stifle any possibility of military rebellion against him by using tactics known as ‘coup-proofing’. Widely utilized by despotic leaders fearing a military coup (See Assad in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Gadhafi in Libya), the regime purposefully weakened the state military. Divide and conquer strategies, encouraging growth between multiple schisms in the military were implemented. In Venezuela, different factions of the armed forces were played against each other: junior and senior officials, those with an education abroad against those less educated officers, those sent to fight insurgents in the provinces and those who remained in Caracas, those committed to legitimate democratic rule (paradoxically so, Chavez originally belonged to this category) and those who were not. Branches of the military were played against each other too, leading to operational and communications mishaps.
Another point of fractionalization in the armed forces is the use of pork barrel politics and networks of patronage between political parties and factions of the military. Patronage networks influence everything from appointments to key posts to military contracts and supplies. It is not surprising that the 42nd airborne brigade of the army, known as the boinas rojas (red berets), are the best funded in the whole army today. Recall that Chávez led this paratrooper unit in the 1992 coup attempt and it was precisely this unit that restored him to power ten years later.
Nicolás Maduro finds himself in a similar situation to that of 2002 Chávez. Wide levels of dissatisfaction, massive street protests and low levels of dissatisfaction are facing his regime. However, an action by the military is highly unlikely. His mentor did a great job of coup proofing the Venezuelan regime and his legacy carries on, leaving the military out of contention for state power.
The Socialist Tide
The regime’s biggest challenge comes from within its former supporters. Disaffected Chavistas have formed the Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide) movement, to protest the perceived divergence in state policy from Hugo Chavez’ vision. The ghost of the comandante carries massive weight in Venezuelan politics, with Marea Socialista activists already registering independent candidates. The right wing has characterized the Marea Socialista emergence as a rejection by the Venezuelan people of the Maduro regime. However, leaders of the grassroots movement have quickly dismissed such allegations and reaffirmed their allegiance to the Maduro regime as not doing so would have been political suicide. The Chávez personality cult heavily influences the grass roots movement, with members of the movement signing off communications with a salute to the defunct Hugo Chavez.
It is hard to foresee what role the Marea Socialista movement will play in the future of Venezuelan politics. Highly ideological movements based on personality cults can quickly turn a regime on its head. What is clear is that the movement currently remains loyal to Maduro, although highly dissatisfied with the status quo. A coup d’état is virtually impossible; no matter how many plots the regime claims to have dismantled in the last year. US sanctions, the anaemic opposition, the disaffected chavistas and the military are not able to do anything about the dire state of the country. So for now, Venezuela is stuck with Maduro and his cronies.
Christian Medina Ramirez is a Master of Arts candidate at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, Ottawa. He was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and did his undergraduate degree in Politics and Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Waterloo, Canada.
Featured Photo by Joka Madruga.