Will Maduro’s Supporters Abandon Him?

How Chavista Officials See the Crisis in Venezuela

Maduro at a rally in Caracas, February 2019 Carlos Barria / Reuters

As Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro tightens his white-knuckled grip on power, his supporters argue that in at least one respect, they were right all along. The first principle of Chavismo, the movement created by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, is that Chavistas are locked in a permanent struggle with the imperialist United States and its lackeys in the Venezuelan oligarchy. For 20 years the state drilled this message into the public’s heads, at times using it to justify secret police raids, empty shop shelves, and soaring prices.

The American bogeyman apparently turned real on January 23: opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president, and the United States, Canada, and many countries in Latin America rushed to endorse his claim. “The fundamental issue in our revolution is independence,” one Maduro loyalist told me. “No one accepts the capitulation of the government or ultimatums from the United States.”

Earlier this month, I traveled with colleagues from the International Crisis Group to Caracas, where we spoke to current and former high-ranking officials in the executive branch, the pro-Maduro National Constituent Assembly, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and in regional governments. Our interlocutors insisted that Guaidó’s claim to the post of interim president, his recognition by other governments, and the application of fearsome new sanctions against the Maduro government have not fractured the ruling coalition; instead, they claim that these measures have fused disparate and at times competitive parts of the Chavista movement into a seamless bloc of resistance. “Before the 23rd, we were internally in flames,” one former minister said. “Since then, we have been united.”

These statements could be the bravuconadas (boasts) characteristic of a movement built by Latin America’s most bombastic twenty-first-century leader. But they come from senior officials who don’t hide their criticism of their government. Over the course of our long conversations, these officials expressed vitriol toward the United States and Guaidó, but they also reckoned painfully (and occasionally dishonestly) with the errors

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