When the stability of a government is directly proportional to the loyalty of the military, it is reasonable to assume that something has gone wrong. This is the situation in which crisis-gripped Venezuela finds itself, with the Bolivarian Armed Forces now deployed on the streets for over a week and this weekend witnessing the largest war-games in the nation’s history
Orders for these unprecedented manoeuvres issue from the office of Nicolás Maduro, the beleaguered president who has recently taken on a raft of fresh economic, political and military powers under his own State of Emergency Decree.
Like any sensible leftist demagogue in a fix, Mr Maduro has justified the deployment on the grounds of national security, playing up fears of a US-backed coup. Yet with troops concentrated around the presidential palace in Caracas rather than key strategic positions across the country, it does not take a leap of imagination to suggest that these measures are more about shoring up the regime and suppressing internal dissent than warding off the imperialistic machinations of foreign powers.
Presumably aware that his actions have more than a whiff of authoritarianism about them, Mr Maduro has moved to allay fears, publically stating: “I am not a dictator; I have to protect Venezuelan children.” If that doesn’t convince his detractors, this author does not know what will.
How the Venezuelan military will react to these events remains to be seen. Since the 2002 coup attempt that saw rival factions of the army depose and reinstate former leader Hugo Chávez in a little under 48 hours, the Bolivarian Armed Forces have enjoyed a close relationship with the Bolivarian Socialist government.
Post-2002, Mr Chávez and his successor Mr Maduro have taken pains to keep the military top brass sweet, rewarding them for their loyalty with a third of cabinet positions and a stake in the nation’s heretofore lucrative oil industry. Taken in tandem with the fact that President Maduro – astonishingly – retains the support of a third of the population, it seems unlikely that the military will challenge the government in the immediate future, albeit not for reasons of Bolivarian ideological purity.
More integral to the survival of Mr Maduro and his government is the 160,000-strong Venezuelan National Militia. Under the direct control of the president, the militia is styled as a guarantor of internal peace and stability; a more fitting description might be “political army”, widely held responsible for the suppression of dissidents and intimidation of journalists. Either way, as an organization, it is a useful asset for an unscrupulous leader facing a crisis.
Based on the events of the last week, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that a democratic process staggers on in Venezuela.
At present, the National Electoral Council (CNE) continues to rule on an opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) petition calling for Mr Maduro’s electoral recall. The appeal has already attracted 1.8 million signatures, although the government contests its validity, suggesting that 190,000 of the petitioners are, in fact, deceased. A decision from the CNE is expected in the coming weeks but the longer the gears of electoral process whir, the more tensions on the street are likely to be exacerbated.
Yet on prior experience, there is little evidence that the ruling party will give ground. Even if the CNE should recall Mr Maduro and a subsequent referendum sees him ousted from power, his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is under no obligation to hold elections. If Vice-President Aristóbulo Istúriz is called upon to step into the president’s shoes, he would have a mandate until Venezuela next goes to the polls in 2019, barring catastrophic internal upheaval.
Should this be the case, former primary school teacher and Education Minister Mr Istúriz would face a mountainous challenge – his nation’s predicament now runs far deeper than mere economic malaise. The food riots that have gripped the country have now snowballed to such an extent that a trip to the supermarket involves a body-count, while violent crime soars beyond even pre-crisis peaks. Rolling power cuts have forced the public sector down to an energy-saving 2 day week, a measure soon to be imposed on what private enterprise clings on – Coca Cola has ceased local production as the government seizes privately-held factories to keep them operational.
Monetary policy has transcended satire, with the Venezuelan Central Bank ending up in a bizarre situation in which it lacks the money to pay to print more money yet refuses to cut costs by printing large denomination notes as that would be an acknowledgement of the runaway inflation plaguing the country.
But leaving aside the tragedy of missed potential in oil-rich Venezuela’s descent into madness, the country’s contortions may have serious regional implications.
In direct terms, it is difficult to be certain of the impact the steady collapse of Bolivarian Socialism in Venezuela will have over the border in Colombia. Negotiations between the Santos government and socialist FARC guerrillas to end half a century of violence are ongoing. But with the decline of one of the FARC’s greatest supporters in Caracas, it seems possible that the Colombian state may seek a more punitive settlement, reopening old wounds in the process.
A similar sentiment holds true across the region. Since the before even the fall of the Rousseff government in Brazil this month, the Maduro government has seen itself as a last bastion of the Pink Tide, the series of left-leaning governments elected in Latin America from the end of the 90s. Now, emboldened by the all-too-public breakdown in left-wing governments across the region, a new wave of politicians on the right are stepping up – viz. Argentina and Brazil – seeking not only to overturn a political order, but casting rapacious glances at the large social spending budgets that have been a mainstay of equitable economic progress in recent years. By and large, their gain would be the everyman’s loss.
This is not to lament the demise of Bolivarian Socialism, whose excesses have wrought such havoc in Venezuela and done so much to discredit the progressive cause in Latin America; it is merely to caution against dancing too enthusiastically on its grave. Just as a political pendulum swing brought Hugo Chávez to power in 1999 and Venezuela to the brink of disaster 17 years later, so a total reversal of political fortunes is unlikely to be in the best interests of very many Latin American citizens.