Last weekend, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro went to Fort Paracamay, in the country’s north, to oversee and take part in military exercises, but with a very clear objective: to show his followers and the world that he has the Armed Forces’ support and loyalty.
And, it is precisely this support that will shape the South American country’s immediate future, entering a more profound state of crisis last week after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president.
Guaido has requested the military’s loyalty, but the Army’s leadership has been following Maduro’s orders up until now. “The Armed Forces have been a key variable for a long time now. Maduro gave the Armed Forces greater power than Chavez ever did and he has been able to stay in power because of their support,” Venezuelan journalist and writer Alberto Barrera Tyska said.
Barrera Tyszka and his journalist wife, Cristina Marcano, are the biographers of former president Hugo Chavez: They wrote the most complete profile of the late leader in their acclaimed book Hugo Chavez sin uniforme (Chavez without Uniform) (2004). Both of them are now in Mexico City for the launch of Barrera Tyska’s latest book called Women who kill, which tells the story of a group of women who come together to form book clubs and escape everyday brutality of an oppressive regime in this way.
The two intellectuals attended a protest held last Thursday by the Venezuelan community in Mexico: hundreds of emigres protested against Maduro’s regime and in favor of Guaido in front of the Venezuelan embassy in the elite Polanco neighborhood, in the Mexican capital.
In a conversation between anti-Maduro chants and slogans, Barrera Tyska and Marcano gave their analysis of the Venezuelan crisis. They agreed that there were three key elements that will define the regime’s future: the military’s loyalty, the economy’s decline and pressure from the international community, which seems to be losing patience with a Government that doesn’t seem to be willing to be open to sit down at the negotiations table, when the country’s institutions seem to be sharply divided with two men claiming State authority and governance for themselves.
Up until now, America’s most powerful nations have recognized Guaido (with the notable exception of Mexico), while Europe has given Maduro a short period of time to call for general elections. If he doesn’t, European leaders have warned that they will end up giving their support to the president of the National Assembly.
The military’s power
“The military’s power is immense, not only in their monopoly of violence, but also in the way the State is run, in public administration, in ministries, banks. A few years ago, Maduro passed a decree which allowed the Armed Forces to form a company and they are extracting oil and minerals outside of the state’s oil industry. Venezuela’s greatest challenge in the future will be how to put the military back in its barracks. Even if Guaido were to win interim power, if he formed a transition government, the problem of what to do with the military would still remain,” Barrera Tyska deduced.
However, in the writer’s opinion, Maduro has reached a point where he can no longer ignore social pressure and a strengthened opposition since last week. The president (Hugo Chavez’s direct heir) is at an all-time low and doesn’t have the popular support that Chavism had. Barrera Tyszka says that this will be what forces Maduro to sit down at the negotiations table. “Maduro is condemned, obliged, to negotiate and he will have to do it. Chavism can’t be forcefully upheld, without calling for elections,” he says.
In spite of having international backing, Guaido doesn’t have an easy road ahead of him either. Marcano says that declaring himself interim president was more a symbolic act which reincentivized the population to stand up to the regime than any real chance of making profound changes in Venezuela, mostly because Guaido doesn’t visibly have the military’s support.
“What we thought was the Venezuelan’s people appeasement and indifference, was really them holding in all of the fury that Maduro’s Government created in them. There is hope again and this is surprising. A people who long for freedom and to know what a democracy really is, these defense mechanisms have been reactivated in our Venezuelan DNA,” the journalist said. However, Marcano claims that “while the Armed Forces continue to support Maduro, Guaido’s margin for taking action is obviously very slim.”
He reminds us that (just like in Nicaragua) Venezuela’s Supreme Court and Attorney-General’s Office “are bodies that have been supporting Maduro up until now, they are party members, Government activists”, which opens the door to the risk of “judicial decisions being made against Guaido, an arrest warrant, which would force him to go into hiding.”
If these institutions are against the opposition leader, then we have to ask “how can he make use of the powers granted to him as interim president”, Marcano explains. “It’s a very difficult issue while the Armed Forces continue to support Maduro, who are really responsible for keeping Maduro in power. If the Armed Forces no longer recognize Maduro as president and support the Venezuelan people, the political landscape would completely change. That would be the end for Maduro,” the journalist says.
Venezuela’s sinking economy
The third factor that is working against the regime is the decline of Venezuela’s economy and the government’s poor administration of Venezuela’s oil wealth. Venezuelans are taking it a day at a time as they suffer one of the world’s greatest inflation rates, struggling with food shortages and a lack of medicines and hospitals in awful conditions, a situation which even impoverished Nicaragua isn’t suffering, a country without any great natural resources that is also experiencing the worst crisis in its history.
“The economy is a determining factor, for some Chavism supporters even, who have decided to withdraw support for Maduro,” Marcano explains. “You can’t support a family with five minimum wages. Scenes of malnourished children and people eating out of garbage cans are very dramatic here in Venezuela. You go to the market and you see people putting things aside at the checkout because they can’t afford them. It’s a determining factor in the Venezuelan people’s anger and indignation, who, on the other hand, have never experienced a situation of hyperinflation before. It’s a very painful situation,” the journalist says with great sadness.