Why is pressure cooker Venezuela not bursting, not yet?


It happens week after week in this rich nation, where parts of the population are now starving. At La Isabelica, Caracas, likely the largest affordable housing community in Latin America with 70,000 inhabitants, some of the looted stores were greengrocers. People took to the streets blocking access to the roads with improvised barricades after yet another blackout.

The police shot tear gas and fired at two men, but since their families are also hungry, some policeman joined the looters. “I’d rather be shot than starve to death,” said a woman.

This is the “crazy goat” effect, according to former Uruguayan President José Mujica, who until 2015 supported the regime founded by Hugo Chávez. “He’s crazy,” Mujica said about Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president and the leader of the governing Socialist Party. “In Venezuela they just bubble, and are not solving anything.”

Indeed the government does not seem to have any solutions for the country’s woes, but the measures it is adopting appear quite well-thought: it is centralizing even more power on the government, and it is making sure that it stays in Miraflores at least until early 2017, and that the National Assembly (NA), the Congress, which is in the hands of the opposition, remains ineffective.

This explains its last decree of “State of exception and economic emergency and shock”. The law commands approval the by the NA, but that step was skipped with a ruling of the Supreme Court — the judiciary power which is loyal to the government. As long as Maduro manages to maintain this non-equilibrium between the three powers, the government, the civilian Chavista establishment, its supporters in the Bolivarian Armed Forces (BAF), and the corrupt will keep buying time, and maintain the lead of a “transition” process that will never happen.

In addition to governing without checks and balances, imposing such rules like the state of emergency puts the President in the role of a guardian of society, a sort of Orwellian “Big Brother”, writes law professor Jesús Ollarves, a human rights expert. Through the Local Committees for Supplies he will now hold sway over every citizen when he or she searches for food or medicines. Maduro can now expropriate companies shuttered because of lacking raw materials; ration and hold on to food, medicines, and state goods and services; do searches without warrant and ban public meetings.

In light of all of this, why is popular protest in Venezuela not wider spread and better organized? A first explanation is that the collapse environment itself keeps people busy for 3-6 hours a day with the sole task of survival, which includes queues and food search.

Digging deeper, some observers explain how a broad social fringe is growing increasingly skeptical of politics and indifferent to the opportunity to organize into movements or political organizations. Writer and historian Rafael Rattia calls this a “social allergy” on El Nacional.

The culture of “I’ll-take-care-of-that-for-you” induced apathy in the public; the culture of almsgiving strengthened the culture of dependence; a military subculture demobilized the ability of large cross-social sectors of being autonomous in their social participation.

This is a likely explanation of Maduro’s still existing hard core supporters who probably reason around the question: “If not him, who?” According to Venebarometro’s April survey, that rank and file even increased slightly from 11.3 to 15.6%. An 84.1% of the population pins a negative rating to the current situation, but a 23.3% would be happy with a change in the economic model.

According to a statement by social psychologist Mercedes Pulido at Prodavinci, some recent studies show how “the destruction of our society was intentional and systematic: we destroyed industrial relations and capital and the entrepreneurial drive in our business world.” What was the goal of such fragmentation and of the centralization of all regulation functions on the executive power? the well-known psychologist asked. “There were several goals, but one in particular: the military hegemony, about which there is little or no debate at all.”

At a recent press conference for the foreign press — Maduro avoids the national one — the president thundered as usual against the world bullying Venezuela (allegedly with a Spanish attempt to invade the nation and US air strikes on top of the customary oil conspiracy). Then, however, he ended his speech with the enigmatic phrase: “It is no time for betrayal or traitors, it is the time for loyalty.” Journalist César Miguel Rondón noted that that was clearly aimed at the military, at this time called upon by different parts of the society.

On the one hand, many military acknowledge the critical circumstances, and a few would prefer Maduro to step down. On the other, also opposition leaders like Henrique Capriles and Pablo Pérez are calling upon the neutral part of the BAF to take a position for or against the people. The decision of the NA to put under scrutiny the bank accounts of government officials (Venezuela is among the most corrupt countries in the world) could however push some sectors in the BAF to remain loyal to Maduro.

After accusing Spain of interference, Maduro met nonetheless with former presidents José Luis Zapatero and Martín Torrijos from Panama, who are willing to broker a dialogue with the opposition. It is some opposition leaders, however, who refuse a generic “dialogue”, because, as Maria Corina Machado explained, in 2002 and in 2014 the Chavista governments “used a farce of a dialogue to buy time, to demobilize the opposition, and to stabilize the dictatorship.” Releasing Leopoldo López and the students who have not seen the sunlight in more than two years, and guaranteeing that the referendum and a transition to democracy with a clear agenda, these are the conditions for a dialogue, opposition leaders say.

However, on how they will achieve their political goals they are divided in four camps, One group supports the referendum to have Maduro step down — which can happen only, analysts say, if the street will put enough pressure on institutions and, in particular, on the National Electoral Committee, which is also biased towards the government, and is slowing the validation of the signatures collected.

The Pope is very concerned about the situation in Venezuela, and recently the Vatican canceled a trip of its Chancellor to Caracas. The Vatican likely prefers to wait and understand the odds of the other scenario, the one the other chancelleries fear as well. That is the scenario of a country that spins beyond control, as political scientist Michael Penfold put it. Power blackouts and hunger could be the triggers of a popular upheaval (nurses in hospital nurseries now routinely find dead infants in the incubators after power outages, and 30% of the population eats only twice a day).

Keeping the opposition acting in Congress from having any effect, and forcing its leaders to react losing lucidity and union in the din of a battle set up with that aim, means that Maduro and the Chavista entourage are undoubtedly still able to handle the outlet of the pressure cooker with some competence. Even so, according to Ollarves and others, the political, economic and social crisis and measures such as the fabricated “state of exception” might now mark the beginning of the end of Chavismo.

If things changed, some in the Chavista military and civilian establishment could be brought before courts, if only for human rights abuses. Thus, so far, it seems that the leadership chose to create a big cloud of dust — a country deteriorated to the extreme — to cover up what goes on, and raise the price for their withdrawing from power.