How to Read Venezuela’s Chaotic Power Struggle

Discard political preconceptions. Ignore the ideological noise. Don’t rely on what you see. Here’s what you can do to figure out what happened on April 30th—and its effects—without going crazy.

Photo: Fox News, retrieved.

Step 1: Remember we are under crossfire, in the middle of a misinformation battlefield.

The effort to topple the illegitimate regime of Nicolás Maduro must be observed with temperance and caution. Before we gathered the few facts we were sure about, to publish a piece on the events of April 30th, an army of sources, especially from the opposition, provided newspapers and news agencies many details of the planning and execution of the events in a matter of hours.

In my experience, you cannot expect such a fast autopsy of a conspiracy; we still don’t know exactly what happened on April 11th, 2002. In the cascade of versions, within the great work those colleagues were doing, there can be also pills of misinformation, manufactured strings of the story made to break unity around Guaidó, especially when there’s a pattern of fake news from the regime, which feasts on the opposition’s more intense dreams and fears: we were just about to achieve our freedom and we were betrayed at the last moment. It’s the Bay of Pigs archetype that a good part of the Venezuelan opposition embraces after every one of its defeats.

Eventually, when we gathered our account of April 30th and sent an explosive story on May 3rd to the subscribers of our Political Risk Report, we confirmed the involvement of big fishes, like Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino. In the meantime, until we obtained reliable insight from our intelligence sources, I had to take all those versions with a handful of salt, for even with subjects way less delicate than a failed uprising, good information in my country is very, very scarce.

In the cascade of versions, within the great work those colleagues were doing, there can be also pills of misinformation, manufactured strings of the story made to break unity around Guaidó, especially when there’s a pattern of fake news from the regime.

Venezuelans have no place to go when they need a reliable outlook of what the heck is happening. Our public sphere is clogged with propaganda, cyberwar, collective hysteria and bad journalism. The Americans, the Spanish, and the British must navigate carefully in their polarized information landscapes; in the case of Venezuela, you must add more layers of opacity and confusion, due to the extermination of independent national media and one of the worst internet connectivities in the Western Hemisphere.

That said, look at Venezuela as you would look at a masked ball in a Tarantino movie.

Step 2: Think in constellations and clouds, not pyramids or blocks.

Here, you won’t have the clarity of a chess match. This is not a binary confrontation between one solid, disciplined ruling party and a solid, disciplined opposition.

There’s not one chavismo. While many ordinary Venezuelans hate Maduro (the dictator keeps an approval rate no higher than 15 percent)  his real base of power is an alliance (which we consider at Caracas Chronicles quite unstable at this moment) of leftist civilian cadres, very close to the Cuban regime; independent, but coordinated dangerous paramilitary groups known as colectivos; and the police and military, where we can assume there’s a wide respect for Chávez but is currently divided on its support of Maduro. All these legs of Maduro’s shaking throne are part of a criminal enterprise. This is the alliance that the opposition and its international allies, especially the U.S. government, are trying to shatter.

There’s not one opposition. The parties sitting at the National Assembly can be split in three zones. Zone 1 contains the two big parties committed to regime change, plenty of young, educated people: PJ and VP, this one the party founded by Leopoldo López, mentor of the popular Juan Guaidó. In Zone 2 we find three parties that believe in survival by accepting the hegemony of chavismo: AD, UNT, and Avanzada Progresista, the little party of a former chavista governor who ran against Maduro in the fake elections of 2018. Zone 3 is an array of more former chavistas and hardcore anti-chavistas, who consider almost everyone else a collaborationist.

The alliance that made Guaidó speaker and therefore caretaker president is inherently fragile, but now it’s threatened by the people’s frustration over the resilience of the regime, the pressure from the radicals and the malcontent of AD, UNT and AP. Almost all versions about April 30th blame López for the failure, not only because it seems true that his appearance contributed to break the promises made by the generals involved, but also because his enemies within the opposition are working to throw López under the bus, and with him the young guy who came out of the blue to be the star: Guaidó.

Step 3: Focus on the specifics.

This is Venezuela in 2019, not someplace else, or any other moment in history. Comparing it to Syria or Libya can be useful to point out the peculiarities of failed states and regional fragmentation, but it’s misleading because Venezuela doesn’t have MENA’s sectarian lines. To stick with the left-versus-right model means reducing the big picture to a black and white postcard. Argentina in 1983 or Chile in 1989 were also different: in those cases, vertical, organized armed forces just had to decide to negotiate with civilians to start a democratic transition, once the need for stepping aside was clear to the men in uniform. The Venezuelan Armed Forces are split, impoverished, pretty useless as a combat force, under close Cuban surveillance and unable, so far, to control colectivos and Colombian guerrillas operating in the country.

This is not a binary confrontation between one solid, disciplined ruling party and a solid, disciplined opposition.

Obviously, Venezuela became part of the competition between Russia, China and the U.S., with Turkey and Iran now trying to get a slice of the pie, but it’s mainly a real source of problems to South America and the Caribbean, in terms of illegal activities, millions of migrants and even the spread of diseases.

So, yes, it’s not simple at all, and it exists on its own terms.

Step 4: Expect all stakeholders to be unpredictable.

Our country lost the features of a republic long ago, and there’s no trace of check-and-balances, transparency and state capabilities to host a rightful competition for power. So the logic of politics in North America, Europe, or even Mexico and Brazil don’t apply here.

Maduro’s administration is a total failure at everything except staying in power. The opposition, consumed by ceaseless internal wars after trying everything to replace chavismo, has neither the weapons nor the institutions to push for power (although, this time, at least it’s true that the parliament’s speaker has the right to be the president and therefore is supported by more than 50 countries).

Each one of the forces involved in this struggle is vulnerable and erratic in one way or another, so no one is in full control of the situation or its outcomes. No one can guarantee the disposal of enough food, cash, gas or power to organize an election, a coup, a general strike, or suffocate a nationwide revolt. It’s chaos everywhere, at every level. It’s entropy.

Step 5: Buy Venezuelan rum and wait.

So April 30th was a defeat for Guaidó and López, but Maduro knows that, according to many reports and our own sources, some of the men in charge of protecting him were indeed about to oust him. He knows they know he’s toxic. He knows, like Guaidó and López, that Venezuelans don’t like losers.

We’re baseball people, and we love to quote Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Many things can happen at any moment, so get yourself a bottle of añejo, our world-class rum, and keep reading us and the good reporting some people are still doing about Venezuela. There’s more to come and you’ll need a proper drink to watch the show.

It could get ugly, but it’ll be History.