Dissecting Recent Events in Venezuela – Is the end of Chavismo near?

By Juan Andrés Misle

June 27, 2017 marked the second time in 15 years that Venezuelan security forces publicly launched an attempt at overthrowing the Bolivarian Revolution initiated by deceased president Hugo Chávez amidst a rapid escalation of violent protests that have left at least 90 dead and political elites polarized.

A careful examination of the aforementioned marks a clear departure from what had been until 2015, nearly two decades of unrivaled institutional monopoly of the state by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV.)

The Chávez era brought a resurgence of long-demobilized urban and rural sectors into an outdated political system that for the later decades of the twentieth century failed to meet the expectations of a populace used to being told they were living in a rich country with a poor society. In parallel, it also brought intensely polarized politics as majoritarian electoral cycles legitimized state consolidation under the PSUV and its adherents.

Venezuelan society was seemingly fractured along social, economic, and political lines coexisting within the confines of an outsized petro-state.

Mr. Chávez skillfully mastered polarization to his advantage by enlarging the state apparatus. His successor, left with squandered resources, could not contain the rapid reversal of the gains brought during the latest oil windfall. Polarization now sought a new meaning. The numbers on poll after poll help decipher this.

Nicolas Maduro is widely unpopular in Venezuela. Approximately 80% of his fellow countrymen and women want their president to step down and change course. A combination of deteriorating public services, ubiquitous shortages of primary goods and medicines, the world’s highest inflation, and an inability to combat corruption, impunity, and violence are at the root of the discontent. This signals that polarization now exclusively reigns with the heads at the top of the two main political factions in the country: the PSUV and the traditional parties under the umbrella of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition.

In contrast, Venezuelan civil society, by and large, finds itself no longer divided under two opposing poles. A critical break in civilian-state relations has reshuffled the country’s political conjuncture. Adding to a wide rejection of the country’s current course no longer stops with the traditional opposition, and now includes independents, formerly demoralized opposition supporters, and more recently, popular sectors, dissident factions of Chavismo and left-wing allies.

Chavismo is now reduced to a core group of people that encompass the government’s reactionary wing and the military elite that surround it.

Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz, a committed Chávez ally who for a decade consistently ruled in favor of the Chávez and Maduro governments, declared on March 31 that Venezuela’s constitutional order had been ruptured on the heels of a later partially reversed Supreme Court decision to strip the National Assembly of its powers. She has since stepped up her criticism of the Maduro government by announcing charges against the former head of the National Guard for systematic human rights abuses and has publicly come against the president’s vastly unpopular initiative to rewrite the Constitution. The government accuses her of betraying the Bolivarian project and responded by freezing her assets and preventing her from leaving the country.

Losing Control

The standstill nearly imploded on June 27 when a series of events on that day synthesized the widespread anger and frustration, culminating in scenes of a helicopter belonging to the government’s intelligence and investigative body (CICPC) launching grenades at the Supreme Court’s headquarters in Caracas. According to Minister of Information, Ernesto Villegas, the helicopter fired fifteen shots at the Interior Ministry before flying over to the Supreme Court building. There have been no reported injuries or deaths resulting from either incident.

The event however paralyzed the troubled Caribbean nation. Maduro denounced the stunt as a “terrorist attack” while the MUD coalition has largely remained silent and dumbstruck. After the attack, much speculation about the intentions and nature of the rebellion has surfaced on social media and around the country. Three theories seem to nevertheless prevail:

  1. The Government’s Response

Unsurprisingly, Maduro quickly accused the insurgents of working closely with the CIA and linked dissident Chavista Miguel Rodriguez Torres to the attack by accusing him of being a DEA informant.

Rodriguez Torres previously served as Chávez’ top spy chief and later gained notoriety as Maduro’s Interior Minister who lead the crackdown on the 2014 anti-government protests.

Like Attorney General Ortega and others, he is the latest government ally to come out strongly against Maduro’s push to put forward a sectarian constituent assembly that could potentially undermine future free and universal elections. He denies the accusations and has threatened to release compromising information on the government.

  1. The Auto-Coup

The bizarre circumstances that preceded and followed the attack on the nation’s institutions over the course of one day only nurtured claims by opponents of the regime that the attack was self-imposed and suspiciously left inconclusive.

Earlier in the day’s events, at a rally surrounded by supporters, Maduro issued an explicit warning:

“If Venezuela was plunged into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian Revolution destroyed, we would go to combat. We would never give up, and what we failed to achieve with votes, we would do with weapons. We would liberate the fatherland with weapons.”

Hours later, a Supreme Court ruling abolished the Public Ministry’s jurisdiction – under the tutelage of Attorney General Ortega – over accusing and investigating officials. The power has since been transferred to the more government-friendly ombudsman’s office.

Meanwhile, the National Guard surrounded the opposition-controlled National Assembly, preventing legislators from exiting the building. As a scuffle between the military and elected representatives ensued, National Guard soldiers were spotted bringing CNE (National Electoral Council) – labeled suitcases into the Legislative Palace. As of this writing, no explanations have been given to what exactly was inside those suitcases, nor any justification for pursuing such move. A week later, an armed pro-government mob stormed the Assembly, injuring at least fifteen people, including opposition deputies. Footage shows the National Guard, in charge of protecting the government entity, complicit in allowing the mob to enter the building and unhurried in dispersing the violence.

Adding to the day’s confusion is the helicopter attack itself. The renegades easily carried the raid without any government resistance and were able to fly off to a nearby coast undetected by the surrounding military bases. Skeptics assert that if the government would have wanted to shoot down the helicopter it easily could have. The perpetrators are yet to be found.

Advocates of the “auto-coup” theory also maintain that the lack of victims and significant damage to neither the Judiciary’s top branch nor the Interior Ministry point to a carefully-orchestrated operation designed to dissuade attention from the government’s earlier power grabs.

Other proponents of this theory cast a more cynical posture. Retired general and leading figure within the dissident Socialist Tide (Marea Socialista) movement, Cliver Alcalá, is one of these proponents. As the New York Times reports on the former general who assisted Chávez in his 1992 coup attempt, Alcalá suspects “that Mr. Maduro might have been complicit in the attack, seeking to use it as proof that his opponents had resorted to terrorism.”

For now, this amounts to nothing more than speculation and conspiratorial thinking. It could, after all, exemplify yet another pattern of sheer government incompetence at the dawn of every crisis. It could also be an indication of growing fissures within the armed forces: the foundation of Bolivarianism and the one government body Maduro claims to have control over.

  1. The Lone Wolf

Perhaps the least controversial of all hypotheses remains the ‘lone-wolf’ theory. Coup attempts motivated by delusions of grandeur are not new to Venezuela. This was the case in both the failed 1992 coup led by then-commander Chávez and his later 2002 overthrow that shortly removed him from power. Other examples go even further down the country’s history.

The little we know about the chief instigator is perhaps the most baffling. His name is Oscar Pérez, a member of the forensic police force gone-rogue. A curious trait surrounding Mr. Pérez is his role in a 2015 Venezuelan action movie, Suspended Death, where he plays an elite security officer organizing a kidnapped victim’s rescue operation. He is also credited as one of the film’s producers.

The 36-year old social media personality has since released numerous videos taking responsibility for the attack and calling on citizens to engage in civil disobedience. “We are a coalition of military, police and civilian officials, in search of balance and against this transitory and criminal government” says Pérez in a video released the day of the helicopter attack.

While Pérez claims not to have any political affiliation, the spectre of internal strife between factions of Bolivarianism are unquestionably a grave cause of concern for the Maduro administration. Former Uruguayan president José Mujica, an ex Marxist guerrilla, warned as early as 2015 of the possibility of a left-wing insurgency against his Venezuelan counterpart:

“The problem that Venezuela may encounter is that we could witness a coup d’etat led by left-wing military soldiers, and with that, the defense of democracy will go to hell.”

Breaking the Stalemate

Beginning in 2014, Chavismo under Maduro began projecting cracks within its small but influentialcriticalsectors. It was not until the collapse in oil prices – the engine behind 95% of the country’s export earnings – later in the year year that major figures within the Maduro government admittedly voiced concerns over ‘mistakes’ made on economic policy. What those ‘mistakes’ are or continue to be, remain however ambiguous depending on which wing of Chavismo is consulted, resulting in an inability and unwillingness to put forward a coherent solution out of the crisis.

Maduro’s priority continues to be honoring Venezuela’s debt commitments to Wall Street in order to avoid default. His government has even gone as far as recently selling $2.8 Billion of the state-oil company’s bonds to Goldman Sachs at 31 cents on the dollar. An objectively bad deal by any measure.

As default looms over the abrupt end to PSUV’s ability to fulfill its extensive clientelist duties, Maduro’s inner circle is increasingly isolated at home and abroad.

Beginning last year, the indigenous Amazonas state was denied  Congressional representation by Maduro allies in order to stop its opponents from achieving a two-thirds majority at the National Assembly, only to later cancel a widely popular recall referendum against the president on dubious grounds. By the end of the year, the government breached its legal mandate by postponing regional elections by a full year. A proposed Constituent Assembly scheduled for July 30 that could do away with the 1999 Constitution’s accountability mechanisms appears to be Chavismo’s last gamble.

Given these setbacks, one can conclude that if Maduro’s primary economic objective revolves around securing cash-inflows at any cost, conversely, its political goal now solely relies on consolidating its power at all costs.

Once loathed by the opposition, Attorney General Ortega has emerged as a key figure within the government capable of breaking the institutional stalemate and serving as an escape valve for a mediated transition. The MUD party-coalition is reportedly in talks with sectors of Chavismo opposed to rewriting the Constitution and has placed its bets on institutional collaboration with Ortega in order to avoid the systematic collapse of the rule of law within Venezuela.

With news of hardline opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez’ release from military prison to house arrest, one thing remains clear: Chavismo’s negotiated exit out of power could very well be under way.