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Reconciliation or Radicalization? Maduro’s Vulnerability and Self-Inflicted Predicament

By: María Teresa Romero - @mt_romero - May 22, 2014, 10:03 am

Español Since Nicolás Maduro has been in power, the process of deterioration and degradation of Venezuela’s political, economic, social, and moral situation has accelerated enormously, and dangerously.

That process did not begin with Maduro, however. It began with Hugo Chávez still in power and appeared more evident two years ago. Now with Maduro’s government — an open military dictatorship — and its radical path in all the areas of public policies, my country is on the verge of complete chaos.

Why then is the Maduro regime so weak, borderline, and about to sink like the Titanic, as Heinz Dieterich, former adviser to Chavez, has said?

In my opinion, it is because of at least five factors:

First, President Maduro and his government team have never had strong authority, credibility, or popularity in Venezuela for several reasons. One of them is Hugo Chávez’s shadow that is very strong, although Maduro’s image is even worse. According to the most recent survey by Datanalisis, one of the country’s best-known public-opinion groups, Maduro’s approval rating dropped to 37 percent in April. Correspondingly, he has 59.2 percent disapproval, and his United Socialist Party (PSUV) has 55.3 percent. That poll shows that the Bolivarian Revolution has lost significant popular support, even within Chavismo.

venezuela-caracas-torres-del-silencio
The portraits of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro promote the Bolivarian Revolution at the Towers of Silence in Caracas, Venezuela. Source: PanAm Post staff.

Second, Maduro doesn’t have solid support within the PSUV and within the military. Chavismo is divided, although they pretend to show otherwise, and not only between civilians and the military. That division includes various subgroups of power, such as the one led by Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly and the official party.

Third, Maduro’s terrible economic policies are rapidly eroding our standard of living and exacerbating the sociopolitical crisis. April’s official monthly inflation rate, for example, appears to be over 5 percent (80 percent annually). Even Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has noted that Venezuela’s political crisis has deepened due to economic mistakes made by Nicolás Maduro’s administration.

Fourth, the brutal way Maduro’s officials have been acting against the student protesters and peaceful demonstrations of the different sectors of the opposition has angered civil society. According to the last report of Human Rights Watch, the unlawful and severe physical and psychological measures taken by the Venezuelan security forces, militias, and vigilante colectivos against the protesters seem to be a part of an alarming pattern of abuse that is the worst we have seen in Venezuela. This is producing a strong wave of indignation in our society that is overtaking political and social leaders and could end in a worse state of lawlessness and chaos.

One of the reasons why our opposition took the decision of freezing the dialogue with the government was precisely because of that popular anger and the high level of repression shown by the security forces. So far, that has led to the deaths of 44 protesters and the arrests of almost 3,000 demonstrators, including criminal charges against over 1,600 of them and about 160 in pre-trial detention.

And finally, President Maduro is losing — nobody knows exactly why — the chance of a path out of the current crisis through the process of dialogue and negotiation. He had this with the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) and the international observers of the Vatican, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador.

But all this state of agony doesn’t necessarily mean that Maduro and the Bolivarian project are going to fall tomorrow, even though in Venezuela anything can happen at any time. Maduro’s government and the Chavista regime still have some power, popular support, and ways of maneuvering in Venezuela and abroad.

Maduro has two scenarios in front of him for the near future, and the two are possible:

Change and Moderation

Using the classic Marxist strategy of limited or nominal retreat, Nicolás Maduro could sit down at the negotiation table and make, at least, some economic and political concessions: liberalization of the economy, appointment of new members of the National Electoral Council, the creation of an independent truth commission, and an amnesty agreement for political prisoners.

The problem with this scenario is that Maduro is pressed by the radical groups within his party who don’t want any reforms. The radicals believe that taking this way would further weaken the government and the whole Bolivarian project and empower the opposition. They also oppose the potential for democratic elections through any one of the paths that our constitution provides: a recall referendum, a constituent assembly, or the resignation of the president and a new presidential election.

Maduro, meanwhile, fears that if he were to take this path the radicals in his own party, in particular the military group known as “Narcogenerals,” could engage in a coup d’etat. In fact, this is very possible.

More Radicalization

In this scenario, Maduro doubles down on his authoritarian positions and takes advantage of the existing differences and lack of unity in the opposition — along with the lack of weapons with the protesters and the weak, arms-length pragmatism of the international community.

This scenario would empower the military dictatorship and increase the violence, the lawlessness, and the already existing low-intensity civil war. The Venezuelan people would have to develop news strategies of struggle and resistance, or simply emigrate en masse and wait for a democratic savior or hero.

What will be, at the end, Maduro’s choice?

María Teresa Romero María Teresa Romero

Romero is a journalist with a PhD in political science, specializing in international politics. She's a professor at the Central University of Venezuela, a columnist in several Venezuelan and international newspapers, and the author of several books. Follow her at @MT_romero.