Photo: ABC retrieved

After 20 years of chavismo, most people around the world have finally come to terms with the idea that Venezuela is now a dictatorship. The Western world, led by the United States, the Lima Group and, in a lesser extent, the European Union, are forcing for a regime change that still refuses to come. The problem, according to people like Raúl Gallegos, author of this post at Americas Quarterly, may be how most of the actors involved still see Maduro’s regime as a government in the traditional sense of the word, that is, a group of politicians with the authority to govern a country, rather than the crime syndicate it has degenerated into.

See, in Gallegos’ view, Maduro’s government is little more than a complex network of criminal groups effectively kidnapping the Venezuelan state. These groups, although heterogenous and sometimes antagonizing each other, share a common objective: To keep themselves in power.

“The bureaucracy, the armed forces and the security forces enrich themselves with kickbacks from government contracts, illegal mining revenue, foreign currency trading, extortion, kidnapping, and the smuggling of price-controlled gasoline and food with impunity, on top of generous, oil-financed salaries and benefits. They spy on each other and they empower the most criminal among them, those compromised by corruption or human rights violations, a common approach of criminal groups. And of course they jail, kill and raid the homes of those Venezuelans who oppose them. The main goal of this crime syndicate is to cling to power because leading normal lives in the legitimate world once again is no longer an option. To defeat this regime, the international community must move beyond the diplomacy and sanctions used to deal with traditional political actors, and instead adopt techniques the police use to fight the mob.”

These groups, although heterogenous and sometimes antagonizing each other, share a common objective: To keep themselves in power.

Maduro’s regime has teamed up with terrorist groups like the ELN and dissident branches of the FARC. With their help, it has capitalized on illegal gold mining and drug traffic to the United States, effectively building a parallel, harder to tackle, income flow.

Understanding this criminal nature also helps explain why the widespread defections that Juan Guaidó and his allies have been waiting for since January haven’t (and may never) come. At least not until chavismo faces something they perceive as an existential threat. The benefits they currently enjoy are too good, and the uncertainty of a future without power, too high. Gallegos suggests, then, using tactics commonly employed by police forces around the world to bring down criminal cartels: infiltrating the regime, spy on its different groups, identify key players and know who is an enemy of who:

“Cutting off the money flow of both legal and illegal cash that helps the regime survive is paramount. For Venezuela that will mean continuing to tighten sanctions as well as finding ways to track and seize shipments of illegally mined gold. Of course wresting control of Citgo from the regime has hurt Maduro, and having bond holders to go after government assets would further undermine the regime’s financial strength.

Taking advantage of the mercenary nature of chavismo can help, by eventually offering rewards for the surrender and delivery of Maduro and his top lieutenants. In fact, the U.S. government has in the past indicted a sitting head of state, Manuel Noriega, in 1988 for drug running, money laundering and racketeering—charges that would easily stick to Maduro and scores of his allies. The U.S. government eventually offered a $1 million bounty for Noriega.”

Gallegos goes as far as suggesting that, since Maduro isn’t recognized by most of the Western hemisphere as a head of state, the possibility of arresting him if he leaves the country should be taken seriously, something that would limit his capacity to move in and out of Venezuela, weakening the complex logistics that keep his “government” afloat. Surely many left-wing democracies will have problems with this approach.

Taking advantage of the mercenary nature of chavismo can help, by eventually offering rewards for the surrender and delivery of Maduro and his top lieutenants.

To them, Maduro may be a terrible autocrat, maybe even a criminal, but still a president of sorts. They must understand that, to stabilize the region and avoid the bleak hemispheric consequences of Venezuela’s further collapse (and dodge a potentially tragic military intervention), traditional strategies like sanctions won’t be enough.

The Venezuelan regime revolves around fear: of losing the little food some still get, of being thrown away in a forgotten cell under SEBIN’s headquarters, of what may happen if chavistas lose the throne. Fear should also be the drive behind bringing democracy to Venezuela, because how bad will it be for the whole region otherwise?

In Gallegos’s words, “The U.S. and the Venezuelan opposition will succeed in Venezuela when they are perceived by chavismo to be just as dangerous and intractable as the Maduro regime has become.”

 

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