While the Giant Sleeps, Maduro Goes All In

Using the TSJ to take over main opposition parties right after appointing the new CNE board of authorities, the regime wiped out the chances of de-escalation and doesn’t expect there will be a price to pay

Chavismo has a long tradition of setting up parallel structures for whatever they can’t control. It started off, perhaps, when Antonio Ledezma won the elections for Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas in 2009 and Chávez appointed Jackeline Faría as a sort of parallel mayor and transferred most of the budget and several key functions to her. This pattern continued with the appointment of “protectors” to run parallel governments in the states where chavismo lost local elections. Similar to what they did by the end of 2015 with the TSJ, now chavismo is repacking the boards of opposition parties with opposition dissidents that can work with them towards a legislative election.  

On Friday morning, the Venezuela-watching community was deep into the discussion of whether it was possible to dive into elections if the Maduro regime opened a window and allowed the AN’s elections commission to appoint the new directors of the electoral council (CNE). On Wednesday, the chavista Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) had given an ultimatum to the commission, giving them 72 hours to come up with the names of the new board. This ultimatum was seen by many as a sort of an olive branch. One chance to allow the opposition-controlled AN to participate in the process of naming a new CNE. But an ultimatum is an ultimatum and the bullet was in the chamber. The TSJ had taken all the steps they usually take before naming a new CNE, which they have done twice already. So after the AN said they were going to name the directors in due course without complying with the 72-hour deadline given by the TSJ, the Maduro court went ahead and named them.

This fake olive branch, along with the health agreement signed between Maduro’s Health Ministry and National Assembly advisors, gave some folks a glimmer of hope that this could actually be the beginning of a civilized exchange between the government and the opposition. Economist Michael Penfold wrote an interesting and heartfelt Twitter thread explaining how a lawfully appointed CNE was a first step towards that. But it was short-lived. In the end, the CNE named three hardcore loyalists, one fake opposition representative and a murky adeco. Exactly what their plan had been from the beginning, as we mentioned that Friday afternoon in our Political Risk Report:

“The 72-hour deadline is considered the TSJ’s last offer for the AN—which expires on June 13th—before appointing (for the CNE board) the five people we reported in last week’s PRR: three PSUV-leaning rectors, TSJ Justice Indira Alfonzo, current rector Tania D’Amelio, and TSJ Justice Gladys Gutiérrez; and two opposition-leaning rectors, Luis Emilio Rondón (Bernabé Gutiérrez’s brother was named in his place) and Rafael Simón Jiménez.”

Which makes clear that they never meant to abide by what the commission decided. The decision had been made. Also, according to a PSUV source, Diosdado Cabello was pushing hard for the immediate appointment of the CNE board regardless of the timeframe, since he believes the correlation of international support will shift in their favor once the election is held.

They never meant to abide by what the commission decided. The decision had been made.

It was a small step forward and twenty steps back for the opposition as this creates more division between the G4 parties.

And then… 

While the opposition is trying to recover from the AD blow, the TSJ lands another jab. The Maduro court intervened the Primero Justicia board and handed control to José Brito—one of the rogue AN deputies that tried to install a parallel parliament board. And regarding Voluntad Popular, Leopoldo López’s party, it appears the jury is—literally—still out, as the TSJ is figuring out which chamber should give them the death blow. 

Up to now, at least eight parties have been intervened by the TSJ. 

Of course, you could argue that the TSJ is violating the Constitution on top of the fact that it has no legitimacy, that this doesn’t annul the parties, and that they could go about their business by gathering their supporters as if nothing happened. But you could make the same argument against Maduro’s presidency, and in favor of Guaidó’s administration. But it begs the question: who controls the territory?

And there’s one more thing. What if there are disgruntled militants in these parties? And we’re not talking about the leadership, we’re talking about mid-ranking grunts. People tired of the monolithic structures of the Venezuelan political parties, and who don’t see effective solutions and movement within its ranks. What if they are able to amass enough people to actually rally parallel parties (not just parallel boards) and hold an election including PSUV and all of the big political parties. Would this be enough to make an argument before the international community that a parliament elected using this illegal CNE is legitimate? Well, maybe not before the U.S. But, before this new bullish China? Before Russia? Latin America? Europe?

What has become clear is that, at the moment, there seems to be no middle-ground solution. The idea of a de-escalation of the political conflict, and using the internationally recognized power of the opposition to mediate sanction lifting and the recognition of the government, simply faded away. Chavismo doubles down on its divide and conquer strategy, and seems invested in demonstrating that whatever power the opposition had in government institutions was only because they allowed it. And the opposition was left in The Bad Place, with little possibility to rally a constituency that forgot that politicians are supposed to do politics.

Winning in the Three Arenas, So Far

The regime is organizing its force and coercion resources in three different magnitudes, according to the risk levels in three different areas: the risk of public unrest among the common population, the risk of political competition from the opposition, and the risk of external pressure from the opposition’s allies abroad.

The risk of public unrest is manageable, to a certain extent, if the regime preserves its ability to keep the protest under control with the force it can apply with its armed actors, and manages the variables that make people protest, especially utilities and food. Here’s where things get more difficult (more for common Venezuelans, than for the regime), because the lack of water, cooking gas, power, and gasoline will remain. However, by easing the confinement measures—even when COVID-19 cases are spiking right now—the regime is giving space to the population to keep finding their sustenance and therefore reducing the risk of public unrest, because in a country with such economic conditions, confinement is more dangerous for most people’s capacity to survive than coronavirus. Opening the cities and roads also allows reinforcing the propaganda narrative of the Iranian gasoline coming to restart the country, breaking the siege of the United States. So, people will keep protesting for lack of water, power, and cooking gas, but that is not the same as a general uprising. This kind of protest is more pragmatic (let’s block this road and force the local government to provide us with water at least for a day) and it doesn’t represent a political risk; however, it’s a strain on the diminished capacities of the security forces. More protests to attend, mean more gasoline for police trucks, and gasoline is now the most valued resource in the wide list of scarce goods in Venezuela. 

Chavismo doubles down on its divide and conquer strategy, and seems invested in demonstrating that whatever power the opposition had in government institutions was only because they allowed it.

Even more easy is the arena of political competition, the one where chavismo operates to reduce the possibilities of being displaced by a domestic political actor. Here, the regime is closing a phase of erasing the domestic threats created in January 2019 when Juan Guaidó took his oath as caretaker president. The cohesion and drive to protest the opposition reacquired at that moment, and especially its chances of producing a break within the Armed Forces, are all but deflated now. The leadership is gone, with little support in the polls, and unable to mobilize protests. The April 30th failure and the Macuto incident showed the opposition has no influence in the military. The centrifuge forces inherent to the opposition alliance are working again to dissolve the existing links under the pressure of reality: the opposition failed and democracy is dead. The next parliamentary elections are just another wedge to divide what’s left of the opposition and has a very high potential of displacing Guaidó from the Speakership, and giving the AN back to PSUV. This means not only taking Guaidó out of the picture, but also accessing parliament approval for loans and contracts with foreign oil companies, for instance.

This leads us to the third arena: the pressure from abroad. The chavista regime has been testing it and has found that Guaidó’s allies don’t usually walk the talk. Maduro can go forward in his effort to close all the gaps in the hull of his ship and keep sailing at ease, as long as he finds the answer—mostly by acting and seeing—to some strategic questions: What will the “international community” do about a new chavista-controlled AN, or about Guaidó being apprehended? How much attention will stranded Venezuela get in the context of the pandemic and the economic need to recover? What will Joe Biden do about Venezuela if he is elected president in November? 

If the regime can control the population in a scenario of an ongoing economic disaster and the spread of COVID-19, as it seems it will, and if it can also continue shattering the opposition in unconnected tribes with several degrees of aggressiveness against the regime but minimal agency to do anything, Maduro can transit unworried for several months. 

Only one real problem remains: the seas, which are unsafe for Venezuelan oil, for drugs exported by people very close to Maduro, and for businessmen like Walter Ruperti or Alex Saab. Ruperti, a very well known ship owner, has been close to the revolution since the foregone days of the oil strike of 2002, when he offered some vessels to export the oil when the PDV Marina ships remain anchored by their rebel captains. In the recent weeks, he is said to take part again in another rescue, by sending vessels to help the sanctioned PDVSA, exposing them to the OFAC reprisals. And Alex Saab, the main partner of the conglomerate of shadowy companies behind CLAP, and probably the most important business man in the whole world for Nicolás Maduro, was taken prisoner this same weekend in Cabo Verde when he stopped to refuel his private plane, between Tehran and Caracas. Now, this human treasure of information and connections remains in custody, requested by the U.S

So we saw the appointment of a new CNE, the detention in the middle of the Atlantic of Maduro’s invaluable friend, and an aggressive take over of the opposition parties between Friday and Tuesday. Many things can happen in Venezuela in four days… but within some parameters of feasibility. We can expect more incidents related to the sanctions and the warrants on regime-related people. We can expect demonstrations in the streets and anger in the social media, and brute force against them. But at this moment, it’s very unlikely we’ll see something as extraordinary as what happened in January 2019. Maduro won in the short play. He managed to survive the alliance between the AN Speaker, the four main opposition parties, and more than 50 states that recognized Guaidó as legitimate president. 

Now, Maduro is being prepared for the long game.