Nicolás Maduro never looks too sure of what he’s saying. For a man who’s been accused of enforcing authoritarian rule over Venezuela, there’s no resolve in his speeches. It’s odd. Just before he starts a statement you notice a small pause and a mumble, a hesitation, as if he was debating with the voices in his head. It doesn’t matter whether he’s speaking from a colonial press conference room in the Government Palace of Miraflores or, as he did last weekend during a nationwide military exercise, surrounded by men in uniform, holding their rifles high above their heads, chanting oaths of loyalty to the revolution.
How could Maduro not second guess his speeches, when every second that passes chavismo misses an opportunity to fix the economic mess that has brought Venezuela to a deadly standstill? Bears the question: why wouldn’t he just go ahead and fix the mess?
Hugo Chávez has been dead for more than three years, and the results of his irresponsible fiscal policies and criminally despotic rule have finally come to light in the form of pain and misery.
Images of Hospitals that look like catacombs, and prisons that have become maximum security business centers for criminals where no law applies, have become a reference when speaking about the country. But the wound goes much deeper than that.
We’re not just talking about shortages of basic staples such as toilet paper and soap, or daily electricity cuts, the five-day weekends for public employees, or about any of those stories that have turned Venezuela into a punchline with a seat at the United Nations Human Rights Council. No. The economic collapse at the hands of chavista economic policies has brought something deadlier, and so much simpler: hunger.
Children who eat once or twice a day, who don’t go to school because they don’t have the energy. Families of four sharing a portion for one person. These stories have become as common as social media posts from people hunting for medicine to tend the ailments of their loved ones. This is the new kind of misery porn that has been drawing attention to Venezuela. A country that squandered close to a Trillion Dollars of oil revenue under chavista rule. Try to wrap your head around that sum for a sec. And now try to refocus on the country that today drowns in a humanitarian crisis. It’s as if the rate of the fall is proportional to the income received and wasted.
And yet, the Maduro administration remains paralyzed. If Chávez was guilty for the decisions that steered Venezuela onto this collision course, then Maduro’s sin is inaction, watching as the country crashes into the iceberg without lifting a finger, except forcefully preventing anyone else taking the helm.
Only the president seems to lack a sense of urgency. This is why, after a landslide victory against chavismo in the December parliamentary elections, the opposition is backing a referendum to recall the President. The Government, backed by a hand-picked Supreme Tribunal and the Armed Forces, has gone to great lengths to block and delay the referendum process and to nullify parliament. Maduro has gone as far as declaring a State of Emergency over the whole of the country, saying the recall is part of a plot between the Venezuelan parliament and foreign empires to oust President Maduro.
Again, you want to ask: Why? Why doesn’t the Government make the basic changes that the country’s economy is desperate for right now? Why doesn’t it look for a solution instead of wasting precious time making up enemies and raping windmills?
Well, the answer to the question is: because they can’t. And the reason is part incompetence, part thuggery, and a big part, the dead man himself, Chávez.
Replacing a strong man is never easy. Whatever Hugo Chávez left after he died, it’s as if he intended for no one else to be able to run it. Imagine a feudal state, composed of several shogunates with their corrupt interests intertwined. Or look at it this way. It’s like a Mexican standoff, no one can move without exposing their vulnerabilities and being taken down by other chavista leaders.
And at the center of this disaster we have the military caste. After Chávez took power in 1998, many officers close to him left the ranks to take positions within the Government. He encouraged the Armed Forces to become politically active and militant in his defense, and with this he opened the doors to imposing military hierarchy over different parts of the civilian government.
The brass has paraded through the public administration, often leaving with inexplainable fortunes. Others, who remain in their posts, have been accused of involvement with organized crime and drug trafficking. And then, there’s a large portion of active military folk usually referred to as the “institutional Armed Forces.” It’s in the hands of this last group that the hopes of many Venezuelans rely.
Some believe that this institutional wing of the military have the last say on whether the recall referendum is fast tracked or if it will be delayed until next year. Keep in mind that if it’s held in 2016, the Constitution mandates for a Presidential Election, if it’s delayed, the Chavista VP would remain as President until the end of Maduro’s term (in 2019).
Let’s be clear, Venezuela needs much more than just a change of president. It needs a complete overhaul of its political institutions. But this sort of mythological mantle in which the military are wrapped is nothing new to Venezuelans. For many years, much more than those of chavista regime, people have turned to them when the going gets tough. Considering that they’re the ones to blame for a big part of this disaster, believing that they will provide the country with a solution smacks of Stockholm Syndrome.
The crisis feels like it’s reached a point of no return, and it will get worse real fast. Just a couple of days ago, the Minister of Finance said that the country should be confident that inflation this year will not go over 900%. That’s a heart stopping figure there, for a government that does what it can to hide official economic numbers.
While inflation eats away at the country, and looting becomes an almost daily event, Nicolás Maduro tries to cozy up to the Armed Forces. The saddest expression of this was the sight of his large, clumsy figure, huddled together with tiny soldiers at the end of this year’s military exercises called to practice against the looming American invasion. Maduro mumbled a half chewed oath of loyalty to the revolution and its Supreme Commander.
The minister of defense, Vladimir Padrino López, remained by his side, repeating the chants vowing the union of the armed forces with civilians to defend the fatherland. The military exercises included pro-government civilian militias empowered to enforce some provisions of the state of exception decree. “Unión cívico-militar,” they call it.
With the military’s top brass still at his side, Maduro then gave an address on national television where he assured that the military were loyal to his government despite the attempts by the Empire to pull them apart. He was trying to dissipate strong rumors that the Armed Forces were pressuring him to negotiate with the opposition to move forward and find a resolution to the crisis.
What Maduro, and most prominent chavista politicians don’t seem to understand, while they hold their war games and as they produce half smirks as they say Venezuela is under attack by an opposition led international conspiracy, is that no matter how domesticated Venezuelans might be, there has been no time in recent history where they have been under this kind of strain.
Every single scenario for a peaceful resolution to the crisis transits through chavismo giving up power. And giving up power means exposing themselves. It means accountability.
Time is running out, and it seems that the government is not bothered by this.
The opposition is working against the clock, racing to meet recall deadlines before it’s too late. They’re trying to find a democratic resolution to the problem not just out of conviction, but because they realize the alternative is an existential threat to them.
A civil upheaval is a real possibility. And when the shooting starts, the people with the guns win.