Maduro Pulls Off an Old Stalin Move

And we're not just talking about the stache. Amidst a popularity crisis, Maduro decides to take action against some key allies

In late March, the Venezuelan news cycle was dominated by the start of what the government has since called the “PDVSA-Crypto” corruption scheme investigation. More than 60 people have now been detained in a very high-profile, very public “anti corruption crusade” that has led to serious internal power shifts within the PSUV as one of its longtime historical figures, Tarek El Aissami, has been cut down from grace alongside a large chunk of the pro-PSUV oligarchy that became known as the boliburguesía.

The timing and overall context in which these actions are being carried out reveals that Maduro may not be feeling very safe in his position as president and leader of the PSUV party. In fact, his hurried actions and the massive risk he’s exposed himself to reveal an air of desperation around him, one that could lead him down a harsher, more authoritarian path as we approach the next presidential election.

A Tense Situation

It shouldn’t be controversial to recognize that Maduro’s government isn’t very popular. The 2021 regional elections saw PSUV “achieve” its worst ever result in a major election in its entire history. What followed seemed to play straight into his hands, for a while anyway. A small but noticeable economic recovery allowed the government to “depoliticize” the conversation surrounding Venezuela, promote a new good-vibes nationalism, and watch the opposition fall apart fighting itself. Things can change quickly though, and August 2022 marked the start of a new period of discontent and worry for the power holders in Miraflores.

Public sector workers, along with private sector counterparts, took to the streets to protest the government’s labor policies. This coincided with a new period of monetary crisis and was followed by a general economic slump as 2022 came to an end. By March, whatever good faith was left from those few months of growth was over. The labor protests continued, having morphed from opposition to a specific measure to criticism over the country’s economy as a whole, threats from the government and later negotiations with sector leaders were not enough to quell the anger.

This is the context in which Nicolás Maduro decided to publicly announce that his government had allowed a massive corruption scheme to bleed PDVSA dry of critical funds the state needs to operate. Just a few months after the start of the arrests and in the midst of continued labor protests, Maduro organized a rally where he was expected to announce a minimum wage increase. Instead, for the second consecutive year, there was no wage increase but a raise in propaganda bonuses that are not considered an integral part of salaries. His announcement was met by loud boos, at his own rally. He even had to adjust the bonuses the following day after seeing the reactions.

Maduro isn’t popular with his electoral base, so why did he risk upsetting his cronies in the kleptocratic system that helps him retain power even amid such a complicated economic situation that has left him unwanted by a large swath of the public?

Well, it’s precisely because he’s unpopular. He’s afraid that his allies will get nervous at this lack of popularity and support.

Upsetting the System

Say you’re one of these key power-players. You’ve devoted the last couple of decades to helping the PSUV retain power. You’ve held an important national intelligence role in which you spied on those who had plans against Maduro, you’ve played the counterintelligence game and you’ve been rewarded with a couple of companies with juicy state-contracts. You have secured the life you’ve always wanted. Then, you notice the low vote totals in the 2021 regional elections, and you see the smaller and smaller crowds at PSUV rallies. Soon you see the videos of Maduro being booed in public. You grow nervous that he may not turn it around in time for the elections, you worry he may lose—which could seriously affect your lavish new lifestyle. You get to thinking it might be wise to find an alternative…

This is what Maduro intends to avoid by carrying out his purge. He seeks to get rid of possible power-players that could make the previous paragraph a reality. It’s true that shaking the system up risks this fear becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: you’re afraid that someone will see you’re unpopular and rise to challenge your power, so you throw a bunch of people in jail, making others nervous and leading to someone challenging your power. However, the fact that Maduro went through with his purge means he feels the risk is worth taking, implying he was seriously worried that inaction could spell his end.

Remember, this isn’t a couple of guys getting thrown into jail, this is over sixty people and the Public Ministry insists more are on the way. It’s a huge shake up and something that would’ve been safer had it been a few arrests here and there over a couple of years. It’s all at once, though, implying Maduro didn’t feel he had the time to do it carefully.

Fear of the Dark

In the 1930s, the Soviet leadership sought to implement their communist model and began by undertaking massive agrarian reforms which ended up collectivizing farming. The result was catastrophic, it crippled the economy and killed millions from starvation. Joseph Stalin feared his lack of popular support would see a coup executed against him by possible internal rivals, so he acted. Stalin’s purge saw hundreds of thousands locked up, executed, forcibly disappeared or enslaved. In the end, there was no conspiracy. His “rivals” weren’t actually plotting against him, he was scared and seeing monsters in the shadows.

The fact that Maduro is acting this way doesn’t mean the government is collapsing, I highly doubt that. It also doesn’t mean there’s some big rival out there getting a plot ready to strike. Maduro may not know who he’s fighting, he may not be fighting anyone, but he feels that there’s someone out to get him. His actions are more paranoid than they’ve been in the past and, with the elections just months away and the economic situation being what it is, I suspect his paranoia will continue to haunt him, leading him (and those who bent the knee in the purge) to take more authoritarian measures in the coming months.