Venezuela’s political crisis appears to be coming to a climax. Our last briefing about the status of Venezuela focused on the legal recourses available to the opposition to depose President Nicolás Maduro. In the last week, the political and institutional situation in Venezuela has quickly deteriorated. During this time, there were large-scale marches against the government, rumors of military intervention, rumors of a planned popular uprising – similar to what we saw in Kiev – and a state of emergency was declared. The opposition and general populace appear to be on the cusp of desperation, which in turn makes widespread social unrest and violence almost certain.
Since taking control of the National Assembly at the start of the year, the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) has pursued legal means of deposing Maduro. Given that the opposition only occupies one of five branches of government, its efforts have been thwarted by the other branches. The opposition’s last legal recourse – holding a referendum – no longer appears to be a viable option. President of the National Assembly Henry Ramos Allup (a member of MUD) acknowledged on May 16 that four figures in the regime – Congressman Diosdado Cabello, Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodríguez, Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz and President of the National Electoral Council (CNE) Tibisay Lucena – do not see the revocation referendum moving forward. Without the support of the CNE and Lucena, it would be extremely difficult to go ahead with a referendum. Istúriz said that the process started too late to be completed this year, has technical errors and contains fraud. Allup pointed out that the only players missing from this list of opponents to the referendum were the Supreme Court and armed forces.
Nevertheless, opposition leader Henrique Capriles held nationwide marches calling for a referendum today. These will be the third round of marches since May 11. The opposition has called on the armed forces to ensure the public’s safety during this event. On the eve of today’s marches, Capriles told the armed forces that the time is coming when they will need to make a choice between defending the constitution (i.e., siding with opposition) or Maduro. Last week, the government said the opposition is actively pursuing a campaign aimed to demoralize and divide the higher ranks of the military and use that fissure in the military to carry out a coup by removing government officials. Capriles also challenged Maduro to apply the declared state of emergency in the country by putting tanks on the streets.
Maduro asserted yesterday that it’s only a matter of time before the National Assembly disappears, saying that the body has lost its political force. This was said after the National Assembly refused to approve his most recent emergency decree. When this happened in January, the Supreme Court overruled the assembly and the measures were implemented. Maduro added that the country is not obliged to hold a referendum. He also said the opposition doesn’t want a referendum but a coup, and that the opposition plans to use today’s marches and any future marches as opportunities to create insurrection and violence. Additionally, he reported that a U.S. spy plane violated Venezuelan airspace on the mornings of May 11 and May 13. The plane was a Boeing 707 E-3 Sentry designed to support and enhance communications for armed groups on the ground.
Scarcity of food products and medicine has been commonplace in Venezuela since about 2012. However, shortages have intensified in recent months and the situation appears close to the breaking point. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict said that in January and February there were 64 documented cases of looting or attempted looting for food supplies. Venezuelan news website Runrun.es reports that during the first four months of this year, there have been a total of 127 documented lootings or attempted lootings for food supplies. Incidents of looting for food are only expected to rise in coming months as supplies dwindle.
Food scarcity arises from multiple factors: the shortage of production/imports; the affordability of food; and the accessibility and distribution of food. Consulting group Ecoanalítica reports food scarcity now registers at 35 percent (up from 25 percent 12 months ago). More and more Venezuelans are facing financial constraints to buy food. The purchasing power of salaries has declined by 40 percent so far this year and the price of the basic goods basket has risen by 29 percent. Few can afford to buy food supplies in the informal market, where the price of food items can be 1,900 percent greater than regulated markets.
Lastly, food distribution to supermarkets is a big challenge. An estimated 37 percent to 40 percent of food items (imported or produced domestically) never make it to supermarkets. One major reason for this is the presence of bachaqueros – groups that use violence to gain control over food distribution and sales. Members of these groups will reserve places in lines at stores where goods can be purchased at controlled prices. They will then threaten or carry out physical violence to prevent other people from getting spots at the front of the line. Alternatively, they will force those who were allowed in the front of the line to give them some of their purchases as compensation. Once the food is acquired by bachaqueros, they will resell it at higher prices to locals on the black market.
The Pharmaceutical College of Anzoátegui reported that it is experiencing scarcity of medicine at levels of 80 percent to 100 percent. As a result of scarcity in the official market, Venezuelans have resorted to donations and bartering for medicine. Social media outlets like Twitter and Instagram are common forums for this type of activity. While this helps locate what few supplies exist, it does not address the fundamental problem of a supply shortage. The main issue is the lack of U.S. dollars to purchase medicine or input materials to produce medicine domestically. The fall in oil prices has drastically reduced the government’s access to U.S. dollars for imports, which have fallen significantly.
The Venezuelan military is not completely united. One group in the military is allied with Congressman Diosdado Cabello, former President Hugo Chávez’s right-hand man. He is reportedly heavily engaged in black market activity and is largely responsible for ties to the Cuban government and security services. The pro-Maduro camp falls under control of current Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino López. Then, there are the purer Chavistas who want to see power taken away from Maduro and favor someone like former interior minister and retired Gen. Miguel Rodríguez Torres. There are also those in the military who, according to Allup, are discontent with the latest state of emergency and consider it a juridical manipulation to avoid assuming responsibility.
There is still a question about how the military, especially more junior officers, would behave in the event of large-scale crackdowns on protesters. Capriles has publicly reached out on multiple occasion to the military for its support, specifically focusing on junior officers. Junior officers have less money than senior military officers, meaning junior officers’ families experience food and medicine shortages. The difference in pay is due in part to pay grade rank and in part to organized crime. Those higher up in the ranks can often profit from activities like drug trafficking. If the Maduro government falls to the opposition, these higher ranking personnel would likely stand to lose all their fortune and potentially face criminal charges or U.S. extradition. Any dissension in the ranks would likely come from a segment in the military, rather than the military as a whole.
Another possibility is that some senior military officers could pressure Maduro to first select a vice president acceptable to the military and other foreign partners that have supported Venezuela since Chávez assumed power. Current contenders for this role are are Istúriz and Rodríguez Torres.
Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis is turning into a constitutional crisis. Both the government and opposition are invoking different laws and legal procedures based on their own interpretations and political goals. Heightened desperation and violence appear imminent. The National Assembly faces contempt from the other four branches of government and has no more legal recourse available for ousting Maduro. The general populace faces growing obstacles for acquiring basic food supplies. The only means for the opposition and general populace to pressure the government is through demonstrations and street actions. Meanwhile, the behavior and unity of the military is unpredictable. While there have been repeated calls for mediation efforts – particularly with the Vatican – none have been established thus far.