WASHINGTON, August 24, 2016 – Massive demonstrations scheduled for September 1 in Venezuela will test the military’s patience and could end the presidency of Nicolas Maduro.
After months of economic crisis, Venezuela is now on the verge of both economic and political collapse, and opposition calls for a massive turnout against President Maduro next week are heightening already skyrocketing tensions in the country.
The population has suffered food shortages since last year, when Maduro’s price fixing began impacting supplies. The situation now is so dire that middle class Venezuelans are relying on infusions of food and medicine from relatives in Miami to survive.
According to one Venezuelan who asked not to use her name, “Everyone here is hungry. We are down to one meal a day, and we are college educated with full time jobs. No matter how much money you have, you can’t buy food. It simply isn’t here.”
The country is also in dire need of medical supplies. Miami pharmacies are now filling Venezuelan prescriptions and shipping them to Venezuela. Aid organizations are struggling to send antibiotics, asthma inhalers, and other medications to desperate Venezuelans.
The already bad situation deteriorated since July, when the Venezuelan government closed the border with Colombia, which smugglers were using to send in supplies.
At the center of the controversy is Nicolas Maduro, hand-picked by Hugo Chavez to lead the country after Chavez’s death. Maduro further twisted the already dysfunctional economic and political situation put in place by Chavez, with irrational and unpredictable decisions that led to his defeat in the last general elections.
The situation became dire when oil prices fell. Venezuela is almost completely dependent on petrodollars to fund its grandiose social programs and to prop up the economy. Without that influx, Venezuela has fallen into deep recession. According to the World Bank, more than 80% of Venezuelan goods now suffer shortages because of the lack of dollars to fund imports.
Venezuelans have responded to the crisis by fleeing in record numbers. More than 2 percent of the Venezuelan population already lives overseas, and that number has escalated over the last year. US asylum applications from Venezuela are up 168 percent, according to the Pew Research Center, and border states say they have no real number of immigrants, but describe it as a “flood.”
One US official noted, “These Venezuelans are seeking asylum because of dismal economic conditions. This is less about politics than it is about economics.”
Politics, however, is at the root of the problem. The Venezuelan opposition, which gained a foothold in government with the last general elections, is vowing to use the economic collapse to oust Maduro and the “Chavista” brand of socialism and replace it with true democracy.
The opposition is calling for Venezuelans to turn out in droves on 1 September to support a recall of President Maduro. Local sources report that even those who voted for Maduro are leaning toward demonstrating. They reportedly are “distraught and desperate” and see no alternative but to remove Maduro.
Under the Venezuelan constitution, the people can recall the president, which would force new elections. However, the constitution also states that if the recall happens after the current president has been in office for four years, his hand-picked vice president will finish his term.
In early August, the National Electoral Council released a statement suggesting that no recall can take place until after January 10, the four year anniversary for Maduro.
Venezuela’s arbiter of power, the military, is likely watching the situation carefully. The generals have amassed power and wealth under the Chavista government, and are unlikely to sit idly and allow their influence to erode.
At the same time, the powerful military leadership is likely nervous over the growing shortages and the actions of the mercurial Maduro.
Venezuela’s military dominates politics and the economy, thanks to perks and privileges established by Chavez. They also reportedly benefit from money laundering, the black market, currency sales and drug trafficking in the country, and have been accused of harboring terrorists.
While the generals grew rich under Chavez, they have cemented their position with Maduro. Because Maduro is weak and not nearly as beloved as his predecessor, he has actively courted the military throughout his administration. As the International Crisis Group noted, “the gradual expansion of military powers in response to the regime’s loss of legitimacy is starting to resemble a slow-motion coup.”
The military generally finds mass demonstrations unpalatable, and has willingly used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protestors in the past. A major show of political opposition on September 1 risks a military crackdown, likely followed by arrests of opposition leaders.
However, the generals are almost certainly aware of the negative impact of Maduro and the risk that if he remains in power, the entire country could revolt.
The most likely scenario is that the military will interfere in the September protests, but will also sacrifice Maduro to calm political dissent and restore some semblance of order.
The generals are unlikely, however, to open the democratic floodgates and risk losing their fortunate positions.
Instead, Venezuela’s military is likely to execute a well-orchestrated change of power, where Maduro is recalled, but not until January 10. That puts a new face in charge, while protecting military privilege, and gives the generals even more power moving in to 2017.