Venezuela’s Crisis reaches a Crescendo
President Maduro’s second-term inauguration on 10 January 2019, has pushed Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis to a new level. In a surprising move, the President of the National Assembly, Juan Gerardo Guaidó Márquez began establishing a parallel presidency calling for an open townhall-style meeting on 11 January. Two days later he was briefly detained by Venezuela’s security forces. This event, on 13 January, has led to an escalation of events whereby the United States gave its support to Guaidó as interim President. This has led to pro and anti Maduro demonstrations and has escalated tensions in Venezuela as Maduro seeks to retain his hold on power in the face of a serious challenge.
Maduro’s farce of an Election
Amidst almost universal condemnation and criticism, President Nicholas Maduro was unsurprisingly declared the victor of the Presidential elections held on 20th May 2018. Fourteen ambassadors have been recalled the and United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States, the Lima Group, and countries such as Australia and the United States have all rejected the electoral process.
This rejection was due to widespread allegations of irregularities over the election schedule, the purported powers of the Constituent Assembly to call Presidential elections and impediments placed in respect of the participation of the country’s major opposition parties. On the other hand, Antigua and Barbuda, Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, El Salvador, Iran, Russia, Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Syria and Turkey recognized the election results. Subsequently, the government of Trinidad and Tobago announced its recognition of Maduro as President.
Flawed process, dubious legality
Maduro’s re-election was neither free, fair nor free from fear. Compared to a turnout of nearly 80% in the 2013 Presidential elections, which Maduro won by a narrow margin, the 2018 elections had an official turnout, according to the National Electoral Council (CNE), of 46.07% with Opposition estimates suggesting lower figures of between 17% and 26% with generous estimates putting it at under 33%. In either case, these figures represent the lowest in Venezuela’s electoral history and cast serious doubt upon the mandate of President Maduro.
In addition to the low turnout, there was a boycott by the main Opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). This is in part due to the fact that the majority of popular leaders of the MUD and other members of the opposition could not apply for the elections because of administrative and legal procedures. The Maduro regime went so far as to disqualify his main rivals from participating in the presidential elections. The legitimacy of Maduro’s re-election is therefore highly questionable and with so many countries refusing to recognize the government, the stage is set for what may be the final showdown between the country’s last democratically elected institution – the National Assembly – and Maduro’s state apparatus.
The Last Standing Institution
National Assembly elections held on 6 December 2015, handed opposition forces a two-thirds “supermajority” in the National Assembly. Following that defeat, Maduro has systematically sought to undermine the authority of the National Assembly. Barely a week after those elections, Maduro created the National Constituent Assembly on 15 December 2015 with elections to be held subsequently. It should be noted that the National Assembly elections of 2015 were Venezuela’s last certifiably free and fair elections. Since then, Maduro has embarked on a process of trying to subvert, undermine or neutralize the National Assembly.
On 29 March 2017, the country’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia – TSJ), which was controlled by the Chavista supporters of Maduro attempted to usurp the powers of the National Assembly and even dissolve it. After intense protests, the TSJ was forced to rescind its decision on 1 April 2017. The TSJ was the product of a successful attempt by the Chavez administration to re-write the constitution in 1999. While its processes and independence are supposedly guaranteed by Article 264 of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and by Article V of the Organic Law of the Supreme Court (LOTSJ), concerns have been raised that the Maduro government has disregarded these safeguards and staffed the TSJ with his supporters.
On 30 July 2017, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro claimed “victory” in an election to create a Constituent Assembly. The hitherto reliable National Electoral Council claimed that a total of 8,089,230 persons voted in the election – a 41.53 per cent turnout.
The credibility of this statement was dealt a severe blow when Antonio Mugica, the CEO of Smartmatic, the firm that provided the electoral voting machines indicated that the turnout figures had been tampered with. An attempt by the Chief Prosecutor to delay the inauguration of the Constituent Assembly pending an investigation failed, with the Chief Prosecutor being dismissed from her post.
The National Constituent Assembly has the power to re-write the country’s constitution, effectively neutralizing the National Assembly. In November 2017, the Constituent Assembly passed a law which purportedly aimed to punish messages of hate in broadcast and social media and also prohibits opposition political parties that fail comply with the Assembly’s anti-hate law from registering National Electoral Council. This is a thinly disguised attempt to muzzle any media supporting the opposition, although, to date, there is still a significant anti-government presence in the print media.
Continuing Economic Chaos
Venezuela’s ongoing economic crisis shows no signs of abating. Despite the fact that he country has the world’s largest oil reserves, for the fourth straight year, Venezuela has been in economic turmoil with the economy continuing to contract. The economy has shrunk by more than 30 percent since the collapse of oil prices in 2014, and the oil industry itself is collapsing. Venezuela’s inflation rate is by far the world’s highest, set to reach 13,000 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
An estimated one and a half million people have fled the country since 2015 – with both Colombia and even the tiny island of Trinidad recording substantial numbers of Venezuelans entering their respective countries. Smuggling of goods into Venezuela has become a lucrative enterprise with foodstuffs, baby care products and basic amenities such as sanitary pads and toilet paper being smuggled from Trinidad into Venezuela in exchange for a lethal combination of hard currency, illegal narcotics and firearms. This has exacerbated violent crime in Trinidad.
Venezuela’s once effective health care system is in serious disarray with even mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, which had once been once almost wiped out, are soaring. Perhaps as much as three quarters of the population has suffered involuntary weight loss of 20 pounds or more with people scrounging for food in garbage being altogether too common. Unemployment exceeds 17 percent and is approaching 20 percent.
There are extensive shortages of medicines and the ability of many wage-earners to buy food is doubtful. For the first time in many years, extensive malnutrition, and a substantial number of child deaths arising therefrom are being noticed in Venezuela’s public hospitals. Infant mortality has increased a hundred-fold and maternal mortality has increased five-fold between 2012 and 2015.
A Military Coup?
The Venezuelan armed forces, have also been subverted with several senior officers being removed in the wake of an abortive coup against Chavez in 2002. President Maduro further co-opted the military by placing military officers in charge of food distribution to new oil and mining projects. In addition, of the 32 members of the Maduro Cabinet, 13 are from the military, and of the 20 “Chavista” governors 11 are military personnel. In this way, Maduro has to a large extent insulated himself from any military coup. Any efforts in this regard will need to be spearheaded by the so-called “Comacates” – junior and mid-level officers ranging from Lieutenants to Colonels – who have not benefitted from the largesse to the extent of their seniors. However, at present, the military appears to be substantially loyal to the Maduro government. While it has been reported that the US administration has been in contact with anti-Maduro military personnel, the chances of a coup appear minimal. What may be more likely is that the middle-ranking officer corps and the enlisted personnel of the military may decline to actively support the Maduro regime.
Less well-paid than the senior officers, with the attendant privations caused by the country’s economic crisis, and with army units now supporting the police and Guardia Nacional de Venezuela internal security troops, the loyalty of these middle ranking officers and the enlisted ranks of the armed forces may become severely tested as they face the brunt of public fury while at the same time facing appeals from the opposition not to obey “illegitimate orders”. So far no overt signs of dissent are forthcoming though it appears that junior officers and non-commissioned officers are fully aware of the dilemma that they face. There have been some desertions caused by economic hardship and savage cuts to army rations.
However, even if there was a desire to overthrow the Maduro government, coup plotters would be wary of Chavez’s failed attempt in 1992 and the attempt against Chavez in 2002 when it became clear that the ringleaders had overestimated both their military support as well as the extent to which they might be resisted. To this end, the role of the National Bolivarian Militia of Venezuela has to be considered. To these must be added the well-trained operatives of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, SEBIN) which has shown itself to be highly proficient at surveillance of opponents of the regime.
Into this mix is a contingent of Cuban troops operating in Venezuela. The Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almargo, suggested as many as 15,000 Cubans are in Venezuela although it is very unlikely that these are all military personnel. It is of interest, however, that Cuban Joaquín Quintas Solá General de Cuerpo de Ejército and a veteran of the South African Border War was present at Venezuela’s Zamora 200 military exercises which were ostensibly to prepare for an “imperialist invasion.
Yet, in spite of these forces ranged against them, a determined effort on the part of Venezuela’s armed forces, would overcome any practical resistance that the militia, SEBIN and the Cuban contingent might be able to offer. This is especially true since the militia’s military potential may be severely overestimated with some reports suggesting only 10,000 to 20,000 members are deemed to be combat ready. Nonetheless, it is likely that any coup attempt, no matter how well supported, will be met with armed resistance with the inevitable loss of life. It should be noted that the Venezuelan armed forces have not successfully staged a coup d’état since 1958 – curiously enough in alliance with the civilian opposition to remove a dictator.
With the Guaidó interim Presidency being recognized Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and the United States and the European Union being only slightly more cautions in calling for fresh elections, Maduro is left relying on tenuous support from Russia, China, Iran and Turkey – none of which are in either a geographic or military position to assist. Maduro’s hold on the country, despite ordering government workers to march in support of his presidency, is extremely questionable and appears to be entirely dependent on the continuing loyalty of the senior military and the continuing willingness of the Guardia Nacional and the Venezuelan police to act against his opponents. This may not be enough as even the members of these forces continue to face economic hardships.
With Guaidó throwing down the gauntlet, it remains to be seen who will prevail in this showdown. One thing is certain, this is the most serious political challenge to President Maduro since the 2015 National Assembly elections. Attempts to subvert the National Assembly have now spectacularly backfired and he is now left to try to cling to power as the country’s economy collapses and he is left bereft of allies. While his apologists still defend his actions, Maduro has brought this on himself.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team