What's Brewing Under Chavismo's Latest Power Moves?

Here's an extract of last Friday's Political Risk Report. The new political landscape stimulates competition for the opposition leadership… and also for replacing Maduro


Photo: Prensa Presidencial

While all political actors in Venezuela are thinking of how to improve their prospects after the Mexico talks were suspended, an old constant of Venezuelan politics is causing stress: the reluctance of sitting leaders to accept competition from their allies. The question of leadership is currently intensifying tensions within chavismo and opposition. 

With Hugo Carvajal still in Spain, where the Supreme Court stopped his extradition once again, the big question in Venezuela these days is how much damage will Alex Saab do once he starts to talk with the U.S. Department of Justice. But the extradition of Maduro’s money man isn’t only causing stress amid the chavista elite, it’s also stimulating thoughts about the need to open opportunities for emerging leaders in the ruling party. As we report in last week’s Political Risk Report, Saab isn’t simply some corrupt businessman who flourished under the support of corrupt government officials, but something more akin to the manager of the Maduro family business, whose cronies enjoyed access to the presidential palace and sat alongside Venezuelan ministers as “advisors” in high-level meetings with their foreign counterparts.

But apart from the push to extradite Carvajal, Saab’s extradition has been accompanied by charges against a flurry of relevant chavista collaborators including José Gregorio Vielma Mora, who once was the face of “pragmatic chavismo.” More pressure.

On the surface, chavismo is doing its best to spread the perception that life—with them in power—goes on, even if Saab is in an American jail. The government is busy arranging the regional elections and pushing the normalization agenda through the overwhelming presence of the Saab issue. Jorge Rodríguez tried to get people’s attention by showing a proposal approved by the Colombian Senate calling for the restoration of relations with Venezuela. Maduro ignited social media by announcing he plans to build a city in El Ávila, a protected national park where that would be illegal and catastrophic. He also visited the premises of Ciudad Universitaria, the landmark campus of the impoverished and troubled Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). This was in the middle of the night, along with Delcy Rodríguez and Jacqueline Farías, who was appointed “protector of the UCV.” The message everybody got was that now that the government took over another autonomous public university, Universidad Simón Bolívar, and installed an obedient rector, they are charging against the main university of the country, which has resisted chavista control through two decades of violent assaults and budgetary cuts.

However, behind this show of force, chavismo knows Saab’s extradition will do some damage to the Maduro entourage, and Cuban advisors are already pushing for what they believe is the right course of action, although it isn’t exactly what Maduro wanted to hear, because it has to do with his future as Chávez’s heir. More in the full report.

In the meantime, the course to the regional elections is steady. European observers are already in the country (and a first visit from the new International Criminal Court prosecutor is scheduled for next week). Within the opposition, the competition for its leadership is gaining intensity. After Henrique Capriles increased the stakes by offering a press conference to insist on the end of the caretaker government, Juan Guaidó is seeking the support of the United States and Canada to reframe the survival of the caretaker government authority—under a new arrangement that would sideline Capriles—and pressure Maduro to improve conditions to participate in the regional elections and recognize its results. The life raft of the life raft of the life raft.

In the following weeks and months, Venezuelans will be distracted by many urgent matters, such as the new price of subsidized gas, which will impact the cost of transportation and food. Politics isn’t among their priorities. But the country’s political landscape, still undoubtedly dominated by chavismo, isn’t as stagnant as it seems. The leadership of the future may be starting to take shape today.  

In the full report, you’ll find information on what’s going behind the curtains of the Venezuelan political struggle. You can subscribe to the PRR here.