For a glimpse into Venezuela’s future, look at Arauquita, a remote Colombian border town of about 5,000 people. In May, thousands of bedraggled Venezuelan refugees from neighboring Apure State started arriving in Arauquita with grim stories of aerial bombings and house-to-house searches by Venezuelan soldiers. A tiny war had broken out in the region, pitting the army loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro against the Tenth Front—a dissident faction of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), Colombia’s Marxist rebel group turned drug trafficking cartel, which years earlier had crossed the border and effectively taken over a section of Apure State.

[Lea la versión de este artículo en español aquí.] 

The reasons for the fighting remain shrouded in uncertainty—it might have stemmed from a dispute over the profits of the Tenth Front’s drug smuggling routes. But the outcome of the clashes has been more revealing, even shocking: the capacity of the Venezuelan state is so limited that it cannot dislodge the FARC fighters. The Tenth Front remains the de facto authority in the area despite the Maduro government’s display of firepower.

The battles in Apure State may be a sign of things to come. The Venezuelan regime is not just a military dictatorship but also a criminal enterprise. Rather than a Weberian rational-bureaucratic state, what Maduro leads is a loose confederation of criminal chieftainships where he plays the role of capo di tutti capi—the boss of bosses. Normally, Maduro is able to arbitrate disputes between his captains. But sometimes, as in Apure, the system breaks down and violence erupts.

Army generals run most of the rackets today. The generals control everything from the well-stocked Caracas bodegones—high-end retailers where every kind of imported good is readily available for U.S. dollars—to much murkier sectors, such as the blood-soaked trade in coltan, a rare earth element, from the jungles of the south. Colombian criminal syndicates, such as the FARC’s Tenth Front and the rival ELN guerrilla group notorious for its brutality, operate in cahoots with Venezuelan officials and at other times challenge authorities. Other lucrative businesses have ended up in the hands of civilians close to the regime—such figures have presided over the boom in high-end construction in affluent areas of Caracas—or with gangs, which, for example, manage the day-to-day operation of prisons and extract fat profits through the pitiless extortion of inmates.

A Mafia state such as Venezuela may seem stable from day to day, but it is inherently volatile—as the refugees from Apure know only too well. Think tanks and diplomats in Washington continue to ask how the regime might be pushed toward democracy, but the real question facing Venezuela right now is far bleaker: Will the confederation of criminals that Maduro leads remain cohesive enough to avoid internecine conflict, or does Venezuela’s future look much like Apure’s present, with armed gangs waging turf wars that plunge the country into anarchic violence?

The Caracas Mirage

Accounts of Venezuela’s predicament typically begin not in Apure State but among the skyscrapers of Caracas, where an illusion of normality is now on offer. The massive (and murderously repressed) street protests of recent years are long gone. So, too, are the days of high-stakes political confrontation between the Maduro regime and the Venezuelan political opposition.

Venezuelans are exhausted and hopeless. Years of street protests, which flared from 2002 to 2017, failed to yield tangible political change. With their hopes dashed, many Venezuelans look at the leadership of the opposition with deep skepticism and anger. Their despair has propelled an exodus out of the country. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has estimated that some 5.4 million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years—nearly a fifth of the population. One recent study has found that the median age of Venezuelan migrants is 32: people in the prime of their working life, including many young people who were once at the core of the protest movement.

The opposition launched another attempt to wrest power in January 2019, when Juan Guaidó, then speaker of the National Assembly, claimed the presidency for himself after the Maduro government held a crudely rigged presidential vote. Guaido’s challenge electrified Venezuelans—and the world. The United States led the charge, with the State Department quickly extending official recognition to Guaidó as interim president. In all, 60 countries eventually recognized Guaidó’s claim, including most wealthy democracies and nearly all of Latin America.

Nearly a fifth of Venezuela’s population has left the country.

The swift U.S. embrace of Guaidó fit into a broader pattern of bluster toward the Maduro regime. For more than a year, President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Adviser John Bolton had taken a tough diplomatic stance that stressed that “all options are on the table” with regard to Venezuela, even military intervention. Under the rubric of “maximum pressure,” the United States launched sanctions not only against regime figures but against key Venezuelan economic sectors, limiting Caracas’s ability to sell oil abroad in a bid to curtail the regime’s access to the foreign exchange it desperately needed. Sanctions did not destroy the Venezuelan economy—the regime’s own economic policies did that, with stunning efficiency, in the two decades before sanctions were introduced—but they deepened the country’s economic crisis and made meaningful economic recovery impossible.

Tellingly, the top priority of Venezuelan officials when they do sit down for talks with representatives of the international community has always been relief from the individual sanctions against them. The chieftains of the regime seem to care more about their freedom to travel and hold property around the world than about the hardships of ordinary Venezuelans. They have been shaken by the United States’ announcement last year of a $15 million bounty for help apprehending Maduro, along with other multimillion-dollar bounties attached to other regime figures and their cronies.

Trump’s bellicose rhetoric against Maduro and the regime’s top figures was nevertheless unhelpful in Venezuela. It fed into the Venezuelan opposition’s propensity for magical thinking. Some radical opposition figures chose to agitate loudly for U.S. military action. These demagogues recognized, privately, that the odds of a U.S. intervention actually taking place were vanishingly small, but that did not stop them from preying on the desperation of their followers.

Venezuelan refugees attend a funeral in Arauquita, Colombia, March 2021
Venezuelan refugees attend a funeral in Arauquita, Colombia, March 2021
Luisa Gonzalez / Reuters

The Maduro regime, for its part, correctly estimated that the American bluster amounted to empty threats. It focused on turning U.S. posturing into valuable propaganda. Venezuelan state TV eagerly carried sound bites of Washington’s saber rattling against the regime. This allowed the Maduro government to shirk responsibility for the country’s economic problems by blaming them on supposed U.S. sabotage.

Trump’s pressure did little to change the facts on the ground. The hoped-for cascade of military defections from the regime never materialized. Instead, the regime waited Guaidó out and continued to repress and jail his supporters. The steam gradually drained out of his challenge.

Over time, the Cuban-inspired repression tactics used against Guaidó and his allies proved brutally effective. Gradually, the people’s trust and support for Guaido’s provisional government dwindled. Guaido’s approval rating plunged from 70 percent at the start of his challenge in 2019 to just 11 percent this January. The regime, for its part, no longer treats the opposition as an existential threat. Instead, it sees the opposition, at worst, as a chronic condition to be managed and, more frequently, as an adversary that can be easily manipulated.

The Largest Peacetime Economic Contraction Anywhere, Ever

For everyday Venezuelans, the regime’s perseverance is nothing short of a catastrophe. A once large and growing middle class has virtually disappeared, leaving as many as 96 percent of Venezuelans below the poverty line. The economy has collapsed dramatically, with GDP per capita having dropped to about a quarter of what it had been before the crisis began in 2013. By some estimates, the Venezuelan economy has contracted more since 2012 than any other peacetime economy.

Venezuela’s economic implosion tracks back to the destruction of its oil industry, which for over a century had been at the center of the country’s economic strategy. Oil production had been drifting down from a peak of 3.7 million barrels per day in 1998 to 2.2 million barrels per day in 2017. But the combination of chronic underinvestment in exploration and maintenance, the loss of access to international credit markets following sovereign default in 2017, and the imposition of U.S. sanctions on the oil industry that same year saw the bottom fall out of the industry. Venezuela now produces a mere 700,000 barrels per day—nowhere near the level required to fund the imports the country needs to survive.

For a time, in 2017 and 2018, the regime imagined it could ride out the oil sanctions by leaning on friendly foreign powers. Venezuelan officials hoped that Chinese and Russian oil companies might be invited in to prop up the collapsing industry. But after a long and tortuous set of negotiations, both Chinese and Russian firms rejected offers to take over the mammoth Amuay-Cardón refinery (which boasts the capacity to produce one million barrels per day). Today, Amuay-Cardón sits idle. Gasoline shortages have become a daily fact of life for millions of Venezuelans, who must spend up to four days in line waiting for rare fuel supplies to fill their tanks. The government gave foreign companies lucrative licenses to exploit abandoned and mismanaged oil fields. Eventually, one by one, these oil companies left the country, as the task of restoring production proved to be impossible. Venezuela remains, tragically, the country with the largest oil reserves on the planet.

For Venezuelans, the regime’s perseverance is nothing short of a catastrophe.

The scale of the economic collapse is clearest in terms of monetary debasement. After the second-longest bout of hyperinflation on record anywhere (with 45 months in hyperinflationary conditions between 2017 and 2021), the government is preparing to further debase the bolivar, the nation’s ailing currency. It is the third such “redenomination” since 2008. Altogether, 14 decimal places will have been lopped off the bolivar, meaning a one bolivar note in 2022 will be worth 100 trillion bolivars of the 2008 vintage.

As the bolivar becomes less and less useful, Venezuelans have abandoned it in droves, increasingly choosing to transact in U.S. dollars or in Colombian pesos or Brazilian reais in border regions adjacent to those countries. Around two-thirds of transactions are now carried out in foreign currency. The turn to the U.S. dollar has helped create an illusion of normalcy in formerly affluent areas of Caracas. But it is a mirage: one recent survey has shown that only 40 percent of households receive hard currency remittances from relatives abroad. The other 60 percent have to make do with bolivars. They face an ongoing food crisis, with childhood malnutrition rates reaching 36 percent according to the World Health Organization and little prospect of relief anytime soon.

This particular economic structure—a country cleaved in two between those with and without access to foreign currency—is reminiscent of Cuba, which has long kept two parallel currencies: one convertible into foreign currency and a second one that is mostly useless. A similar dynamic has arisen in Venezuela, with those who have access to dollars living something vaguely resembling life in other countries and those without access condemned to unfathomable privations. But then the structure of Venezuela’s regime also resembles the government of Cuba, where a militarized predatory elite ruthlessly pillages any available source of foreign exchange and violently represses those who dare oppose it.

People queuing for food and gas in San Cristobal, Venezuela, November 2018
People queuing for food and gas in San Cristobal, Venezuela, November 2018
Carlos Eduardo Ramirez / Reuters

Cuba remains Maduro’s strongest and most essential ally. The refusal by China and Russia to come to Maduro’s aid must have been a rude awakening to him. Both countries see a Venezuela hostile to the United States as a useful geopolitical chip, and in the past, they have provided diplomatic cover for and security assistance to the regime. But neither is interested in pouring scarce resources into what they (rightly) see as a broken sack on the Caribbean. Other Venezuelan allies, such as Iran and Turkey, have proved more useful, dispatching gasoline shipments and some finished goods or “recycling and laundering” Venezuela’s gold. But any broader alliance with these two distant governments is invariably limited. Tehran and Ankara lack the ability and the will to save Caracas from its economic catastrophe.

That leaves Maduro one last, true, unwavering ally: Cuba. The original Latin leftist dictatorship has had such a close relationship with the Venezuelan regime that the word “alliance” doesn’t quite do it justice. In fact, Venezuela is under a sort of stealth Cuban occupation. Maduro appears to trust Cuban officials more than his own: Cuban spooks—not Venezuelan ones—staff his own intelligence shop inside the presidential palace, meaning Havana knows more about what happens in Venezuela than most Venezuelan officials do. And Maduro appears to prioritize Cuba’s needs above Venezuela’s, as demonstrated by the fact that Venezuela has continued to supply Cuba with energy throughout this crisis, even as its own drivers have seen gas stations run dry.

VENEZUELA AS AN INSOLUBLE PROBLEM

What is the world—and the United States, in particular—to do faced with this dismal state of affairs? How do you solve a problem like Venezuela?

The first step is fully grasping that normal political logic has little relevance when dealing with a Mafia state. The international community’s insistence on negotiating toward free and fair elections, in particular, looks well-intentioned but misguided. The alternative to hanging on to power for many regime stalwarts—including Maduro, who is under indictment in the United States for drug trafficking—is a jail cell. The regime cannot and will not offer the opposition a chance to depose it at the ballot box.

But that does not mean it is immune to pressure from abroad. Washington must, first, accept the weakness of the opposition, which is not, at this stage, able to mount a realistic challenge to the regime’s grip on power. Instead, the United States should insist on the release of political prisoners and the reestablishment of basic freedoms of the press and association, offering relief from individual sanctions in return. To increase its leverage in this strategy, Washington must do a much better job of mobilizing democracies such as Italy and Spain to enforce sanctions against regime figures; people associated with the regime have found safe harbor not only in the pleasant Italian and Spanish villas and palazzos they now own but also in Italian and Spanish banks and financial institutions.

Cuba’s unique position in Venezuela makes it an essential player in any future resolution. No deal of any kind is imaginable without the Cuban regime’s buy in. The key that opens the lock to the Venezuelan crisis is much more likely to be found in Havana than in Caracas. So long as Cuba remains a dictatorship, Venezuela probably will, too.

Normal political logic has little relevance when dealing with a Mafia state.

Ultimately, democracies worldwide—but especially in Latin America—have an interest in keeping Venezuela whole, peaceful, and at least stable enough not to export its troubles. The border war in Apure State this spring should serve as another warning that nothing can be taken for granted. The hollowing of the Venezuelan state and its replacement with a Mafia-style structure stokes chronic instability that could lead to pervasive violence.

One possible future for the country would see the chieftains one rung down from Maduro increasingly at one another’s throats, with turf wars spilling out into actual bloodshed. Maduro and his Cuban handlers will, of course, do what they can to contain the chaos, but it is far from a given that they will succeed. This future looks a lot like Venezuela’s conflict-ridden nineteenth century, when a nominal president in Caracas controlled little beyond the capital and the country’s custom houses while a wild proliferation of regional caudillos ruled mostly unchallenged over the other cities and towns. This arrangement was never stable: throughout the nineteenth century, caudillos routinely tried to storm the capital and take power for themselves. Sometimes they were successful, other times they were not, but the results were always bloody.

A second scenario would see Maduro maintain his authority over his underlings at least enough to prevent open fighting between them. With no democracy, no political freedom, no access to global capital, and no ability to generate foreign exchange, this is the path toward the true Cubanization of Venezuela: a regime petrified in power, built on a substrate of its own people’s suffering. It is a miserable prospect.

These are bleak, unpalatable scenarios, but sadly, there are few reasons to expect better. The wishful hope that the criminals in charge of the Venezuelan regime can somehow be persuaded to accede to their own ruin is just that—a hope—and certainly not a proper basis for diplomatic action. Such hopes have distorted policymaking in the United States and elsewhere for too long. The reality Venezuela faces is dismal, but it must be treated as reality.

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  • MOISÉS NAÍM is a Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Chief International Columnist for El País.

  • FRANCISCO TORO is Chief Content Officer at the Group of Fifty, Founder of Caracas Chronicles, and a Global Opinion Columnist at The Washington Post.
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