It seems at long last that the bells are tolling for Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. In the last week, the ground has shifted suddenly from under his feet as the country’s opposition led huge citizen rallies protesting against the fetid remnants of Chavismo behind which the Venezuelan President has taken refuge all these years. The worm has finally turned after years of economic contraction, unnatural austerity, repression and falsehood, topped by widely perceived electoral malpractice. There were suspicions even about the 2013 election, when he won narrowly, by just 1.5 per cent of the total vote. His opponent, Henrique Capriles, challenged the result, to no avail.
Since then, he has ruled mostly by decree, twisting the constitution and the laws past breaking point by the simple expedient of suborning the judiciary and the national assembly or parliament. Even an opposition coalition victory in the 2016 elections failed to act as a deterrent. He simply bypassed the national assembly by getting the ironically named Supreme Tribunal of Justice to give him sweeping emergency powers. Thus, almost from day one large numbers of Venezuelans have questioned Maduro’s legitimacy.
It is the main reason for the massive anti-Maduro protests since 2014 but economic chaos caused by hyperinflation, widespread joblessness due to a tanking economy, chronic shortages of food, medicines and other basic goods have contributed a large share as well. In these six years, Maduro has successfully transformed Venezuela from South America’s wealthiest, best educated society with a model healthcare system into a basket case where no one has a job and no one can afford to buy anything.
Maduro is in no position to ensure anyone’s loyalty. With the oil industry in ruins, he is out of protection money to keep the military on his side.
It is a far cry from the days of his mentor, Hugo Chavez. Nicolas Maduro may be the most hated figure in his country but he has hung on in large part due to military support and his ability to suborn other key parts of the establishment. But he may have run his course by now. His re-election in May 2018 on a record low turnout of 46 per cent was described as a show election by some analysts. The result was rejected by both the European Union and the United States of America. Maduro was nevertheless inaugurated on January 10, 2019.
The next day national assembly president Juan Guaido presided over a mass protest in the capital, Caracas, at which he was declared interim president. Subsequent days have seen the protests spreading to Valencia in Carabobo state, the main industrial centre. The rallies have multiplied and now cover 12 states, building up to what looks like an unstoppable force. A number of senior ex-army and police officers have also declared their support for Guaido, and in the most significant sign yet, Venezuela’s top military envoy to the US, Colonel Jose Luis Silva, has defected from the government. He has appealed to the armed forces to recognise Guaido as “the only legitimate president”. This could have a cascading effect as Maduro is in no real position to ensure anyone’s loyalty. With the oil industry in ruins, he is out of protection money to keep the military on his side.
This time, moreover, the national assembly is backing Guaido and a change of guard. Unless the military or the police step in to help, his fate is sealed. At this point Maduro’s only friends are in Russia, China (to whom he owes billions of dollars in loans), Cuba and Iran, among others. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has said his government recognises Guaido as the only legitimate incumbent, ramping up pressure on the fence-sitters. He has wisely decided to leave the process of Maduro’s departure to Venezuelans themselves. After all, their protests against him date back to Maduro’s first inauguration.
The real question here concerns Cuba’s attitude in the crisis. Its support for the government goes back to the days of Hugo Chavez, who invited them to help set up and run the healthcare system in the initial stages. Moreover, Chavez was particularly close to Fidel Castro, “like a father-son relationship”, according to one observer. Havana is Maduro’s staunchest supporter in the region and has already offered its “unwavering solidarity”. The Venezuelan opposition fears Cuban influence but it may not go beyond pronouncements of support though Cuba benefits from its ties with the regime. Intervening in a partisan fight could lead to hideous complications.
At this point, Maduro’s fall is just a matter of time. If he has outside help it will take longer, but given the growing hands-off sentiment all around him, he will soon be facing the judgment of the people.