November 17, 2021 4:14 PM
“I don’t see how Nicolás Maduro can stay in government for very long,” former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said in 2013. “The end is near for Maduro,” political analyst Ian Bremmer ruled in 2017. “Maduro’s days are numbered”, was the verdict of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019.
The president of Venezuela had the satisfaction of denying them all. He looks extremely calm on television broadcasts these days. In October, he took viewers inside the presidential palace to display the gaudy Christmas decorations. “What a beauty!” He exclaimed, pointing to a plastic reindeer.
This good humor, however, is quite rare outside the palace. Maduro faced one of the worst recessions in the country’s history. During his rule, Venezuela’s economy shrank by 75 percent. Six million people have left the country, more than a fifth of the population. If there were regular presidential elections, his victory would be almost unthinkable. In opinion polls, its popularity does not exceed 15 percent. Over the past five years, his government has shifted from a vaguely authoritarian position to one that is blatantly so. When Venezuelans vote in local elections, scheduled for November 21, the opposition (who will participate this time) is unlikely to go a long way. Here are the steps taken by Maduro on the path of authoritarianism.
First of all, it continued and intensified the process of subversion of institutions that began with Hugo Chávez, president from 1999 to 2013.
After Maduro’s United Socialist Party lost control of parliament in 2015, in what many observers consider the last fair elections, several measures were introduced to prevent the opposition from achieving further results. The supreme court was filled with judges loyal to the government.
In 2017 the elected parliament was dissolved and replaced with a docile constituent assembly. Subsequently the parliament was reconstituted after an irregular election which gave the majority to the socialists. The electoral authority that should have supervised all these changes is biased.
Meanwhile, the government has strengthened its hold on the media. Private channels are run by sympathizers or by people who have resigned themselves to following orders. The government has closed almost all the newsrooms. Opposition parties should be given equal access to the media ahead of the elections, but in practice they are almost entirely excluded.
An analysis of recent state TV coverage found that the opposition was never summoned in three of the nine days under consideration. On the other days it was defined, briefly and with contempt, with adjectives such as “radical” and “extremist”. Various websites critical of Maduro are blocked.
Perhaps Maduro’s most surprising move was his authorization to use the US dollar
Having inherited the post from an army man who over the years was both the promoter (1992) and the victim (2002) of a coup, Maduro would like to avoid a similar fate. When he was president, Chávez had created an army that was loyal to him, not Venezuela. Today Maduro is helped by Cuban spies to get rid of potentially problematic officers. “Trust me, he knows how to be ruthless when necessary,” confirms a former government official.
According to the allegations, dozens of officers were tortured. Last month, General Raúl Baduel died in a detention center run by the security services. A former defense minister who had helped restore Chávez to power after the 2002 coup, Baduel had collided with his boss in 2007. He remained in jail on unsubstantiated corruption charges, despite requests for pardon made by the his family. Baduel’s daughter claims he was murdered (government claims death was caused by covid-19).
Under Maduro, the military took control of gold and diamond mining. The Venezuelan oil industry is no longer as profitable as it used to be, due to sanctions and mismanagement. But the government has other methods of rewarding loyalty. For example, give his men building permits to build inside national parks. Some officers and officials are suspected of owning the luxury villas that were built in theoretically off-limits areas, including the Los Roques archipelago and the protected mountains overlooking Caracas.
Some believed that destroying the Maduro economy would provoke a revolt, but it did not. The most disappointed and enterprising Venezuelans have emigrated and are now sending remittances to help relatives survive. Those who remained became increasingly dependent on the state. If they rebel, they could go hungry. In 2016 Maduro introduced a bimonthly system for food delivery. To be eligible, citizens must show an identity card that the men of the party usually examine on election days. The message is clear: fidelity feeds.
Distrust of democracy
Perhaps Maduro’s most surprising move was his authorization to use the US dollar. After denouncing the currency as an imperialist tool in the past, today it “thanks God” for its existence. The turning point came in 2019, during a six-day power outage that made electronic payments impossible. Traders were forced to accept the dollars, technically violating the law. Since then, the government has abandoned price controls and the fixed rate, opening the doors to dollars. As of June, around 70 percent of transactions were made in US currency. An approach that has reduced annual inflation from 2,000,000 percent in 2019 to less than 2,000 percent. By Maduro’s standards it’s a hit.
The use of dollars helped simplify the sending of remittances and made life more tolerable for the middle class. Casinos across the country are reopening. In the relatively affluent bubble of eastern Caracas, hard currency businesses sell luxury goods, from signature ski clothing to organic maple syrup.
Unlike Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, Venezuela is still formally a democracy. At the start of the 24-day election campaign ahead of the November elections, Maduro called on the population to vote, a gesture that he believes is “the best demonstration of love for Venezuelan democracy”.
But the government has also shown that, faced with the risk of losing the elections, it is willing to cheat, to ignore the results or both. This tactic not only allowed him to survive, but also seems to have convinced many Venezuelans that democracy does not work. In a poll conducted in October by Caracas’ Andrés Bello Catholic University, only half of respondents indicated democracy as a preferable system of government, an 18 percent drop compared to when Maduro came to power.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)
This article appeared in the British weekly The Economist.
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