Oppression in an Opulent Land

Erik Nolan Americas, Analysis, Politics & Society

President Nicolas Maduro’s reelection, while not unexpected, portends a worsening situation in Venezuela with the potential to spill over into neighbouring countries throughout South and Central America. Condemned almost universally, Venezuela’s farce of an election was characterized by low voter turnout and suppression of opposition candidates, followed by the jubilant theatricalities of chavismo—where Maduro declared victory amidst the country’s worst economic and humanitarian crisis in recent memory. In the face of sanctions from the United States, Maduro is likely to increase his stranglehold on the country using the authoritarian methods that have hallmarked his presidency.

Using the police, military, courts, and the selective distribution of critical food and medical supplies, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) leveraged every tool at its disposal to increase Maduro’s popularity and disqualify, arrest, or impugn any opposition leading up to the May 20th election. The fact that Maduro decided to release political prisoners only after securing 5.8 million votes over weakened opposition candidate Henri Falcon’s 1.8 million (a tally conducted by Maduro-appointed electoral officials) accomplished two things. First, it cemented the legitimacy of his government’s hold on Venezuela in the eyes of his supporters, who will view the releases as an act of clemency and regard Maduro as a benevolent figure who upholds the virtues of the shifting Venezuelan constitution in the face of illegal protests and riots. Second, it served as both a warning and an olive branch to his detractors across the country and acted to divert some negative attention away from him as he resumes power to grapple with famine, medicine shortages, and a 14,000% inflation rate in the most resource-rich country in the region.

Like his predecessor Hugo Chavez, Maduro consolidates power through the abuse and control of Venezuela’s institutions to undermine its democracy and maintain control despite his massive unpopularity. When Venezuela’s lawmaking body elected an overwhelming majority of PSUV’s political opposition to office in 2015, Maduro issued a presidential decree to supplant the parliament’s legislative function and vested it in a Chavista “Constituent National Assembly”, which assumed the function of creating a new constitution and severely diluted the influence of opposition figures, who largely boycotted the vote to establish the institution.

To combat military defections and insubordination, Maduro continued the trend of elevating officers to esteemed generals and providing military personnel with relative luxury or relief from economic sanctions imposed by the international community. By creating a large caste of armed supporters Maduro invests the military into upholding the status quo, so long as they do not suffer the consequences.

Another crucial aspect to strengthening Maduro’s dictatorship is the quashing of the press in Venezuela. Since the start of 2018, at least 6 newspapers have been shuttered throughout the country, owing to “resource shortages”, courtesy of the centralized media apparatus. This represents a significant uptick in the decline of the press; since Maduro came to power in 2013, over 40 news outlets (radio, TV, and periodicals) have been shut down or appropriated by the government. Many of these outlets, which were less than charitable to Maduro and PSUV, elicited subsequent attacks against journalists and news agencies by government forces. The continued suppression of the media tends toward the complete institutional domination of Venezuela by Maduro and his Chavista faction.

Maduro also continues to capitalize on the opposition’s lack of unity and leadership to ensure no serious contenders can challenge PSUV rule in the country. The most established opposition party, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), had only lukewarm confidence in its presidential candidate Henri Falcon to unite the fragmented opposition, who has seen many of its leaders jailed or exiled from the country by state security. And with the selective distribution of food and medical supplies to strategic areas in Venezuela, Maduro staves off any tendency for the public to court the political opposition in key areas and instead support the regime.

A salient theme that is instrumental to Maduro’s hold on power is the accusatorial condemnation of the United States for Venezeula’s protracted economic and political malaise. This is another tactic inspired by Cuba’s Cold War fidelismo that was quickly taken up by Chavez and then Maduro to scapegoat the mismanagement of economic institutions like the state-owned oil company PDVSA. With Washington taking on the mantle of the perpetual boogeyman, any crisis in Venezuela must—according to the chavistas—be a CIA plot to undermine the country. In spite of overwhelming evidence pointing to corruption and state mismanagement as the culprits, the persistence of this myth has become inextricably linked to the ethos of many of Maduro’s supporters.

Contrarily, Maduro and his regime engage in illicit activities to such an extent that Panama’s finance ministry issued an advisory notice of their “high risk” for money laundering. The U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Terrorism for 2016 noted Venezuela as a “permissive environment that allowed for support of activities that benefited known terrorist groups.” Through the facilitation of or participation in drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and money laundering, the Maduro regime’s illicit activities are a response to maintain solvency against the tide of economic sanctions that has continued for years on end.

Looking forward, it is evident that Maduro will use the same methods to further solidify his control over the country before relinquishing any power that might actually benefit Venezuela. In order to prevent an exacerbation of the situation, policymakers from the international community must take meaningful and decisive action against the regime and intervene before it is too late. By increasing international sanctions targeting not only the upper echelons of the Venezuelan government, but also facilitators abroad (such as Russia, China, and Cuba), Maduro’s regime can be further persuaded to return to a legitimate democracy. The use of multilateral international organizations such as the OAS and ICC will also apply pressure to Maduro. Finally, the international community must be prepared to deal with a potential refugee crisis as government control of remaining resources will see conditions worsen before they improve.