Under Pressure, Venezuela’s Maduro Lashes Out at Critics

Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro speaks during a meeting with supporters at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, on February 19. Venezuelan security officials on February 19 arrested Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, an opposition leader and fierce critic of Maduro. (REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

The arrest of the Mayor of Caracas is an attempt by President Nicolás Maduro’s crumbling government, which is under immense political and economic pressure to demonstrate authority, to consolidate the hardline base of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), according to Atlantic Council analysts.

Venezuela, which has suffered political turmoil since protests broke out in February of 2014, has been thrust into a new political crisis following the February 19 arrest of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma. Supporters of Ledezma, a prominent critic of Maduro, took to the street to protest his arrest.

“The Chávez-Maduro government has always followed the same MO: when they are under severe stress they go on the attack,” said Peter Schechter, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

Ledezma’s arrest is “symptomatic of a feeling inside the PSUV that things are going very badly for them. They need to shore up their most radical and loyal base, which has historically responded extremely well to conspiracy messages that link foreign powers with domestic opposition groups accused of creating havoc to damage the image of the chavista government,” he added.

Sure enough, Maduro accused Ledezma of supporting what he claimed was a US plot to overthrow his government.

Maduro said Ledezma, who was arrested without warning at his office on February 19, would be prosecuted “so that he answers for all of the crimes committed against the peace, security, and constitution of our country.”

State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said the Venezuelan government’s allegations of a US coup plot were “baseless and false.”

“The United States is not promoting unrest in Venezuela nor are we attempting to undermine Venezuela’s economy or its government,” Psaki said, noting that the US is Venezuela’s largest trading partner.

Venezuela is facing a crippling economic crisis that has only worsened as a result of a dramatic drop in the price of oil — its primary export.

“Things in Venezuela are going from bad to worse quickly,” said Jason Marczak, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

“Maduro needs to try to change the conversation… He should rightfully be very worried about elements within chavismo looking at how to replace him. What’s important  for Chávez loyalists is not that Maduro is the President. What’s important is that the PSUV stays in power. It has increasingly become clear that [the late Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez picked the wrong person to lead after him,” he added.

Maduro was caught off guard by President Barack Obama’s strategic rapprochement with Cuba, a close ally of Venezuela. Obama in December announced his decision to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, starting with opening an embassy in Havana, and called on Congress to end a five-decade-old trade embargo on the island.

“The rapprochement probably injected even more fear into Maduro insofar as his position in Venezuela. Regionally it has perhaps led him to taking even harsher actions to shore up his power because he can no longer blindly count on the Cubans to really be there for him when he needs them,” said Marczak.

Schechter and Marczak spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Excerpts below:

Q: Is the arrest of the Mayor of Caracas part of a wider crackdown by the Maduro government on its critics?

Schechter: The Chávez-Maduro government has always followed the same MO: when they are under severe stress they go on the attack. In my view, this arrest is symptomatic of a feeling inside the PSUV that things are going very badly for them. They need to shore up their most radical and loyal base, which has historically responded extremely well to conspiracy messages that link foreign powers with domestic opposition groups accused of creating havoc to damage the image of the chavista government.

Ledezma is not the first and certainly not the last opposition leader to be targeted — Leopoldo López has been in jail for over a year, María Corina Machado is constantly under threat. It is important to note that Maduro chose a well-known opposition figure, but the Venezuelan opposition is fractured and lacks a single, uncontested leader. Henrique Capriles ran for president twice. He is certainly the best-known opposition leader and the Governor of the state of Miranda.  Ledezma leads one faction in a divided opposition.

Q: Is there a strategy behind not picking on the best-known leader of the opposition?

Schechter: I’m sure the Maduro government was concerned that Capriles’ arrest would be such a radical step that it would bring tens of thousands into the streets, much like what happened when Leopoldo Lopez was arrested.

Q: What do you see happening in Venezuela?

Marczak: During the Chávez years there were over 60 “discoveries” of supposed coups against him. In Maduro’s 16 months in office there have been over a dozen supposed coups. Things in Venezuela are going from bad to worse quickly. Maduro needs to try to change the conversation. In last week’s economic announcements, the Bolivar lost almost 70 percent of its value. The price of urban and inter-urban transportation, which is used by the base of the government, shot up as well. Police are guarding grocery stores. Business owners are being arrested because they do not have enough food on their shelves. The inflation rate is probably going to hit stagflation levels this year. Maduro needs to shore up his base. He should rightfully be very worried about elements within chavismo looking at how to replace him.

What’s important for Chávez loyalists is not that Maduro is the President. What’s important is that the PSUV stays in power. It has increasingly become clear that Chávez picked the wrong person to lead after him. The Cubans wanted Maduro as President and Chávez acceded. Maduro is a pawn who has no notion of how to manage a crisis.

We have seen a variety of hemispheric notables come out against Ledezma’s arrest. Bill Clinton, former Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, and two of the three Argentine presidential candidates have come out denouncing Ledezma’s arrest. But more leaders need to come out.

We are now six weeks away from the Summit of the Americas. Normally this Summit is an opportunity for heads of state to criticize the US’ Cuba policy. With President Barack Obama’s new policy we have, thankfully, taken much of that off the table. So I am hopeful that the Summit will be an opportunity to work with partners in the hemisphere to put pressure on the Venezuelan government.

Schechter: While there should be a roaring protest [over Ledezma’s arrest] from the rest of the hemisphere, I wouldn’t hold my breath. It is very nice that the former President of Chile has something to say, but wouldn’t it be nicer if the present Presidents of Chile, Brazil, and Mexico have something to say about this as well? My fear is we are going to get a deafening roar of silence.

Q: Why is that?

Schechter: The general sense is that there is a reticence among Latin American leaders to criticize the internal politics of another nation. There is also a sense among Leftist, anti-American leaders that criticism of Venezuela is a zero-sum game that equals benefits to the Americans.

Marczak: Venezuela’s influence in the hemisphere is waning. I think there is an opportunity [for the US] to use the next few weeks leading up to the Summit of the Americas to have some behind-the-scenes discussions with some key partners in the hemisphere to have what’s happening in Venezuela be part of the discussions at the Summit.

Q: Venezuela and Cuba share a close relationship. What effect is the US rapprochement with Cuba having on Venezuela and the Venezuela-Cuba relationship?

Schechter: It is very clear that Cuba did not consult its closest ally in the hemisphere about the détente with the United States. Even somebody as virulently anti-American as Maduro had to shower praise on President Obama’s opening with Cuba.

In general, Maduro is representative of a lot of Latin American leftist leaders who have been frozen in the headlights about what exactly to do about Cuba’s rapprochement. After all Cuba was the bastion of resistance to the United States. Now here they are having not one, but two meetings with the United States in just one month; opening an embassy; and probably getting removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list. It puts Maduro in a very difficult situation.

It will be interesting to see if Cuba and the United States do indeed open an embassy in Washington and Havana. That would be the final nail in the coffin of a 50-year-old policy of regime change. The policy was regime change, the tactic to get that was the embargo. But we are recognizing the President of Cuba, we will probably send an Ambassador to give his accreditation to President Raúl Castro, and all the while Venezuela’s relations with the United States and with the rest of the hemisphere are going to get worse.

Venezuela and Chávez and Chávez’s oil money created an anti-American alliance in Latin America of certain countries that got a voice and were listened to. Now people are looking at what is happening in Venezuela and few want to emulate the government of Nicolás Maduro.

Marczak: The Cubans are heavily involved throughout the Venezuelan bureaucracy. The Cubans are the ones who decided with Chávez that Maduro should be the next President. The US-Cuba rapprochement caught Maduro off guard not just because of the support of the Cubans, but because Cuban doctors are leading health clinics, they are entrenched in all aspects of the bureaucracy. The fact that Maduro had no idea that this was coming shows that his supposed closeness with the Cubans is really not as close as he thought.

The rapprochement probably injected even more fear into Maduro insofar as his position in Venezuela. Regionally it has perhaps led him to taking even harsher actions to shore up his power because he can no longer blindly count on the Cubans to really be there for him when he needs them.

Opening an embassy shows recognition of Raúl Castro as a President, but I don’t think it means the end of a policy of trying for regime change. We are now trying a different tactic. We are now trying to work through empowerment of the Cuban private sector and building it as a social and economic force in Cuba that can run counter to the government. Our goal is to empower the private sector. By empowering another force within Cuba you are taking away some of the total control that the government has, thereby opening up channels for potential regime change in the future.

Q: Is the hope in Washington that the rapprochement with Cuba will embolden the opposition in Venezuela?

Marczak: Venezuela’s internal situation for the opposition is very different from that of the Cuban opposition. The opposition in Venezuela, despite the arrest of Ledezma, despite the arrest of business owners, despite the clampdown on freedom of the press, still has much more liberty to speak than the opposition in Cuba. There is no comparison.

Schechter: If we wake up one day and see that Nicolás Maduro has been removed from the presidency, I would not move too quickly to uncork champagne in celebration. What could come after Maduro could be worse. Everybody instinctively wants Maduro to be gone, but if he is gone in a coup that could bring people to power who are even more hardline.

Marczak: He might be the least bad option that exists within chavismo.

Q: What pressure has the economic crisis put on Maduro?

Schechter: The pressure is enormous. This is a country that fancies itself on sitting on the world’s largest reserves of petroleum. All Venezuelans, even if they are poor, say “there is wealth we need to spread.” Now, whether you are rich or poor you need to go to one supermarket to buy diapers, to another to buy milk, and a third to buy meat. The lines are endless. The shortages are immense. Inflation is out of control. People are moving their money out of Venezuela quicker than you can track the IBAN codes. The economic situation is tremendously bad; and all this in the context of oil prices that have halved or more in price over the last five months, and a creaky production system that is unable to increase output.

Marczak: Venezuela is literally starving for foreign currency. Oil is 90 percent of its exports. That oil is less valuable than the benchmark crude that is $50 a barrel. Somewhere near half the oil Venezuela produces goes to China, and they’re not getting money from China. They’ve already got the money from China.

Chávez was powerful only because he happened to come into the presidency at the right time. He happened to come in at the beginning of a commodity boom across Latin America.

The basis of the support for the revolution is the health care clinics, the housing, and the education all of which was supported by oil money, which they don’t have any more. It’s an economic situation where the train is about to fall of the tracks. This is not an easy fix.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council.