On 3 December, Maria Corina Machiado was given notice that she will face criminal charges for her alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate President Nicolas Maduro. Adding to the growing number of anti-government activists and political leaders in custody, this is the latest in a systematic crackdown on dissent in Venezuela.
Amid a period of deep economic uncertainty and a decrease in public support, Venezuela’s government has continued to blame the country’s problems on conspiracies by the right while also pursuing a strategy of targeted de-legitimization.
The opposition may not be powerful enough to present a viable option to the electorate – at least in the foreseeable future. Divisions and infighting in recent months have eroded its credibility with Venezuela’s middle class; the appointment of Jesús Torrealba, a popular journalist, as its leader will bring much-needed strength to the movement, but is expected to take some time for it to translate into a substantive shift. A long history of distrust of the right, in combination with the popularity of Chavez among the majority of Venezuelans, is a hurdle that the opposition has so far failed to overcome.
Although this strategy of aggressive posturing against the opposition has been largely effective in maintaining the PSUV’s hold on power, breaks within the left supported by popular discontent could very well provide the greatest challenge to Maduro’s government.
Public dissent is steadily growing in the streets. In recent months, several cities across the country witnessed blockades and protests, which have at times been very disruptive. The student-led demonstrations in the capital earlier this year seemed to have hit a nerve across many sectors, indicating the extent of public displeasure with the lack of clear leadership.
While this wave of protests has now faded, partly as a result to the actions by police and the government’s own paramilitary force, ‘los colectivos’, the political environment and security in the Caracas continues to deteriorate. Divisions between supporters and detractors have solidified, while anti-government sentiment appears to be spreading into other areas of the capital. The risk of future unrest remains.
Recent damning criticism against the government by a number of well-known Chavistas and other leading figures such as former Planning Minister Jorge Giordani have been effective in painting a picture of ineptitude that is gaining track within the left. This is added to the ascent of splinter factions such as Marea Socialista within the PSUV, angry at what they see as Maduro’s betrayal to the plan laid by Chavez.
These dynamics unveil the growing divisions weakening Maduro’s control. The president still enjoys the backing of the powerful armed forces. Known to be the main guardian of Chavez’s legacy, they are instrumental to Maduro’s hold on power; however, it is far from assured that they will continue supporting the current administration if criticism within the left grows.
Venezuela is going through a very difficult economic period. Inflation has surpassed 60%, in addition to increasing unemployment, chronic shortages of basic food items, and unprecedented levels of corruption. These problems, coupled with the mounting financial strain triggered by a historic decrease in the price of oil, are likely to put significant pressure on the current government.
Given this deteriorating scenario, in recent months the administration has split the dual post of Ministry of Oil and Energy and the country’s own energy company PDVSA, announced changes to streamline the currency exchange control system, and conducted full cabinet re-shuffle. Although welcomed by both supporters and detractors of the government, these economic and political reforms are unlikely to provide a durable solution to the deep structural problems Venezuela faces beset by many years of mismanagement and increased reliance on oil for revenue.
For now, Maduro’s administration appears to keep pursuing a disjointed short-term policy outlook and deeply divisive political strategy that is buying time, but may not be enough to secure its long-term survival.