LIMA, Peru — Bitterly divided between government supporters and opponents, Venezuela appears trapped in a dangerous cycle of protests, violence and repression.
Meanwhile, the violent crime, skyrocketing inflation and shortages of basic goods that prompted many Venezuelans to take to the streets continue unabated.
What’s next for a country that should be enjoying the economic windfall of the world’s largest proven oil reserves?
In search of answers, GlobalPost interviewed Venezuela expert Harold Trinkunas. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington DC-based foreign policy think-tank, where he heads the Latin America Initiative. He was born in the northwestern Venezuelan city of Maracaibo and grew up in the capital, Caracas.
GlobalPost: The protests have gone on now for six weeks, yet President Nicolas Maduro’s grip on power appears as tight as ever. Why?
Harold Trinkunas: Venezuela is a highly polarized and divided country, with about half of the population supporting the government while the other half supports the opposition. The Maduro administration also still has support from the governing party, from the armed forces, and from the security establishment. So far, he has been able to protect his supporters, particularly those in the party and the army, from the worst effects of the economic crisis.
Have the protests helped or hurt the opposition?
The opposition has been quietly divided over the wisdom of the protests. Those that favor the immediate resignation of President Maduro see the student-led protest movement as a way to achieve their objective. Others in the opposition, such as [former presidential candidate and Miranda state Governor] Henrique Capriles, favor elections as a way forward. For the latter, the protests are becoming a distraction from what they would like voters to focus on, which are the root causes of Venezuela’s crisis, in the economic and political mismanagement of the government. However, all parts of the opposition are united in opposing the government’s heavy-handed repressive tactics against the protesters.
Given that the inflation, food shortages and violent crime hurt the poor the most, why are they largely sitting out the demonstrations?
The government has been able to partially shield the poor from the worst effect of the shortages and inflation through its social programs and subsidized markets. In addition, many of Venezuela’s poorest citizens associate the present government with the consumption boom that took place during the latter half of Hugo Chavez’s presidency. Finally, poorer neighborhoods tend to have a stronger presence of the governing party and its armed supporters, increasing the risk associated with joining protests against the government.
How does the failed 2002 coup influence current events in Venezuela? Does it affect the opposition’s credibility?
The failed 2002 coup is still influential in the present crisis. Some members of the opposition, particularly those who are today most eager to see President Maduro resign now, publicly supported the 2002 coup attempt. President Maduro uses this connection to make broad claims about the anti-democratic nature of Venezuela’s opposition, even those that have stuck to strictly electoral and constitutional avenues to reach power.
How does the Maduro administration's control of TV — with no Venezuelan network airing the opposition's perspective or seriously questioning the government — affect events on the ground?
Government control of the media makes it more difficult to convey the extent of the present crisis through traditional reporting, to government supporters, to opponents, and to observers outside Venezuela. The result has been a greatly expanded use of social media to communicate, organize and distribute information about the present crisis in Venezuela, particularly government violence against protesters.
What do you see as the likely scenarios for Maduro’s presidency? Will he see out the remaining five years of his term?
The government has thus far shown an ability to ride out and repress the protest movement, so the real key to the rest of the Maduro presidency is economic performance. The ability of the Chavez and Maduro administrations to win elections for the past decade has been closely tied to growing incomes and consumption in Venezuela. Growth slowed greatly in 2013, and it has been accompanied by high inflation, over 50 percent, and levels of scarcity of basic consumer products approaching 30 percent. If the government is not able to address the economic crisis, it will have to rely on progressively more authoritarian measures to contain protests and popular discontent.
Some in the opposition want a presidential recall vote, which the Venezuelan constitution permits from 2015. For that, they will need signatures from 20 percent of the electorate. Is that feasible?
Venezuela’s previous experience with a recall referendum in 2004 against President Hugo Chavez has left a negative impression on opposition voters. The signatures collected in 2004 were used to develop a list of persons who were banned from receiving government jobs, assistance or contracts, as well as to dismiss those who had signed from employment in the armed forces or public service. Any new effort to collect signatures for a recall referendum would have to overcome signers’ fear that the information on the recall petitions would be used to persecute them.
Is there a danger Maduro could be ousted by Chavista hard-liners or the military?
Venezuela’s economic and political crisis would have to worsen to such a degree that it threatens the power base of the hard-liners. This has not happened so far, but what happens next largely depends on whether recent government economic measures, such as a major currency devaluation, produce positive or negative results.
Other Latin American countries have been largely silent. What’s their threshold? At what point might Brazil, Uruguay or Chile — with left-wing democratic governments — push Maduro to change course?
Other Latin American countries are unlikely to push President Maduro to change course at this point. They have already shown, through their votes in the Organization of American States and UNASUR [the council of South American nations], that they are willing to tolerate the present level of repression, although they would prefer a more peaceful outcome. There are significant economic interests at stake in some cases, particularly in the case of Brazil [which has an estimated $20 billion of investments in its neighbor], that benefit from the Maduro administration remaining in office.
What can or should the US do to help Venezuela avoid further violence and repression?
The US-Venezuelan relationship is toxic, and Venezuela has done a great deal under President Chavez and President Maduro to shield itself from US influence. Internationally, it has built a protective circle of allies and friends in international forums such as the Organization of American States. This has shut the United States out of multilateral efforts to address the crisis. The United States can still take action to uphold human rights standards agreed to by the states of the Western Hemisphere and hold accountable Venezuelan government officials that violate them. This can occur through both cooperation with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and through unilateral measures such as targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials that are demonstrated to have violated or ordered violations of human rights. But ultimately, this crisis is up to Venezuelans to resolve.