How Much Longer Can Venezuela Go On Like This?

Large numbers of citizens want to oust President Nicolas Maduro. But he commands the loyalty of many men with guns.

Demonstrators clash with members of Venezuelan National Guard
Demonstrators clash with members of Venezuelan National Guard (Carlos Eduardo Ramirez / Reuters)

When Nicolas Maduro won a much-contested election to become president of Venezuela in 2013, he sought to ape his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez. Perhaps by channeling Chavez’s pugnacious, anti-American spirit, and his vision of so-called Bolivarian socialism, Maduro could reassert the former president’s vision of an oil-rich Venezuela poised to lead a resurgent Latin America. “This is Chavez’s place. Chavez continues as an example for us!” Maduro bellowed in a speech in 2013. “I am ensuring the legacy of my commander, Chavez, the eternal father.”

But Maduro’s version of chavismo has brought chaos to the country and turned voters against him. In last December’s National Assembly elections, Venezuelans issued a clear rebuke to the president, handing the opposition a supermajority. The opposition bloc, led by Henry Ramos, led an attempt to organize a recall referendum—a process enshrined in the constitution—to remove Maduro. That effort suffered repeated delays courtesy of the government, but was moving forward slowly until a court abruptly suspended it altogether last week, defying the wishes of the roughly 80 percent of Venezuelans that want to see Maduro removed from power.

In response, Venezuelans in places like Merida and Maracaibo took the streets, much as they’ve done in the past to protest both the Maduro and Chavez governments. But security forces and people sympathetic to the government have pushed back violently. So far, a police officer has been killed, with at least 120 people reportedly injured and 147 arrested. The Vatican has gotten involved to try to mediate the dispute. Opposition leaders have pledged to march on the presidential palace next week if referendum negotiations don’t resume. A 12-hour opposition-led strike in Caracas and several other cities managed to close down some stores and discouraged students from attending classes on Friday, but it fizzled out with little other effect.

Still, the people who have had it with Maduro are willing to take great risks to resume the recall referendum. Since Chavez’s death, global oil prices have collapsed, decimating Venezuela’s export earnings—95 percent of which came from oil in December 2014. The country’s long-time comrade in the global Communist struggle, Cuba, is now in a period of full-on détente with capitalist Washington, while the leftist Worker’s Party in Brazil is in tatters. Party officials have been implicated in corruption and narcotics trafficking. The once-fractured political opposition, meanwhile, has begun to coalesce, as extreme shortages of basic foodstuffs and medicines have metastasized desperation into rage.

This week, I spoke with as Francisco Toro, a columnist for The Washington Post and executive editor of Caracas Chronicles, a Venezuela-focused news and analysis site. Toro has long predicted that, if the government failed to handle the referendum process shrewdly, the people would respond. And they have. So is the end nearing for Maduro? A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Siddhartha Mahanta: First off, how do you situate the current turmoil in the grander sweep of things?

Francisco Toro: In some ways, it feels similar to protest movements against chavismo starting back in 2002, when the first big protest happened. But there are many more differences than similarities. The thing to understand about the chavista movement [is that] it’s moved towards authoritarianism really gradually. This kind of glacial, but steady pace of breaking down civil liberties, of taking over institutions, of undermining checks and balances. The degree of democratic drift that we’ve seen, the institutional drift, is pretty extreme.

The one aspect of the Cuban model that Chavez understood was going to be really dicey was going to be having elections. In the modern world, if you have no elections, that clearly qualifies you as a dictatorship. But [the government of] Chavez was rich enough, he had enough money, and he was popular enough, [and] charismatic enough, that he could get away with having elections and win them because there was plenty of money around and everybody liked Chavez.

In the last three years, you don’t have Chavez and you don’t have money. The math is fairly easy to do. The last survey I saw had Maduro losing on the recall question eight to one. That’s where we are now. They’ve understood that if they’re going to hang on to power—that is clearly their priority—there just can’t be any more elections. And the opposition has understood that, if you let this one go, that’s it. Game, set, match.

Mahanta: Why does the opposition want to remove Maduro from power? And who exactly is the opposition?

Toro: It’s really difficult to get across how badly governed the country is. If you just describe what happens, [you sound] like a shrill, far-right-wing lunatic who’s describing some kind of Fox News dystopia. But, it’s like that. [The government has] taken over virtually all of the large companies. [It has] taken over most of the mid-size manufacturing companies—everything that makes something you might want to consume. The few [it] hasn’t taken over, you’ve created this regulatory nightmare around them where you can’t do anything and nothing works. Nothing works. Businesses can’t produce. That sort of worked when oil prices were very high, because [under those conditions] who needs to make anything? You sell oil, you get money, and you buy stuff abroad. You just import your way out of the crisis. Oil prices fall and suddenly the basic lunacy of trying to run the country this way comes home very clearly.

People are hungry. The thing that’s been shocking [to] us here is the democratization of hunger and political insecurity. Even people who aren’t hungry are one mishap away from being hungry. When there is no food, people want a change.

Mahanta: This isn’t the first time Maduro’s responded to protest with violence. Back in 2014, there was the protest sparked by high inflation and shortages. It’s hard not to see demonstrations of that year on a continuum with what’s happening now. How has the opposition been building over the past couple of years since then?

Toro: Two and a half years ago, in February 2014, when that whole thing started, the opposition was not united. Half the opposition went out to protest, and the other half said, “You are making a terrible tactical blunder.” So this deep split which had always been there, between the more radical and more moderate opposition, really burst out into the open that year. That’s when Leopoldo Lopez, who was heading the radical faction, got thrown in jail, and Henrique Capriles, who was much more moderate, very visibly didn’t end up getting thrown in jail. The opposition was really, really split. And because the moderates were not protesting that year, there wasn’t really a good way to rein in the crazies.

Because the opposition has crazies of course—hotheads like anyone else, who wanted to set up barricades and thought that this was, you know, 19th-century Paris, which it wasn’t. But the moderates were not on the streets with them. There was nobody to rein them in, and so it got really violent. And when the logic of violence takes over the protests, the government is going to win because they have more guys with more guns, who are better-organized and better-trained.

What’s really different this year is that the moderates are calling on the opposition to march. When Henrique Capriles and Henry Ramos, the head of the National Assembly who is a 72-year-old legal scholar and old-style politician, calls on 100,000 opposition supporters to march to the presidential palace and kick the guy out—Venezuelans hear that and it’s like “Holy shit. This is not what we expect the opposition to be doing.”

Two and a half years ago, the opposition was pathetic. There was no clear leadership. There was no clear political line. People of different parties were doing different things. [Repelling protests] is not a hard decision for a mid-ranking military officer to make at that point, because they’re also throwing rocks at you, they’re putting metal wire across the street to literally decapitate motorcycle riders— that happened. They’re throwing molotov cocktails at you all day and all night. That’s a very easy protest to repress and to justify repressing. [Now,] when you’re faced with a wall of 200,000 people and their kids and everybody’s grandma, and they’re coming at you and nobody is throwing a molotov cocktail but they’re pissed, that’s a lot different.

Mahanta: One thing I’m curious about is, how does Maduro retain enough support going forward to hang on to power? Where is his genuine source of support at this point?

Toro: People with guns. That includes the military of course, which has been given enormous privileges during the last 18 years. [It has] been put in charge of mining businesses, been part of the oil industry, and smuggling, and cocaine, and a lot of other things.

There’s a long list of Venezuelan guys who were sanctioned and generals who have lost their visas, and the [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration] has investigations on [them]. It’s not really in doubt. So, men with guns. The military, but not just the military.

It’s the paramilitarization of the ruling party. So [the] PSUV, or Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, has what are called colectivos. [These are] sort of grassroots supporter civilians who are armed and organized. What they are is paramilitaries. They are armed civilian groups that support the government. The degree of tactical cooperation between the armed security forces and these paramilitary groups is shocking now and really, they’re not trying to hide it. And these days there’s Twitter—you can’t hide things even if you want to.

That said, [Maduro] does retain some popular support, like 35-30 percent, because chavismo is a kind of religion. It’s an identity thing for a lot of people, which is why he’s so careful to attach himself to the image of Chavez as much as possible. But as time goes on and as memories of Chavez recede, it becomes more and more visible that this is really a cover for a dictatorship.

If you speak Spanish and you have some exposure to Venezuelan state propaganda, you see how state television speaks. You see this militaristic imagery. There’s a lot of eliminationist rhetoric, and a lot of descriptions of the opposition as vermin, as plagues that need to be eliminated. The tone of it is really, really scary. You meet real lunatics in the Venezuelan pro-government camp, who are convinced they are leading a revolution and that they have to eliminate these people who are paid agents of the CIA and it’s totally crazy. But they just never hear anything different.

Mahanta: When this round of protests actually began, what started to crank them up into the more violent phase, in terms of the reaction from the government and the paramilitaries?

Toro: This all comes out of this movement to have a recall referendum. There are many, many references online, videos and such, of Chavez in the early days, talking about the importance of the recall in the new political system that he was proposing. It was really kind of a central idea, that this new participatory democracy was going to be more democratic because people would have a chance to review how their leaders had done. They would have these longer terms—a presidential term is six years— but part of the way you justified that longer term is [by saying] “It’s okay. Halfway through, you can have a vote.” This was Chavez’s idea. This is his legacy. The recall had been the central organizing idea of the opposition all year. [Their thinking was:] “We want to get rid of these guys legally and through the ballot box and peacefully.”

Mahanta: You’ve been keeping a very close watch through Twitter on where the worst of the crackdowns have occurred. I’m wondering if you can describe where we’ve been seeing the worst of the violence? And, conversely, where things remain calm?

Toro: Its really been Caracas against the rest of the country. There’s very clearly—and I think this is about really foreign journalists all live in Caracas, is what it is. If it doesn’t happen in Caracas, it just gets much less play abroad. The violence was mostly in state capitals and small provincial cities, 100,000 here, 500,000 there. Places where the AP doesn’t have a guy and Reuters doesn’t have a guy.

Mahanta: And yet, at least in reviewing some of the pieces that you guys have posted on Caracas Chronicles, people are finding a way to get these images and recordings. It is defying the strategy here, about where deploy the crackdowns.

Toro: I think in these situations there is this balance: Are you more scared? Are you more intimidated? Or are you more defiant? People are feeling pretty freaking defiant at the moment. I [also] think that a lot of people think that the army or significant segments of the army are going to end up flipping. Maybe not the top generals, but the mid-ranking officers or just the troops because they also don’t have food—that kind of situation where suddenly the regime crumbles because the forces, their hearts were not in it. A lot of people have that kind of model in mind. [Like in] that video that I posted from San Cristobal with a student protest coming right up in the soldier’s face, and going: “Look me in the face and shoot me, motherfucker. I’m hungry. I know you’re hungry too.”

Mahanta: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how strong that relationship has been over time between the military and Maduro.

Toro: In a lot of ways, it is a military regime. One of the many, many, many democratic checks in the constitution that has been completely flouted is a ban on military officers taking part in politics. They do that all the time. They don’t retire and join politics like you might in a normal country. They just keep their uniforms on. They still have their rank and they’re state governors, they’re ministers, they’re administering state enterprises, they’re doing these kinds of things. So in a lot of ways it is a military regime.

In other ways, there are clear signs of cultural difference between the regime and these guys. The regime has been around for 18 years and people who are now generals and colonels went into the military academy long before the regime took power, so these are not people who are communists. The ones who have been willing to adapt have gotten very rich. But what these guys really fear is for the chain of command to just crumble. What they really fear is being told to give an order that they don’t believe is going to be followed, because then what happens? So there’s this strange kind of game-theoretical scenario where they’re looking up to the guy who’s giving them orders and looking down at the other ones they have to give orders to, and wondering where that chain breaks down and trying to avoid that.

The military had been pushing for the recall referendum to go through because what they don’t want to be put in is this kind of situation. But does that mean that they are quasi-democrats who want to get rid of this government, and that there’s going to be a coup? No, I don’t think that. Part of what you have to keep in mind with the military in this kind of scenario is the role of Cuban intelligence. There are tens of thousands of Cuban support-trainers and military-trainers in Venezuela, and everybody knows that a very significant portion of them are spies. That was done very much on purpose by Chavez as sort of coup insurance. So I don’t think you’re looking at a kind of coup scenario. You’re looking much more at a scenario where orders are given and they’re not carried out and you have a sort of an uncontrollable chain of subordination.

Mahanta: The legal process of trying to remove Maduro by referendum is somewhat convoluted. The point now, it seems, is that Maduro has suspended these efforts; the opposition in the parliament is pushing back. I wonder: If the opposition knew that the legal effort [to put Maduro on trial after the referendum was blocked] was going to be dead on arrival [owing to Maduro’s control of the process], what was the play there? If we can sort of get inside the minds of Ramos and the other leaders?

Toro: I find this question really maddening and it gets asked a lot, not just by foreign editors, you know.

Mahanta: I just had to ask it!

Toro: Look, to get to the point where you can have an opposition movement that was united enough that it could mount a civil resistance to the government that would have a chance to succeed, you had to go the extra mile. You had to go as far as you could in the legal book, and [the government] had to be the ones to kill it. If you killed it, you squandered all of your authority to call for anything.

I was surprised that [the government] killed the recall. Why? Because it was a blunder. What I thought they would do is let the recall go through, but they would slow it down until next year [and] turn it into this technical discussion so that you drained all the energy out of the protest movement and they would muddle through. That would have been a way smarter way to play it.

The army really didn’t want to end up in the position that the crisis is pushing them into, which is of being the political arbiter. So the army was pushing for [the government] to go ahead with the recall in some way or to have some kind of negotiations. Chavismo used to be simple. When Chavez was around, that’s where every decision went to get made. Chavez had the stature, the power, the charisma, the cult of personality, to just make those decisions. Chavismo has become a much more complicated and much more multi-faceted animal since Chavez died. Because suddenly you have real internal politics because Maduro is not Chavez. Maduro cannot just dictate to everybody else. In the fullness of time, the government is going to look back and think, “You know, we should’ve let that recall go through. It would have been better.”

Mahanta: Interesting. On the theme of recognizing your mistakes, Maduro reportedly met with opposition folks [on Wednesday]. Does that show that he’s trying to pivot in some way or do I give him too much credit?

Toro: [Within the opposition] it’s very evident that these calls for dialogue and negotiations are stalling tactics, and they’re tactical gambits to try to cause divisions in the opposition—to let some of the momentum that has built up to dissipate. We’ve seen this happen before. It happened in 2014, it happened in 2004, it’s happened in different places where when the government is really up against the wall. Suddenly, they want dialogue. And then when they feel confident enough, they tell us to go fuck ourselves again. So it’s not a particularly new thing.

Dialogue has become sort of a dirty word in the Venezuelan opposition. Last week there was this episode when the papal envoy showed up in Caracas, sort of unannounced, and demanded the government and opposition sit down for a dialogue. The titular head of the opposition met him, because he’s the freaking pope’s envoy—it’s a little awkward to say no. And then he gave this declaration that said, “Maybe we’ll go to this thing. Dialogue is kind of a good thing.” And he was absolutely pilloried by opposition public opinion right away—like how could you fall for this shit again? For dialogue to happen and to be meaningful, the government is going to need to give out some extensive signals like saying, “Here, all of the political prisoners that are freed. Let’s sit down and talk.” Or, like, “This is the date for the recall. Let’s sit down and talk.”

Mahanta: Where do things go from here? Can things get worse?

Toro: That’s the thing that keeps me up at night. We are in deeply uncharted territory here, so to try to forecast it now is really, really dicey. There’s a sense in the opposition now of learned helplessness. [A sense of,] “we’ve done a lot, we’ve done a lot to try to get rid of these guys and they’ve worn us out every time, and we’ve failed every time and the country has gotten worse and worse and worse.” So in a way, that’s the hardest thing to get over. Part of the reason that people reacted to the offer of the Vatican mediation the way they did is precisely that: Not this shit again. So the opposition has a big hump to get over, which is [the question of] how is it different this time? Convince me that this is not the same.

Mahanta: I know this is obviously a moving story and you got to get back to covering it so thanks so much for taking the time.

Toro: I mean I can’t believe I haven’t looked at Twitter in an hour.