Venezuela's Broken System Cannot Fix Itself

Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez

Venezuela has been here before. In 2013, 2014 and again late last year, government mis-steps ranging from cancelled plebiscites to the imprisonment of opposition leaders have triggered popular uprisings. This time the spark was provided by the Supreme Court’s attempt to dissolve the opposition-dominated legislature.

The brazenness of the move, since partially reversed, brought protests back to the streets. They have been met, for the most part, with violence from security forces. The death toll stands at 20. At the same time opposition leaders are being targeted with criminal charges, and armed civilian groups loyal to President Nicolás Maduro are becoming bolder. Multinationals are leaving the country.

Yet the protesters have held their ground, with tens of thousands descending again on downtown Caracas on Saturday, in the hope that, while this is not the first uprising against the government, it could be the defining one.

By exploiting institutional weaknesses in Venezuela’s constitution, Mr Maduro has held on to power, even as his oil rents and popularity have plummeted. But it has come at a cost: a multiyear recession, an authoritarian crackdown on dissidence and a rise in violent crime. Add in the refusal to allow in foreign aid despite scarcities of basic medicines and food and it is a full house on the presidential bingo card for an ousting. Yet Mr Maduro remains in charge.

Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, a Maduro ally who was impeached and removed last year, enjoyed stronger levels of legislative support than Mr Maduro. And history has no shortage of Mubaraks and Ceaucescus toppled when their economies were in better shape than Venezuela’s is today.

The problem lies less with the people than with the fact that they are in Venezuela. Like Brazil the constitutional path towards removing an unpopular president was attempted last year, through a recall referendum that was blocked by election officials loyal to the government. Unlike Brazil, where the legislature and courts remain independent, the Supreme Court’s sole function these days is rubber-stamping executive whims and vetoing legislation. The system is too broken to reset itself.

More than 15 years of regular crises and backlashes have provided ample opportunity for potential waverers within the military to be identified and purged. Blossoming graft and narcotics ties have left many with cause to fear a change in administration while any attempt within the military to galvanise the rank and file faces massive hurdles.

The national opposition coalition faces similar challenges, hamstrung much of the time by disagreements over tactics and personal rivalries. Unable to unite behind a coherent platform, they have remained primarily a reactive force: able to mobilise the masses for short spells, but struggling to retain momentum subsequently.

In a country where scrounging for food and medicine has become a full-time job for many, the personal costs of sustaining protest are simply too high. When the world stops paying attention and international pressure begins to wane, so too do the crowds and the cycle begins anew. Time therefore is on Maduro’s side even as 80 per cent of Venezuelans are not.

Venezuela represents many things to many people internationally: a diseased goose that lays golden junk bonds, a revolutionary vanguard, a cautionary tale, a dystopic absurdia, a self-torpedoing Lusitania, but for most it remains more problem than priority. Easier to wait a bit, recommend dialogue, and hope the Venezuelans will eventually sort themselves out.

Yet with each failed Venezuelan Spring this becomes more unlikely. New constitutional violations and political imprisonments multiply the personal costs to the Maduro leadership of ever losing power and the chances of a relatively bloodless transition erode.

For nearly two decades, the revolution’s penchant for procuring weapons, some of which are used to arm paramilitary civilian groups or disappear into criminal syndicates, has turned Venezuela into an explosive tinderbox: a heavily armed failed state with roughly the population of Canada and nearly twice its oil reserves.


This piece was originally published in The Financial Times.