The Game We’re In

Chavismo's state governors see Maduro more as part of the problem than of the solution. Until you've thought through the implications of that, you haven't understood the game we're in.


Back when Chávez was around, the institutional game in Venezuela was simple: we had a caudillo, he controlled all state institutions, so he could just tell them what to do. The end.

In the Maduro era, things are substantially more complex. While chavismo has been mindful to maintain the optics of autocratic continuity, nobody in their right mind believes Maduro can boss around the chavista faction heads like Chávez could.

The most obvious outcome of this has been policymaking paralysis: the now famous deer-in-the-headlights shtick that passes for economic policy these days. On the political front, the government has been able to preserve, more or less, the appearance of unity: the polite fiction that Maduro continues today to play the role Chávez carved out for the top boss.

The real question in Venezuelan politics today is how long PSUV can sustain that fiction, and what happens when it begins to break down. And the place where the illusion of unitary state control will be most sorely tested is the CNE.

Chavismo’s governors depend on the patronage machines that run out of state governments to wield power and influence. Without those patronage machines, they’re enormously diminished figures.

So far, the tensions between PSUV’s factions have been serious but manageable. But what happens when the interests of one powerful faction within PSUV come to clash head on with the interests of another? How does madurista “pretend autocracy” work its way through that?

The question is anything but academic. Venezuela is scheduled to have elections for state governors and legislators in December this year. Those of us focused on the game for control of the Central Government have a tendency to see these regional elections as a bit of a sideshow. In fact, they’re the pressure point that could tear the chavista coalition in two.

Try to imagine what the world looks like right now through the eyes of Francisco Ameliach. Or Tareck El Aissami. Or Francisco Rangel Gómez. Or yet another tocayo, Arias Cardenas. For chavismo’s sitting governors, December’s gubernatorial elections are a disaster waiting to happen. These people wear the Maduro presidency like an albatross around their political necks. Maduro has made the PSUV name electorally toxic, and they can see they’re about to be the ones to pay the price.

This is nothing to be taken lightly. Chavismo’s governors depend on the patronage machines that run out of state governments to wield power and influence. Without those patronage machines, they’re enormously diminished figures. These guys want to hang on to those gobernaciones whatever it takes: many who know they’re not really presidenciables have accepted their fates as bigger fish in smaller, state-sized ponds. This, and not Miraflores, is what being “in power” looks like for them.

Alongside the governors there’s a whole series of chavista leaders who’ve moved away from the government: everyone from Marea Socialista and the Giordani/Hector Navarro axis to a whole lot of “formers”. Former interior minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres. Former Caracas mayor Freddy Bernal. And a bunch more.

Sooner rather than later CNE is going to be forced to make a key decision, a decision that could fracture the governing coalition in two.

The incentives for these displaced – but still influential – figures to band together with PSUV’s governors as a counterweight to Maduro/Diosdado is real, and growing every day. And it’s a huge problem for Maduro, because the governors are the guys who are in actual command of the patronage machines that guys like Maduro rely on to mobilize the vote on election day. Including, for instance, the “No” vote in a recall referendum.

You start to see the outline of why I don’t think the institutional game is quite as “trancado” as people think. We are, today, miles and miles from the situation in 1999-2012, when a single person could pick up a phone, make one phone call, and decide anything that needed deciding within the Venezuelan state, no ifs ands or buts.

Right now, you have significant, powerful factions within the chavista movement that sees Maduro’s presidency as more a problem than a solution, and Maduro has no “higher power” he can appeal to to keep them in line.

Why does this circle back to CNE? Because sooner or later – and trust me, it’s sooner – CNE is going to be forced to make a key decision, a decision that could fracture the governing coalition in two: what comes first, the recall referendum or the gubernatorial elections?

Even if you’re convinced that CNE’s rectors “lack meaningful autonomy”, even if you think they’re basically just gophers for PSUV, you have to ask yourself: for whom in PSUV?

The days when Tibisay Lucena could make that decision on the basis of a single phone call are over. This time around, she’s going to come under enormous pressure from players on both sides of PSUV’s internal divide.

And then, once a decision is made, does the losing side just lick its wounds and accept it? If the choice is to hold state elections first, dooming a generation of powerful chavista governors to an ignominious defeat in December, do they just grin and bear it? If CNE moves with a recall first, does the Miraflores clique defer to her unquestioned autonomy? How long before these tensions boil over into an open rift?

This is the political game we’re playing in Venezuela in 2016. It’s very different from the game we’ve known up until now. Brace yourselves.

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  1. EnelnombredeChavezdePaezydeRomuloBetancourt:

    Ramos Allup, que estás en el cielo
    Líbranos del idealismo pueril
    Y del facismo
    Sientate hoy con varios chavistas
    O manda a gente de confianza
    Preferiblemente aspirantes a gobernador
    No nos dejes creernos nuestros propios mojones
    Y usa un teléfono bien blindado
    Ahora y cuando las encuestas desfavorezcan,


  2. Quico, que pasaría si no se producen ni lo uno ni lo otro. Es decir no referéndum o no elecciones de gobernadores, por lo menos este año?

    En otras palabras, para el régimen, buscar ganar tiempo para que suceda algo. Porque siempre va a suceder algo que distraiga la atención de los puntos vitales.

    Que opinas acerca de este escenario? Gracias.

    • Je, bueno, I already got burned once making this kind of prediction so I’m not going down that path again.

      I think if it was going to work, it was going to work in the pre-6D world, where there could be some pretense of doing it for a reason other than avoiding getting your ass handed to you. Post-6D? It’s just too desperate.

  3. I find it highly unlikely that the regime will last until December, and thus this article, while very interesting, seems like a hypothetical exercise.

  4. There are already rumblings in the press of chavistas arguing the regional elections should be delayed. They cite the current crisis as an excuse, that this is no time to hold an election, etc. It’s usually a member of a minor party within the chavista coalition (PPT, PCV), i.e., the ones that have given up any hope of getting a nice position in the central government, and thus are wholly dependable on regional politics and positions. They have too much to lose.

    I think the most likely outcome is that both elections are delayed to 2017. The recall referendum is held, say, in late January, and regionals a couple of months later. If the referendum is held in 2016, then the regionals would most likely be delayed indefinitely, pending the outcome of the referendum, because if Maduro loses the RR by enough votes, a presidential election must be then held shortly afterwards (and I doubt they will merge that presidential election with the regionals).

    • Creo se va a dar un acuerdo regimen-oposición para que el referéndum se de, en el momento que este garantizado que el sucesor va a ser el Vicepresidente y asi se cumpla el periodo completo hasta el 2019.
      A mi en lo particular no me gusta, pero dada las circunstacias, es lo más estable y conveniente para ambas partes (regimen-oposicion).
      No le conviene al pueblo de Vzla pero a los actores políticos si.

  5. chavismo is just too fascist to allow anyone to openly disagree with them and not take swift, bloody revenge for it, that’s been their best way to keep dissention on check, “Say a peep and I’ll kill you”, lots of the “formers” are the best examples, now reduced to marginalized assholes that just keep screaming and screeching the obvious desperately hoping that somebody pays any shred of attention to them again (besides their families in their homes, who would likely shut them up because they don’t bring huge paychecks anymore)

    The most infamous governors know that their only hope is to stick to the corpse’s image, because they’re either drug dealers (Alsaime), murderers (Ameliachchch), gangsters (Rangel Gómez), or outright demented fanatics (Vielma Mora) if not just backstabbing triple-batracian chickens (Arias Cárdenas), so they know that outside the pusv they won’t win even in their own homes. They have ways to keep their seats, at least Alsaime and RG, as they both have huge criminal gangs under their control to do their dirty work, so they could just say “Go ahead and unseat me, I’ll burn this s**thole to the ground every week and pile enough corpses to build a huge barrio”

    “…and Maduro has no “higher power” he can appeal to to keep them in line…”
    Yes, he has, it’s called “raúl and fidel castro”, or “cartel de los soles” which has plenty of heavier guns than any colectivo or malandro gang.

    “…If the choice is to hold state elections first, dooming a generation of powerful chavista governors to an ignominious defeat in December, do they just grin and bear it?…”
    Their choice will be the most obvious one: Create a parallel governorship and strip the actual governorship from all its resources and powers, just like they did with Ledezma (jackeline guaire), Miranda (juajua’s corpomiranda), Lara (reyes^2 corpolara), and the AN (TSJ).

    Since day one, chavismo was a bunch of malandros holding guns against each other’s heads, threatening to pull the trigger at any sign of disagreement

  6. But Maduro needs the chavista governors in place if there is a recall referendum in the future. Why? Because according to your own words:

    ..the governors are the guys who are in actual command of the patronage machines that guys like Maduro rely on to mobilize the vote on election day. Including, for instance, the “No” vote in a recall referendum.

    Having the recall first is to Miraflores’ advantage. I see no conflict here between governors vs Miraflores. Else I don’t follow…

  7. The government will not allow any more elections, not even for delegado de curso.

    Venezuela is governed by criminals. Some are psycho-fanatics that will save the revolution at whatever cost. I have read some Pol Pottish colored fantasies in Aporrea here and again. The other are realist that know that the retirement home is in jail, even in an American jail. And then there are the plain dumb, like Delcy Rodriguez.

    They will call elections bourgeoisie indulgences and do without them. Heck they tried similar things with the AN when Godgiven tried to replace it with Consejos Comunales over Christmas.

    Elections are not going to be the chink in the Chavista’s armour any more.

      • Things to the effect “barrer a los empresarios y a la derecha” and other common militaristic references of vanquishing their enemy.

        I made a quick scan today and did not find anything blatant.

        But really, a guy like Godgiven should scare you.

  8. It would be good for all of us to be mentally prepared for a Maduro Presidency until 2019.

    Yes, the country is in terrible shape and there’s probably a lot of chavistas who want Maduro out of office. But the fact remains that most powerful people in chavismo are better off with Maduro as President than someone in the current opposition. My guess is they won’t hold any referenda and they will first delay the governor elections until the mayor’s election in 2017 and then some more.

  9. Great post. In the hypothetical case that there are elections, the issue is that even if there is RR before the Governors and NM is revoked, this does not mean that the PSUV governors will become electable, on the contrary it will probably build momentum to kick them out as well.

    Where all these factions are aligned is that they will get their asses kicked in any election.

  10. As time passes discontent is going to grow deeper , there will be more people who if allowed to vote will vote against the regime …..financially things are getting much more difficult for them . international media is a bit distracted with other news but the eye is now always on Venezuela!! At sometime there will be elections , we know what the result will be , even if fraud and extortion and bribes are used the number of people angry at the govt has reached a critical mass ………..which is irreversible ……!!

    Regime governors are going to get clobbered , their only chance of retaining in their positions will be the support of the regimes resources which are much dwindled, at the same time the unpopularity of Maduro and his regime is such that appearing too close to him might be a kiss of death towards their aspirations

  11. A very interesting post. But doesn’t Maduro want the recall first so his people can manipulate patronage, while the governors want that too, because they will lose if Maduro is still in power?

    If I were a governor, Id want 1) Maduro recently departed, and 2) Some newer Chavista, just become President, promising to return to the policies of the departed Comandante.

    Then my argument is: give the new team, including me, a chance to bring back the good old days.

  12. If I were Maduro, I would conclude that the best thing for me would be to announce that all elections will be canceled and that he will appoint the governors. “What about the Constitution?”, you say? Ah! That is what the TSJ is for.

    Think about it… What does he have to lose? All he has to do to get away with it is to convince the inner circle and the Generals. How tough can that be? Why would they subject themselves to the uncertainty of another election if they have another option?

  13. Those elections cost money. A lot. Will be money left to pay for these elections???? Plus between the freacking serious humanitarian crisis and the famine, I wonder if there will be electoral willingness among el pueblo mesmo… Seriously, if I were one of those women on CesarMiguel radio show on friday, I probably wouldn’t vote…

  14. The game we are playing is not the game they are playing. In fact, we are not even real players. That’ s the first thing we must understand. I don’ t think they will hesitate a second if they find it neccesary to suspend any election. It is not their first option, probably they would prefer not to do something like that,, but that doesn’ t mean they won’ t do it if they believe they really have to. Personally I don’ t care much about the rise of other factions, because they are even worse than Maduro. If they actually make a move it is for their own interest and not ours, Change, which is what we actually need, will not come from any alliance with murderous and corrupt militarly men. When LL called for the protests, Capriles said: maduro vete ya significa diosdado vente ya. That’ s actually the same card he is playing now, thinking that people like that will give their power away once they get it . At the end we will have more of the same. We must stop thinking we are playing any kind of game at all. That is wishfull thinking.The only thing we have in favor is the fact that the popular support for the regime is falling but we must not overvalue that either. That fact alone will not get us anywhere concrete anyway. The fact that there are other players in the PSUV means nothing since I don’ t think that is going to lead us to change or provides us with a real advantage…It would be very sad to merely become the puppets of yet another set of all-powerfull corrupt players.

  15. To this North American reader this sounds like normal democratic politics at work, with electoral pressures forcing politicians to make difficult decisions whose consequences are going to be messy in one way or another.


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