How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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 of their two decades in power, and they struggled with the question of whether and how to compromise with the opposition. Some even suggested that the Chavista leadership could and maybe should change, although none were sure exactly how. Openings for negotiations exist, though they are fragile and could easily vanish in the face of Washington’s current hard-line position toward Maduro and socialism across the Americas.
Despite their indignation against the United States, none of the senior Chavistas we spoke with downplayed the severity of Venezuela’s economic crisis. Maduro has blamed the country’s problems on U.S. financial sanctions, introduced in August 2017, when shortages, hyperinflation, and mass emigration were already on the rise. These officials disagreed. Maduro, one argued, “does not understand economics”; another complained that the president “takes an eternity to make a decision.” Their comments were matter-of-fact. The great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges once said that Peronists, members of another populist Latin American movement with authoritarian hues, were “neither good nor bad, but incorrigible.” Chavistas see Maduro in much the same way.
Yet this tolerance toward Maduro is difficult to square with the anguish of an empty stomach, familiar to all but the most powerful or corrupt officials. A reasonably experienced senior state employee earns around 20,000 bolivars a month, equivalent to $6.05. I invited one official to eat at a sandwich shop. His meal—melted cheese, a few slices of turkey ham, a small baguette, and a fizzy drink—cost around 16,000 bolivars. He was glad not to pay: the light lunch would have consumed almost his entire monthly wage. The state now provides citizens with monthly boxes of subsidized rations that offer high-carb sustenance—pasta, rice, and flour—along with a few tins of tuna. According to a recent independent social survey, these boxes are now provided to more than seven million households, or around 90 percent of the population; a high-level government source estimates the cost at more than $400 million a month.
But the state’s food supply is now in peril. At the end of January, the United States sanctioned Venezuela’s state-run oil firm, PDVSA, which until then had been the Maduro government’s single largest source of hard currency. By freezing the proceeds on its purchases of Venezuelan oil, the United States hoped to starve the regime and convince factions within the government to abandon Maduro, making way for Guaidó and free elections. Instead, Venezuelan officials have rushed to find alternative sources of income: shipping gold to Turkey, for example, or selling oil to third parties through Russian facilitators. “We are looking into how we can cope,” one top official said.
The practicalities of survival now dominate government discussions. How can Venezuela refine its heavy crude? What will China and Russia—both of which publicly support Maduro but are reluctant to bail him out—demand in exchange for help? How will the military’s top brass respond to the country’s deepening penury, which risks sparking civil unrest? Over the weekend, pitched battles occured along Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil, as forces loyal to Maduro blocked humanitarian convoys from entering their country. Over 100 members of the Venezuelan security forces reportedly bolted across the border to Colombia to defect. How long until that trickle turns into a flood, or until Venezuela’s generals call on their troops to open fire?
The prospect of a drawn-out battle to survive the international boycott raises an uncomfortable question about Chavismo as a political project. The movement’s first principle is resistance to U.S. imperialism and the Venezuelan haute bourgeoisie, but it is no less committed to fighting hardship, inequality, and political exclusion. Campaigning on these issues helped Chavismo win elections fairly and emphatically for its first 15 years in power, and has allowed it even now to retain the support of at least 20 percent of the electorate. If holding on to power undermines those objectives, should Chavistas temporarily suspend their cause—“for now,” as Chávez famously declared after his failed 1992 coup—and agree to a political transition? Or is power always worth having, regardless of the costs and suffering?
When probed, several Chavistas were willing to countenance concessions to placate the United States and the opposition. They were ready to consider bringing greater political balance to the body that runs the electoral system, the National Electoral Council; restoring the legislative powers of the National Assembly, which is led by the opposition; and accepting credible international observers for the next election. We spoke to the chief adviser of a Chavista, known for his pragmatism, who is often cited as a leader of the movement’s next generation. The adviser pointed to a recent interview in which Maduro refused to rule out holding early presidential elections—a core opposition demand—as evidence that the regime was willing to negotiate. A member of the unanimously pro-government Constituent Assembly, a loyal but critical Chavista, even mooted the prospect of an interim military administration to pave the way for eventual elections without Maduro. The idea, which the official raised but did not endorse, was that the generals could take power for a year or two, negotiate a settlement with the opposition and the international community, and then hold elections before returning power to civilian leaders. Pragmatic members of the opposition have floated similar plans, but they would have to be approved by Maduro, meaning that they are unlikely to come to fruition.
Yet there are also signals that any accommodation with the opposition will be at best halfhearted and at worst a tactical sop to be cast aside at the first opportunity. The same Chavistas who point to these possible concessions refuse to acknowledge their leaders’ role in thwarting earlier dialogues with the opposition and, since 2016, distorting the electoral system to ensure government victories. We spoke with one dissident Chavista and former government minister who remains close to party leaders. He was convinced that Maduro had brought the current crisis upon himself. “The government,” he said, “blew up the electoral route for any sort of challenge by the opposition, and the result is Guaidó.”
Most other officials disagreed with this assessment and blamed the opposition for its own failures. Not even the most pragmatic Chavistas were willing to countenance a release of Venezuela’s political prisoners, of which there are an estimated 966. On matters of political and judicial reform, they are defensive, meeting their critics with counterarguments and caveats. A Spanish journalist recently probed Maduro on why he created the Constituent Assembly in 2017, dislodging a National Assembly controlled by the opposition. The journalist jokingly asked whether Maduro would create a “third parliament” to deal with the current crisis. Maduro responded: “I won’t answer. It’s irony. Ask another question … Venezuela had powerful reasons to launch a constitution-making power. You don’t understand? Respect us. The only thing we ask from you is respect.”
The Chavistas’ defensive swagger could well be bluster. Although they are now calling for national unity and pride in the face of what they consider U.S. aggression, Chavista officials, as well as members of the military, are operating under immense domestic and foreign pressure. They could eventually buckle and switch loyalties in the coming weeks or months. How the movement’s base will respond to a changing political environment remains to be seen. And the Chavista leadership has reason to worry about how far it can push the country’s military in resisting an attempted overthrow, should opposition efforts escalate.
Listening to the Chavistas, however, we heard some pragmatism and openness to negotiation. The opening is a narrow one and full of mistrust. Before embarking on the dangerous path to regime change, outside powers—and in particular the United States—should take advantage of this receptivity, doing everything possible to include the Chavistas in their attempts to create a stable future for Venezuela.