"Shortages could end up actually crossing over into actual famine."
On December 6, 2015, the Venezuelan opposition won—by one seat—a historic two-thirds supermajority in the country’s unicameral National Assembly. But that supermajority and those election results are now in jeopardy. Six days before the 167 new deputies were due to be sworn in on January 5, Venezuela’s Supreme Court—which has not ruled against executive interests in more than a decade—approved injunctions against the electoral victories of four deputies from the rural state of Amazonas, including three from the opposition. The Court said they were not eligible to take their oaths until the results can be reviewed.
The new opposition-controlled legislature ignored the ruling, and on his second day in his new role, Speaker Henry Ramos Allup swore in the three remaining opposition legislators, forcing an institutional showdown between the legislature and the judiciary, and therein the executive. The move could be a shrewd one, says Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez, a professor of political economy and constitutional development at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. By forcing President Nicolás Maduro to use his political capital at a time when his popular support is weak, people could take to the streets if the December 6 electoral results are nullified. All the same, says Lansberg-Rodríguez, Venezuela has a 16-year-old Constitution with no separation of powers, and the country is sailing into uncharted waters.
AS/COA Online: After the opposition’s win in the December 6 elections, you said you didn’t want to get too excited. How are you feeling this week?
Lansberg-Rodríguez: A little bit less excited. Right after the election, the cracks within the government’s unity were far more visible than they had been at any time since [the late President Hugo] Chávez first came to power, and the opposition seemed very united. The opposition now seems less united—which is worrying to see at a time when the Assembly itself will be under siege—and the government closed ranks.
The new speaker of the assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, is from the pre-Chávez era, so for a lot of people who are breaking ranks with chavismo for the first time and counting on the opposition to look like something new, bringing a septuagenarian politician very closely identified with what came before can be problematic.
"Where the government is in danger is from the population itself."
AS/COA: Who’s in a more precarious situation: the opposition or Maduro?
Lansberg-Rodríguez: It depends how you define “precarious.” The opposition has been in a precarious situation for a long time. Their leaders can be thrown into jail, have their conversations recorded, be pushed out of office, stripped of their democratically elected roles. In that sense, they are clearly more precarious.
Institutionally, the government is essentially bulletproof at present. The Supreme Court can challenge anything that the National Assembly tries to do. [On January 6,] during a national speech in which Maduro switched up the cabinet, he made a couple discomfiting statements to the effect of, representative democracy was a trick of the oligarchy and that they had to start making truly popular ministries. Nobody’s quite sure what that means, but it sounds ominous.
Where the government is in danger is from the population itself. That’s where things get tricky. The government’s losses [on December 6] included areas that it’s long been able to take for granted, including ones with strong colectivo [community organizations] and military presences, the municipality where Chávez is buried, and Chávez’s home state. The government can’t take for granted a lot of the factions that they could before.
Ramos Allup has promised that Maduro will be out of office within six months, which clearly ups the ante from the government’s perspective. And the government has been pretty close-fisted in trying to isolate the relevance of the National Assembly. Both sides are essentially seeming to be converging into a crisis.
AS/COA: So if you’re the opposition right now, would it be more strategic to push a referendum to recall Maduro and use the popular support, or to try and reseat the Supreme Court and take away that institutional check?
Lansberg-Rodríguez: Well, that’s the $1 million-dollar question—or the 1-million bolívar question, which, accounting for inflation, would be about $1,300. There’s an assumption, as the government attempts to sideline the legislature more and more, that democratic mechanisms won’t get them anywhere.
The ace in the hole that the opposition is hoping to see is that the judicial power in Venezuela historically has been very weak. They usually go with the government’s interests until there’s a very strong popular backlash, and then they abandon the government interests and back the masses. And that’s something we saw in 1992 when [President] Carlos Andrés Pérez was impeached. We saw it in 1999 when the Constitution was rewritten. In both cases, the Supreme Court ignored the letter of the Constitution because there was massive public support toward doing things a certain way. And that’s the real fear of the government now and the reason they replaced judges in December as a preemptive move just in case they could find judges who could be relied on more in a pinch than some of the judges who’d been there longer.
"It’s usually not generals who overthrow presidents—it’s captains and lieutenants."
AS/COA: What role could the military have?
Lansberg-Rodríguez: While the military has always been an important part of Venezuela’s crisis management, it’s not necessarily for the better, and it’s not necessarily monolithic when they do. Often the higher ranks—generals and admirals—are the ones closest to the seat of power. It’s usually not generals who overthrow presidents—it’s captains and lieutenants. Chávez himself was a lieutenant colonel when he had his failed coup in 1992. Right now most of the generals (who are about to become brigadier generals) come from [Deputy and former Assembly Speaker] Diosdado Cabello’s graduating class. Where you could have the military break for opposition would be if the lieutenants, captains, and majors don’t follow the orders of the generals.
AS/COA: So how are the lower ranks feeling about Maduro these days?
Lansberg-Rodríguez: The military chain of command has been very subverted in recent years, and that’s caused a great deal of strain internally within the ranks. At the same time, the armed forces swear a loyalty oath that includes the revolution and Chávez. So it’s very risky for active military officers to be openly critical of the government, and we haven’t seen any actual criticism from these troops. But that creates a black-box dynamic: nobody really knows what’s going on in the lieutenant-captain-major space, and that’s usually the one that ends up being most decisive in a crisis.
AS/COA: The Brazilian Foreign Ministry made a rare statement this week that urged Venezuela to respect democracy and the rule of law. What's the significance of that?
Lansberg-Rodríguez: One of the really interesting developments taking place in Latin America, which started with [Mauricio] Macri’s win in Argentina but has been building for a while, is that a lot of the populist systems are failing. And in part that has to do with the fact that commodities have fallen and populism is obviously helped quite a bit with commodity booms when you have state companies that then bring in large amounts of cash that can be spread out, spent domestically, and build personal loyalty from the people.
But those systems tend not to do so well when there isn’t as much money coming in. The populist leaders of the older generation—Néstor Kirchner, Chávez, [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva]—are no longer at the head, and their successors have had a harder time cultivating that loyalty. As a result, you’re seeing a splintering of what had been very much of a bloc mentality within some of the more populist governments in Latin America, including a cone of silence in which they wouldn’t openly criticize lest they be criticized.
So as the proverbial Pink Tide recedes and countries like Brazil make more overtures to the West, part of what that entails is speaking out on matters of domestic policy because the West historically takes a sort of harder stance on human rights and democracy than did business partners like China and Russia. So it’s harder for Brazil or even Chile to stay silent on some of the domestic policies within Venezuela like the political prisoners and the sidelining of the Assembly. And that builds a lot of pressure on Maduro, who can no longer really afford to buy loyalty through Petrocaribe, for example, and some of the international largesse programs that Chávez set up.
AS/COA: What would you say Maduro’s chances are of finishing out the year or his term, which ends in 2019?
Lansberg-Rodríguez: I think his chances of finishing out the year are relatively high. I’m very confident that Maduro will not finish out his term. 2016 will be the year that makes or breaks him. 2017 will be the year in which change may arrive one way or the other.
And the reason I say that is, according to the Venezuelan Constitution, if Maduro steps down in 2016, there’s an election. Chavismo knows it can’t win an election right now, so they have to work lockstep to keep Maduro in charge for the rest of the year.
And chavismo, to a certain extent, shares the same sort of fundamental flaw that the opposition suffers from, which is that everybody wants to be president. The institutional support Maduro has in 2016 gets much more complicated for him in 2017 because at that point, whoever ends up being in the vice presidency can take over directly from him. Once we hit 2017, then those bets are off, and then the party will start looking toward the party interests, which might not so closely align with Maduro’s survival.
"Shortages could end up actually crossing over into actual famine."
The popular support then will probably be significantly weaker as well because some very hard months economically are likely in store for Venezuela. There aren’t a lot of imports saved up, and when people start returning [from the holidays] to the large cities, we may see a type of scarcity or a depth of scarcity that we haven’t seen in Venezuela yet.
And that’s something that really concerns me, having returned from Caracas [January 6], because the last time that there was really large-scale wanton civil strife in Venezuela was 1989. At that point it was mostly people with rifles and homemade pipe guns and broomsticks marching from the suburbs onto the capital and wreaking havoc. Now, grenades are everywhere, Kalashnikovs are everywhere. What civil strife would look like in a world of colectivos and of very large, well-armed gangs—the potential risks are much worse than what they were in the previous era.
AS/COA: If you’re a Venezuelan living in Caracas or elsewhere, how are you feeling looking at the upcoming year?
Lansberg-Rodríguez: There’s a feeling in many sectors that what we’ve been seeing in terms of scarcity and shortages could end up actually crossing over into actual famine, and that the high inflation we’ve seen could easily become hyperinflation à la Zimbabwe or Weimar Germany, especially with the new economic team that takes new ideological positions rather than a more conventional economic ones.
The Maduro administration wants the next few months to hinge on political crises and constitutional issues because there they have an institutional advantage. What they need to avoid are economic issues because most Venezuelans—like voters generally—vote with their pocketbooks, not with their understanding of constitutional law. To keep people happy, the government needs to find ways to keep them fed.
The two-and-half-hour-long diatribe where Maduro announced the new ministers should give people pause. He said that people should start growing their own food at home and, for example, that in the presidential palace, he has 50 egg-laying hens he uses to feed himself, and that his friend makes his own shampoo. These are ways of trying to communicate indirectly that the few imports that Venezuela is able to count on at present might not be around that much longer.
The give-and-take of power dynamics between institutions are going to define 2016 for Venezuelans. That, and the destruction of the economy.