Photo: Libertad Digital retrieved.

When I talk about Nicolás Maduro’s obvious personal limitations, I frequently hear answers like “He can’t be that stupid, because he’s been there for five years and you’ve been unable to oust him.”

It’s not that hard to reveal the mystery of how a man with such limitations has managed to remain in power all these years. Maduro has basically inherited a functioning power structure, like a spring toy car that moves when you pull it back.

The basic components of that power structure were put in place in Chávez’s time, it’s just that, back then, the regime didn’t need to make full use of them.

The elements are simple enough: the backing, effective thus far, by the Armed Forces and the State security bodies, willing to do everything they have to; a surveillance mechanism presumably managed by Cuban agents, that spots any dissent that might come in the aforementioned element, to repress or control it in any way necessary; a complementary repressive mechanism, made up of armed paramilitary groups, with broad liberties for violent actions; a full control of the State’s institutions like the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the National Electoral Council, the Comptroller’s Office, the Prosecutor’s Office, the Ombudsman’s Office,  the entire military justice system (this control, by the way, also lets them “create” institutions without legitimacy, but “legalized” by the TSJ to a list of instances under complete regime control, like the National Constituent Assembly); a clientelist tapestry of pressure that, through various means, binds, ties, corners and threatens the most vulnerable sector of the population, with immediate survival needs; a frame of control and mobilization that ensures the support of part of the country that, though very small, is still available for marches, rallies and polls with their respective red shirts, such as the PSUV, government, UBCh; the existence of increasingly narrow oil rents, and other attractive resources, like the Mining Arc, which are handled at his convenience.

The basic components of that power structure were put in place in Chávez’s time, it’s just that, back then, the regime didn’t need to make full use of them.

Chávez provided a remarkable element of personal leadership and his iron grip imposed a certain coherence; the crisis hadn’t gotten to its current proportions, the international environment was more tolerant, popular dissatisfaction hadn’t reached the levels it has today.

All of that allowed the government to make use of that structure based on what was needed, which was far from 100%. It was there, no doubt about that, but it was applied more selectively, far less than full steam.

Nobody escapes the veil of surveillance, least of all Nicolás himself.

But circumstances changed from 2013 onwards. Chávez is no more, the nation falls to ruin at an accelerated rate, Maduro doesn’t provide any sort of personal leadership, internal struggles boil out to the surface, popular dissatisfaction grows exponentially, and unconformity rears its head in several of the mechanism’s components. The system must work at full speed. That’s within Maduro’s limited capabilities, and much more when he’s got Cuban help, so knowledgeable about such things.

To ensure commitment of the crucial components in the power structure (especially the Armed Forces), there are techniques of proven efficacy. Giving high-ranking cronies lots of power and lots of opportunities for profit and, proportionally, power for the lesser ranks; involving them in actions with potentially criminal consequences; surrounding and infiltrating everything with a system of surveillance and mutual espionage (ah, the Cubans again!), because there are many officers who refuse to be a part of the crooked scheme. This is why there’s allegedly hundreds of officers detained.

Everything I just explained applies, with the necessary changes, to the remaining pieces of the power structure. Nobody escapes the veil of surveillance, least of all Nicolás himself.

It’s been said that “power begets talent.” Judging by his actions as president, Maduro is the exception to that rule. What he might have developed is a certain skill, a sort of automatism in handling the structure and his own capacity to overcome barriers and scruples, no matter the cost in ethical or humanitarian terms, or whatever.

That has its limits. Nothing’s farther from reality than thinking that the structure is in good health. The decision-making clique grows increasingly smaller, and it leaves out important members of what was typically known as “chavismo,” ruminating complaints and disillusionment. The mechanisms of surveillance, persecution and repression draw ever closer to sensitive nerves in key pieces of the structure.

All of this opens more and more perspectives for the construction of a broad national alliance for political change, but that means that those who’ve never been involved with this regime, who’ve always been dissidents or who’ve later earned solid democratic credentials, must have a wider vision, a capability for openness and amplitude that are a challenge by themselves.

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