3 Strategic Factors in Venezuelan Politics
In July 2018, Andrea Oelsner and Federico Merke from the Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina wrote a short but very analytical piece in which they described five barriers to regime change in Venezuela; economic resources of the regime, the use of fear by the security apparatus, a neutered opposition, hunger, and no international agreement. The combination of these factors allowed Maduro and its political allies to survive without major concerns.
Jump to today, and things have changed quite a bit. The regime faces a situation in which it exerts less control, although this does not mean that its time is nearly up. The role of the opposition, the international economic and diplomatic pressure, and the use of hunger as a political tool are three strategic factors that today restrain the Maduro government, and that could mean a change in the upper hand in this regional crisis.
1. The Opposition
Today, the opposition is more coordinated in its actions, despites the existing repression of the Cuban-Venezuelan intelligence and security apparatus. It has developed more connections with the poorer social strata through workshops, becoming less elitist.
As a result, it has been able to agree on a leader with social origins that identify with the lower economic strata, but also with an ideological (leftist) centrum, which facilitates the agreement of the different political factions within the opposition. A leader, also, that has proved to be very enthusiastic in taking important and courageous decisions.
2. International Diplomatic and Economic Pressure
Maduro’s regime uses the economic resources that receives from its international partners, mainly through the oil exports, to buy allegiance from the military, which currently leads over 10 offices of the Government, as well as diverse economic sectors, as the imports, production and distribution of food and the energy sector (the President of PDVSA is an officer).
The main international supporters of the regime are Russia, China, and recently Turkey, and was not in any kind of pressure, being able to buy time exploiting the dialogue policy of the opposition. The situation has changed, mainly thanks to the Colombian strategy, leading the regional pressure. The main result of this is the recognition of Juan Guaidó as the interin President of Venezuela by almost all of the Western governments. This allowed Guaidó to lead and seek international support to control Venezuela’s bank accounts and revenues.
The economic sanctions by the United States has pressured Maduro’s government to seek for alternative partners to buy more of its oil, trying to sell what the US is not going to buy anymore. Nevertheless, we will see the effects of many of these sanctions in no less than 2 months.
It is possible that they will push Russia and China to adopt a more flexible approach. Moreover, their support of Maduro is not without conditions. China has a very pragmatic international agenda, as was shown when it stopped supporting Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, a decisive element in his downfall. What matters to China is a government stable enough to protect investments.
Besides economic, Russia has geopolitical interests, but the state of its economy and armed forces do not allow for a highly expensive military support, and the distance makes it even less likely. Both countries, at the bottom, must be thinking that Venezuela has a very important debt with them, and do not seem to be very interested in discussing its terms one more time.
3. Hunger as a Political Weapon
Non-democratic regimes use hunger as a political weapon, it assures obedience and diminishes the mobilization potential, since people seek food for hours. In Venezuela there is a public system of food distribution, which in practice means that only those who show allegiance receive food, among the increasing scarcity.
The international aid that was intended to be delivered through the borders in Venezuela had this aim. To create social connections among the more needed persons, cutting the dependence and submission to the regime. This could liberate exponentially the population available for mobilization, increasing the pressure on the government security apparatus. At the same time, it showed the world that Maduro puts the regime survival above the hunger and suffering of the Venezuelan people.
A strengthened opposition, international pressure and the aid for the population could exert an impressive pressure on the Maduro regime. This seems to be some elements of the strategy put in place by the regional actors interested, by security and humanitarian reasons, in a regime change in Venezuela. Particularly, the division between the short and long term interest of Russia and China is a key factor for breaking the support of Maduro’s regime by the military. The lack of economic resources available for buying military allegiance could mean an example of the main idea of Machiavelli; a prince cannot last if its power depends on others than himself.
Jaime Luis Zapata
BA in International Relations, Master of Political Analysis
CEO of Escenario Político Consultora.