Amid widespread poverty, worsening food shortages and tumbling oil prices, socialist Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has declared a sixth consecutive 60-day period of national economic emergency, stretching the crisis into a second year and further extending his government’s expansive decree powers.
Blaming the nation’s financial woes on low oil prices and a U.S.-led plot to topple his regime, the embattled leader announced Sunday that his administration would soon unveil a new plan to address Venezuela’s crippling recession and hyperinflation.
A former bus driver and union leader, Maduro was narrowly elected to lead the country in April 2013 following the death of former President Hugo Chávez one month prior.
In the years that have followed, Venezuelans have endured internationally alarming socioeconomic chaos. Soaring food prices and shortages have led to hungry families lining up for hours to spend their grossly devalued currency on groceries and other necessities. Tens of thousands of people have already fled to Brazil and other surrounding countries for basic services including medical care.
But Maduro has no such intention. “You won’t get rid of me,” he warned his critics in March 2016. So far, he’s right. Members of Venezuela’s political opposition coalition have long been working to oust the president, but their efforts to hold a presidential recall referendum fell flat before a crucial deadline.
If Maduro had lost in a referendum held before Jan. 10, a new presidential election would have been called, giving the opposition and its supporters the opportunity to potentially end nearly 18 years of socialist rule in Venezuela. His loss in a referendum held after that date would simply result in power shifting to Vice President Tareck El Assami, who Maduro appointed earlier this month.
What power does Venezuela’s opposition-majority Congress have to actually effect political change on the Maduro administration at this point?
They’ve been trying to engage in a dialogue with the government now for about six months, facilitated by the Vatican, and other leaders from South America. Dialogue doesn’t seem to be getting the opposition anywhere. Indeed what’s happening is the government is becoming even more radicalized and less responsive to any sort of opposition requests.
The questions is, what’s the alternative? The election process would normally be the escape valve for this sort of scenario, except for the fact that the opposition ― which wanted, and indeed worked for, a recall referendum in 2016 ― was stymied by the government. The recall referendum is completely constitutional, in fact, when President Chávez was alive, he had a recall referendum and he won. But this government didn’t think it was going to win, so it did what it could to kill it.
Nothing radicalizes a population faster than taking hope away from them.
If they can make it to the next national election that would be scheduled for 2018 ― which is a long time from now given the state of Venezuela’s economy and the increasingly desperate situation there ― that would be the next logical escape from a collapsing country. But there’s a lot of speculation that the government will find a way not to hold the elections in 2018, so if you take that off the table, there really isn’t anything for the opposition to do, other than take to the streets and protest.
My prediction would be that 2017 is going to see increasing volatility, it’s going to see increasing street protests ― not from the opposition per se, but from people who are simply fed up with trying to live in Venezuela. Then it will be up to the government to decide whether they will try to repress them, and if they do so violently, which none of us wants to happen, but it’s certainly a possibility, and increasingly so as times goes by.
The deadline for a recall referendum leading to a new presidential vote has now passed. Many accuse judges and electoral officials of unfairly impeding this process. How is this affecting tensions in the country?
This was a political escape valve ― it was a way to blow off political steam. People were channeling their frustration toward a goal: a recall referendum in a legitimate democratic process. When that was taken away from them, and without any obvious redress, that caused additional frustration, and frankly, radicalization. My own personal view is that the government is increasingly radicalized.
I don’t think you can assume that the opposition and people in the streets are going to remain passive. This is really becoming quite a bad situation. Nothing radicalizes a population faster than taking hope away from them. If they have nothing to lose, they have nothing to lose.
Do you think Maduro will last until his term ends in 2018? If you expect he will be ousted, what circumstances do you anticipate?
I have no idea if he will last. The situation in Venezuela is fundamentally unpredictable. What I can say is that the Chavistas [supporters of Chávez and his left-wing political ideology] themselves seem to have maintaining power and control as their primary goal. If they believe that their basic power is threatened by Maduro remaining in office, we can predict that they will try to ease him out and put somebody else in. If they believe that their power is strengthened by having him in office, then it’s unlikely that he would go.
Can Maduro last? It depends if his political party and supporters think he’s an asset or a liability.
I base that on an analysis that would indicate that the most likely scenario for him leaving is not through the ballot box or any sort of coup. The issue primarily would be if his own supporters don’t believe he’s strong enough to carry out their program of activities. They would be the most likely ones to invoke change before the scheduled turnover. So can he last? It depends if his political party and supporters think he’s an asset or a liability.
If the opposition is successful in pushing Maduro out through a referendum, he will be succeeded by Vice President Tareck El Assami, who Maduro appointed just this month. Would that lead to any real change in Venezuela?
I think it could actually make things worse. The allegations about [El Assami] are so stark, that whether it’s drug trafficking, human rights issues, connections to Hezbollah or other things, that will further radicalize people. Certainly he seems to have a harder edge even than President Maduro, but I think the opposition and other observers would truly find that to be an objectionable turn for Venezuela.
People say that the president appointed [El Assami] because that will give himself greater longevity ― putting this vice president in versus the last one would be so distasteful to the opposition, that they’d find it better to keep Maduro in place. I’m still skeptical that a referendum will take place at all. I think in some ways, that water has run, because what’s the incentive to go through all the effort? Maybe you have the referendum and win, but then you get the president replaced by a very radical vice president.
Has Maduro neglected the needs of his people through his efforts to maintain power? If so, how and to what extent?
Yes, absolutely. Unless you are part of the ruling group or have some connection to the ruling group, the basic existence in Venezuela is a daily challenge, whether it’s standing in line for hours to get food or basic medical assistance, or just walking in the streets and becoming a victim of rampant crime. Some of the infrastructure is literally crumbling. You have a country that is collapsing ― some people call it a “failed state;” I call it a “failing state.”
I think the Venezuelan people today are much worse off than when Maduro came to power, and I would even say than when Chávez came to power in 1999. Estimates are that poverty in Venezuela today is higher than it was when Chávez came to power. It’s not to say that things before Chávez were perfect, but the direction that Chavismo [a left-wing political ideology associated with Chávez’s governance] has taken Venezuela has turned the country into an anti-democratic economic basket case.
The direction that Chavismo has taken Venezuela has turned the country into an anti-democratic economic basket case.
Even so, even if you switched governments tomorrow and brought in the most public-spirited, smartest, most capable team of economists and politicians, it would take years to get Venezuela back to where it was. Why do I say that? A lot of people suggest the only engine of growth in the economy is the oil sector, which is largely true, and you can’t just flip a switch to produce oil effectively and efficiently. It takes billions of dollars of investment, which Venezuela doesn’t have, as well as strong management and leadership. The world also seems to be making an effort to move away from oil and toward cleaner fuels.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing the country to escape the crisis. Will this significantly lessen the resource and energy shortage in Venezuela?
There is a migration crisis that’s happening, but will it relieve demands in Venezuela? Not in any meaningful way, I don’t think. People are going into other countries because they’re desperate, so it’s not like they’ve been consuming a whole lot already. The numbers that are going across the border represent a small percentage. It’s large in absolute terms, but compared to the overall size of Venezuela’s population and economy, it’s not. You’d have to almost depopulate the country to do that.
It’s less an issue of using that as a lever to improve the economy, and more as a signal of how desperate people are. It’s not like conditions once you get across the border to Brazil are anything but desperate there. People are still willing to take that chance, because it’s so bad in Venezuela. Even the poor are fleeing from a revolution that purported to be for their benefit.
The migration is having an effect in that it’s sensitizing other countries to the fact that Venezuela isn’t an issue they can ignore for much longer. I don’t see any obvious path forward, and that’s the problem.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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