Uncomfortable Questions on a Suffering, Paralyzed Nation

Let’s look carefully at the unprecedented combination of factors that keeps Venezuela in this unbearable state. Let’s try to answer the questions few dare to ask.

Photo: NY Post retrieved

Getting humanitarian aid into the country was one of the opposition’s main campaigns. What happened?

The Venezuela Aid Live concert didn’t reach its fundraising goal. The 400 tons of food and supplies sent by USAID to the Colombian city of Cucuta will be distributed by the Colombian government among Venezuelan migrants, and the Venezuelan security officers and soldiers who defected now regret having done it for nothing. After the International Red Cross announced, with the Catholic Church, that the aid was coming, a first cargo that would allegedly help 650,000 patients entered through the La Guaira port, but no one knows how it’s been distributed and whether it’s helping; the Red Cross hasn’t provided solid information on the matter. The opposition has been setting up some temporary health stations where they hand over privately donated relief (medicine and personal care goods) but, in general, the humanitarian aid fell under the cloak of the deliberate opacity that covers everything in Venezuela. Meanwhile, Venezuelans are increasingly vulnerable while the regime is focused on shifting blame towards U.S. sanctions—just like they did with the death of five children in the J.M. de los Ríos Hospital.

People in Caracas are talking less about power outages. Is the electric grid restored?

Not at all, and nothing suggests that the power deficit is going to be solved in the short or medium term. With very few exceptions, the whole country is under severe rationing, especially Western Venezuela, where people have to endure 20-hour long power cuts, or even full days unplugged. No power means no running water, no online banking (in a country with useless and scarce cash), no communications.

The regime concentrates its shrinking resources in keeping the capital relatively quiet and functional; they can afford to abandon Maracaibo, but not Caracas. The other important city where power is somewhat regular is Puerto Ordaz, powered by the Macagua dam, and it’s said that the Eurobuilding Hotel is full of Russians and that regime Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez works from there.  

Meanwhile, what’s happening with the economy?

Nothing has stopped the worst economic disaster of modern history. There’s hyperinflation and foreign currency exchange controls are still in place. Public banks are sanctioned by the U.S. and the private ones are in peril. More and more businesses are closing, but those running the black market of imported cars, dollars or food, and buying cheap real estate from people selling all they have, to pay a treatment or leave the country, those are the real winners.

It’s gotten worse since March 7th: the blackouts are wiping out what’s left of local production, including oil. In Maracaibo, looting closed dozens of stores for good. Without power, farms and factories can’t produce, which intensifies scarcity, and therefore hunger among those without dollars to access the black market.

The effects of the sanctions are starting to show up, although not on breaking the alliance around Maduro. PDVSA is unable to produce all the gas the country needs, and now the sanctions make more difficult importing it. This could even affect illegal mining (quite valuable to the regime), in a country where all goods are transported on trucks and the emergency power plants for dwellings, commerce and hospitals depend on fuel.

Which other developments are we missing, while we watch the power struggle?

People are still leaving the country en masse, but we also have domestic refugees, displaced by the energy crisis: people from Maracaibo leaving to Valera, Caracas or Margarita, just because those places have a bit more power and water. Hundreds are moving from the Northern cities to the mines in Guayana to search for gold, working for the gangs as miners, vendors, or prostitutes. The Venezuelan currency is being displaced by U.S. dollars, Colombian pesos, Brazilian reais, gold in grams, coffee and food. Crime has changed: ordinary robbers are stealing cattle, food and gas, besides cell phones and dollars, but as bolivars lose value, criminals are trying to join the more lucrative and complex activities in the mines and borders. The risk of famine is so high that even the FAO, which some years ago gave an award to the chavista regime, is noticing it.

Are Juan Guaidó and his allies still able to champion the opposition and produce change?

The caretaker president certainly looks like he’s lit almost all his matches after the disaster of April 30th. His speech has acquired a hawkish tone, pressured by the fringe opposition which accuses him of blocking the end of usurpation—under the absurd thesis that foreign military intervention awaits only for his orders, while he can be detained and isolated at any moment, as it has actually happened to a big chunk of his team. They announced a situational room, a national strike, a network of Freedom Committees but, just like chavismo, they’re announcing things that simply don’t bloom. Or they don’t communicate any progress on those initiatives, which is the same in political terms. Deputies have promised to protect public employees who dare to disobey the regime and the sick children at J.M. de los Ríos Hospital, but the opposition is still powerless within Venezuela. The only place where the AN has shown some real influence is in U.S. territory, where it took control of CITGO and the embassy—with the help of the local government, of course.

Guaidó, however, is still more popular than any other politician, according to the few reliable polls that are out there. The other thing he still has is legitimacy: as long as Guaidó is the Speaker of the National Assembly, he has the right to be caretaker president. However, he will preside the AN until January 2020, if he doesn’t lose support of the rest of the parties in the meantime. The regime seems to be waiting for Guaidó to fall under the opposition’s inner wars.

The 35-year-old leader who came out of nowhere must find a way to produce tangible results in order to escape jail, or lose his political ground in the short term.

Is Nicolás Maduro surviving the efforts against him?

Given that his objective is to remain in power one day at a time, he’s succeeding so far. That doesn’t mean he’s able to do it for long. During the failed uprising of April 30th, as confirmed by our Political Risk Report and other sources, Maduro was close to being betrayed by part of the brass. The regime works hard to display unity, but all the relevant stakeholders know this is not the case.

How far will the international community go to help Venezuela recover its democracy?

At this time, Donald Trump’s administration is distracted by its many other issues and the “military option,” or the bluff it apparently was, is not present as a real threat at all: there’s no sign that the idea has been seriously considered neither by the U.S. military—a fact ignored by the noisy wishful thinking in part of the anti-Maduro camp—nor the Brazilian, or the Colombian. The Brazilian vice-president, a retired general who worked at the Brazilian Embassy in Caracas, is against the involvement in an armed conflict against the chavista regime. The same happens with the Colombian Armed Forces, which have their hands full with internal problems, although it’s a fact that Maduro is harboring Colombian guerrillas still at war with Bogota.

A foreign military operation isn’t, right now, a probable scenario to ignite regime change, even as the National Assembly is trying to sign Venezuela back into the TIAR treaty and Guaidó’s team maintains an ambiguous speech about assistance from the U.S. Southern Command. On the contrary, what we’re witnessing is an increased diplomatic activity around Venezuela: on the last week of May, a second preliminary meeting, involving envoys from Maduro and Guaidó, took part near Oslo, and on June 3rd, three Foreign ministers of the Lima Group will meet with the International Contact Group created by Europe. Recently, U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, met his Russian counterpart, as did Canada’s Foreign Minister, Christya Freeland, with his Cuban colleague in Havana, all to address Venezuela. There are different approaches and interests, in diverse degrees, but all of them are being addressed at this time.   

What can happen next?

We still see the situation as inherently unstable and unpredictable. All the actors are weak and unable to fully control the outcome, and both competing sides are struggling with intestine wars. The energy crisis must be understood as a chain reaction of problems and limitations, not only for ordinary people and their excruciating everyday suffering: with the shortages of power and fuel, it’s extremely hard to rule a country and to repress an angry population by undisciplined irregulars or hungry troops. It would also be enormously difficult to perform a successful coup… or to organize a functional election.

Many things can happen because almost all the parts involved need the situation to change. Havana needs more Venezuelan oil; Moscow wants to protect its investments and project force near the U.S.; Washington wants a more secure Caribbean without Russian meddling; Ottawa wants an international win to improve its global prestige and a stable Cuba, where Canadian investments are not affected by American sanctions; Beijing wants its money back; and Bogotá, more than any other foreign actor, needs a functional Venezuela to slow down the flow of migrants and eliminate a haven for guerrillas. Most Venezuelans, including many chavistas, are desperate for a normal country where you can eat, switch a light on, have running water and stay alive.   

The only ones who need things just as they are, are Maduro and his circle.

And they are exactly the ones getting more enemies and fewer friends.