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Here’s why Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is still in power

More sanctions aren’t likely to topple him

- August 13, 2019

Six months after the Venezuelan National Assembly swore in Juan Guaidó as the country’s acting president, few Venezuelans remain as excited about the young politician and his strategy to depose sitting president Nicolás Maduro. Maduro and his unpopular regime remain in power — despite nationwide protests, increased regional and international diplomatic pressure, and robust economic sanctions.

Last week, the Trump administration introduced tougher sanctions against Maduro and his key allies, aiming to weaken the regime. These sanctions will make it harder for foreign companies to continue to do business in Venezuela and will further block the ruling coalition from accessing U.S. debt and equity markets.

But sanctions are unlikely to remove Maduro from power. Here’s why.

1. Maduro has politicized the military and diversified the security services

Maduro inherited a highly polarized political system, a buckling economy and soaring crime rates from his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Instead of implementing any meaningful reforms, Maduro doubled down on policies that would maintain his ruling coalition’s loyalty.

After Chávez, a former paratrooper, defeated numerous early challenges to his government, he heavily purged and politicized the Venezuelan military. Soldiers suddenly were expected to take an oath of loyalty to his “Bolivarian Revolution” and were strongly encouraged to exercise their newfound right to vote in favor of the ruling party. The military high command possessed roughly 100 generals when Chávez took power, a tally that has mushroomed to more than 2,000 over the past two decades. The president also restructured the armed forces around the Cuban territorial model, expanding the reach of the military throughout Venezuela while simultaneously diluting the power of individual commanders.

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Maduro has even further politicized the Venezuelan military. The Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM), a feared internal surveillance organization, has agents infiltrated in every branch of the armed forces. All military personnel are obligated to report colleagues who openly criticize their working conditions or the regime itself. Those transgressions can then be punished with torture or arbitrary terms of imprisonment. To further deter potential disobedience among the troop rank and file, the regime harasses the families of soldiers who have been arrested or have deserted.

Chávez cultivated key foreign allies that could share vast repertoires of repressive expertise with the Venezuelan security services. As a result, the Cuban intelligence service G2 now has an estimated 2,500 operatives embedded within the Venezuelan military, supporting DGCIM counterintelligence operations designed to detect and prevent any uprisings within regional commands.

Recently, Maduro beefed up his personal security by hiring Russian contractors. What’s more, Chinese firms with close ties to Beijing helped implement Venezuela’s “Fatherland Card” initiative, a mandatory national identification card. The card collects personal information — including whether someone votes for the ruling PSUV party, which in turn uses the card to allocate subsidies for food, health care and other essential social programs.

The Venezuelan security apparatus also counts on the support of such groups as paramilitary organizations, prison gangs and Colombian insurgents. Paramilitary groups known as colectivos have proliferated under Maduro’s watch, helping the regime to violently disperse protests, intimidate opposition politicians and more recently to shore up the National Guard in peripheral regions.

Augmenting these efforts, organized prison gangs called mega-bandas have reportedly seen numerous members released in exchange for supporting the colectivos. The National Liberation Army (ELN), a formidable Colombian insurgent group, controls vast swaths of territory in the Venezuelan periphery, serving as a potential first line of defense for Maduro in the event of an unlikely foreign invasion.

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2. Economic distress has led Maduro to find new ways to buy the military’s loyalty

During his 14 years in power, Chávez depended on record international oil prices to fuel a massive economic boom. He used that income to aggressively expand the military and put it in charge of the day-to-day management of Venezuela.

But Maduro assumed the presidency when the price of crude was in serious decline, resulting in economic contraction and runaway hyperinflation. Venezuelan oil production declined dramatically over the past decade. The national economy has all but collapsed, a catastrophe that has prompted 1 million Venezuelans to migrate abroad in the past nine months alone. Economic sanctions have deepened the crisis.

As a result, the Maduro regime has developed new revenue sources to ensure the continued loyalty of his ruling coalition. Under Chávez and Maduro, the Venezuelan military has converted Venezuela into a prominent drug transshipment point, exporting an estimated 400 metric tons of cocaine annually to North American and European markets. The recent economic collapse has made it harder for the National Guard and other nonstate actors to bring in funds by smuggling food or gasoline across the border. But they’ve replaced this revenue by extorting money from anyone who wants to flee the country, whether by legal or illegal border crossings.

Illegal gold mining has also exploded in recent years. Maduro authorized a “mining arc” across an expanse of 110,000 square kilometers (about 43,000 square miles) in southern Venezuela, which was supposed to lead to government contracts with businesses that would mine and sell the precious metal. Instead, the area has been unofficially plundered by different branches of the armed forces, the ELN and local criminal groups.

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3. New sanctions will divide the opposition and worsen the country’s humanitarian crisis.

Trump’s recent economic sanctions are likely to further divide the Venezuelan opposition and worsen the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Maduro suspended negotiations with the opposition Aug. 7, ostensibly to protest Washington’s new sanctions — giving it a convenient excuse to abandon the talks.

Both in the Trump administration and within the Venezuelan opposition, some hard-liners believe that increasing economic pressure will ultimately weaken Maduro. But that view fails to consider the many different groups propping up the regime.

The Venezuelan security apparatus is flush with illicit revenue. Lacking a discernible central command, these divergent actors often compete with one another over lucrative economic activities and are united only by their willingness to put the Maduro regime’s survival ahead of any political reforms.

Even if Maduro were removed tomorrow, the system created by Chávez would continue to wield power in Venezuela.

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Charles Larratt-Smith (@larratt_smith) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto.