Venezuela was historically a reliable U.S. ally in Latin America, if always aspiring to more autonomy and a larger role in the region. This relationship was based on oil commerce and the fact that Venezuela was democratic during a period in which most other Latin American democracies broke down. During the 14 years of the Hugo Chavez government, of course, this changed. After assuming the presidency in 1999, Chavez developed an antagonistic relationship with Washington and sought to develop alternative regional relationships and leadership, all while maintaining robust commercial exchange with the U.S. During the government of Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, these aspirations continue to guide Venezuela.
Chavez enjoys posthumous approval ratings in the 70 percent range, while Maduro struggles to confront the issues of governance he inherited. Chavez’s economic model, which depended on exporting oil and importing most everything else, is showing its weakness as Venezuela flirts with hyperinflation, shortages of basic consumer goods and an official exchange rate that is overvalued by 500 percent. This is accompanied by deteriorating infrastructure, crises in hospitals and higher education, and a wave of crime and violence that continues unabated.
While the Chavez coalition has frayed and lost some of its strength, the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is still the nation’s leading political party, and Maduro is still the most popular political leader. Regional elections in December 2013 will be interpreted as a sort of referendum on Maduro as Chavez’s successor and on the ability of Venezuela’s opposition to present itself as a viable alternative.
In the 14 years of the Chavez government, Venezuela was an important catalyst for regional independence vis-a-vis the U.S. In recent years, other countries such as Brazil have assumed a greater role, and in the coming years Venezuela’s role will likely diminish because of significant domestic challenges.
Since becoming a democracy in 1958, Venezuela has sought strong relations with other Latin American countries, as well as with several states that belong to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the United States. While the Venezuelan government has continued to seek strong relations with Latin American and OPEC states under PSUV leadership, relations with the U.S. have deteriorated. In addition, the Venezuelan government has promoted a Third World-ist ideology that encourages the development of a multipolar world and an “anti-imperial” axis of countries. This has led Venezuela to consolidate relations with Latin American countries—especially leftist regional allies, including Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua—as well as with several authoritarian countries.
Since 1998, four principles have governed Venezuelan foreign policy. First, the Venezuelan government has sought to “soft balance” U.S. influence in the region, effectively frustrating Washington’s regional efforts. This has involved, for example, the pursuit of diplomatic engagements, the creation of alternative regional organizations that do not include the U.S., and routinely accusing the U.S. of intervention and meddling. The Venezuelan government has also utilized foreign aid to assist regional allies with development projects and, according to some critics, to finance political campaigns. It has also provided subsidized oil to regional allies through Petrocaribe and other initiatives. This foreign aid is highly unpopular in Venezuela given the challenges facing the Venezuelan economy.
Second, the Venezuelan government has attempted to construct a new multilateralism. It founded the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) and strongly promoted the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Each of these has promoted regional integration, but only ALBA has a strongly leftist and anti-imperialist agenda.
Third, the Venezuelan government has aimed to maximize the price of oil. Alongside Iran and Russia, the Venezuelan government has sought to accomplish this through decreased production. However, these objectives have clashed with those of other OPEC countries, including Saudi Arabia, which has sought the maximization of profit through the maximization of output.
Finally, the Venezuelan government has tried to diversify its trading partners and lessen its dependence on the U.S. market. In doing so, the Venezuelan government has turned largely toward China, which represents a significant potential market and has the resources to build refineries that can process Venezuela’s heavy grade of crude oil. Additionally, through ALBA, CELAC and Unasur, the Venezuelan government has sought bilateral trade agreements and cooperation with both regional allies and authoritarian governments that support an “anti-imperial” axis.
Among the objectives of the ALBA countries, they have sought to create a multipolar world and reorient and reform the functioning of the inter-American human rights system, which includes the Organization of the American States, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Key Bilateral Relations
The United States. While Venezuela historically had strong foreign relations with the U.S., these relations have deteriorated quite rapidly since the 1998 election of Chavez. Although some experts argue that Chavez had always sought to distance the Venezuelan government from the U.S., as evidenced by his rejection of U.S. support during the 1999 mudslides, it was not until the 2002 coup that the Venezuelan government clearly distanced itself from the U.S. Venezuela has maintained that the U.S. was an organizing force behind the coup—a charge the U.S. denies. What is clear is that the U.S. had prior knowledge that a coup was in the works and quickly recognized interim President Luis Carmona Estanga when he took power. Although an investigation into the events surrounding the coup initiated by then-Sen. Chris Dodd (.pdf) concluded that the U.S. government had not engaged in any wrongdoing, U.S.- Venezuela relations have never recovered.
Despite poor diplomatic relations and heated rhetoric from both Chavez and U.S. congressional members, however, the U.S. remains Venezuela’s largest trading partner, with trade between the two countries amounting to $55.8 billion in 2012 (.pdf). And though the Venezuelan government has sought to diversify its oil partners, the U.S. still consumes upward of 40 percent of all Venezuelan oil exports.
Nevertheless, some have characterized the two countries as mutual “mid-level security threats.” Chavez routinely accused the U.S. government of aiming to undermine his so-called Bolivarian Revolution by supporting and funding opposition groups and in the end even potentially poisoning him, accusations that have continued under Maduro. For its part, the U.S. government has sanctioned the Venezuelan government for allegedly harboring and supporting members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and accused Caracas of undermining the regional influence of the U.S. and repressing domestic civil society organizations. What is more, according to recent Pew figures (.pdf), 49 percent of the Venezuelan population now considers the U.S. government an enemy, compared with 36 percent of the population that considers the U.S. government an ally.
U.S. President Barack Obama recently criticized the Venezuelan government for its handling of post-electoral violence after the April 14, 2013, elections and has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the vote—and thus Maduro’s presidency. Still, productive talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua began in June 2013 in an effort to restore regular relations. These efforts were sidelined, however, in July 2013 when Samantha Power, then the nominee as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., vowed to stand up against “repressive regimes” and contest “the crackdown on civil society being carried out in countries like Cuba, Iran, Russia and Venezuela.” The State Department also supported Power and her claims concerning Venezuela. Maduro responded by terminating efforts to restore relations and conditioned resumption of those efforts on the U.S. nominating a new ambassador to the U.N., which did not occur.
Cuba. Throughout Chavez and Maduro’s tenures in office, Cuba has remained Venezuela’s strongest ideological ally. While popular among the Venezuelan government’s most radical supporters, this relationship has led to much criticism from the opposition, and polling makes clear that more than 80 percent of the Venezuelan public does not see Cuba as a good model for Venezuela. While in office, Chavez continually cited the Cuban revolution as an inspiration, and some journalists have even speculated that the Cuban government played a prominent role in Chavez’s decision to anoint Maduro as his successor.
The Venezuela-Cuba relationship has been constructed on more than ideology, however. Since the beginnings of the Chavez government, Venezuela and Cuba have initiated accords involving the transfer of 100,000 barrels of oil per day to the island in exchange for 45,000 Cuban specialists deployed to Venezuela. Many of these specialists have served in Venezuela’s medical and educational missions, but the Cuban government has also sent military, security, intelligence and sports specialists to advise the Venezuelan government. Other agreements have involved food and agriculture, oil refineries, infrastructure and communications technology, which included the construction of an underwater fiber-optic cable to boost Cuban Internet speed by 3,000 percent.
Colombia. Venezuela and Colombia share historical ties and profound admiration for Simon Bolivar, the two countries’ liberator. Throughout the Chavez administration, however, foreign relations between the two neighbors soured greatly. Chavez routinely accused former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe of allowing U.S. military forces operating in Colombia to prepare for a potential invasion of Venezuela. He also accused the Colombian government of bowing to U.S. imperial interests, promoting free trade throughout Latin America and attempting to undermine Venezuelan influence throughout the region. For its part, the Colombian government accused Venezuela of providing sanctuary and financial support for the FARC and attempting to destabilize the Colombian government. After Colombian military forces raided a FARC encampment across the Ecuadorean border in March 2008, conflict between Venezuela and Colombia heightened further, with the Venezuelan government closing its Colombian embassy and deploying troops along the border.
Although the Venezuelan government re-established diplomatic relations with Colombia not long after the 2008 dispute, Venezuela-Colombia relations did not regain much warmth until the election of Juan Manuel Santos as president of Colombia in 2010. Santos openly promoted the repair of relations between the two countries, and Santos and Chavez met on several occasions to discuss issues of mutual importance, including Venezuela’s role in facilitating peace talks between the Colombian guerillas and government. Santos, however, irritated the Venezuelan government in May 2013 when, in the immediate aftermath of the disputed Venezuelan presidential election, he met with opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, despite having recognized Maduro’s electoral victory. Although the Venezuelan government lambasted Santos’ decision and removed itself from the Colombia-FARC peace talks in Cuba, Santos and Maduro met in July to repair relations and move forward. Economically, Colombia remains Venezuela’s 10th-largest trading partner.
Brazil. Since Chavez’s 1998 election, bilateral relations between Venezuela and Brazil have intensified, as both former Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and Chavez emphasized regional unity and integration throughout Latin America. Throughout their tenures in office, Silva and Chavez cooperated on a range of issues of mutual importance. The Venezuelan government and state-owned oil company PDVSA, for example, established an oil refinery in northeastern Brazil, and Brazil’s Petrobras has engaged in oil exploration and investment in Venezuela. By the end of Lula’s presidency in January 2011, Brazil and Venezuela had signed 40 different collaborative agreements. The same collaborative tendency has continued under the administration of Lula’s successor, Dilma Roussef. In June 2011, the two governments agreed on a $637 million plan to build an ALBA shipyard, and Brazil has committed to helping Venezuela meet the goals of a government housing program, Mision Vivienda, and increase electricity generation. Brazil also assisted Venezuela in its incorporation into regional trading bloc Mercosur and collaborated with Venezuela on the creation of UNASUR and CELAC. In 2012, Brazil was Venezuela’s sixth-largest trading partner
Bolivia. Since the 2006 election of Bolivian President Evo Morales, Venezuela has cemented ties with the Bolivian government. Shortly after Morales’ election, Morales, Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro established ALBA as a socialist alternative to U.S. free trade objectives in the region. Since this time, Venezuela and Bolivia have developed numerous bilateral agreements involving the Venezuelan purchase of Bolivian soybeans, Venezuelan oil provisions and educational exchange programs. Most recently, in May 2013, Maduro and Morales committed themselves to a “higher stage” in their relationship. In 2012, trade between the two countries amounted to $512 million. In September 2008, Venezuela broke diplomatic relations with the U.S. in solidarity with Bolivia, after the Bolivian government accused several U.S. diplomats of conspiring with opposition politicians and promoting unrest in several opposition-held regions in Bolivia.
Nicaragua. Since the former Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega took office as president of Nicaragua in 2007, relations between Nicaragua and Venezuela have grown increasingly close. In 2012, trade between the two countries amounted to $1.3 billion, with Venezuela serving as Nicaragua’s largest trading partner next to the U.S. Upon taking office in January 2007, Ortega signed 15 agreements with Venezuela and joined ALBA. What is more, Venezuela forgave all existing Nicaraguan debt, which totaled $31.3 million.
China. After the U.S., China is Venezuela’s No. 1 trading partner. Over the past 10 years, trade with China has grown by a factor of 50, amounting to $24 billion in 2012. China represents an important market for Venezuelan oil since there is little opportunity for growth in the U.S. market. The Venezuelan government currently sends 500,000 barrels of oil per day to China and has announced plans to increase that amount to 1 million barrels per day by 2015. In return for the oil, China has issued Venezuela multiple loans, which have amounted to $36 billion.
China and Venezuela have initiated several hundred bilateral agreements in the areas of oil and energy, communications, housing, consumer appliances and transportation. China has also begun to supply Venezuela with military equipment, including military aircraft and air-defense radars. According to recent Pew global public opinion data, 71 percent of the Venezuelan public possesses a favorable opinion of China, compared with the 53 percent of the Venezuelan public that has a favorable opinion of the U.S.
Nevertheless, China’s oil investments in Venezuela have been frustrated by Venezuela’s complex partnership terms and lack of infrastructure as well as PDVSA mismanagement. China is in Venezuela for the long haul, as it seeks to ensure future sources of oil beyond the U.S.-Saudi global oil alliance, and Beijing has already invested considerable resources in building refineries and tankers. However, it no longer seems willing to provide Venezuela with large cash loans.
Russia. A confluence of interests has brought Russia and Venezuela together. First Chavez and now Maduro have found in Russian President Vladimir Putin an ally in trying to balance the U.S. In addition, like Venezuela and Iran, Russia is an oil producer that prefers to maximize its profits by maximizing prices rather than production. Russian investments in Venezuela now total $21 billion, with a large part of them going toward Venezuelan oil infrastructure. Finally, since the U.S. will not sell Venezuela military weapons and has blocked countries that use U.S. technology in their weapons manufacturing from selling weapons to Venezuela, Caracas has depended on Russia to modernize its military. Since 2007, the Venezuelan government has purchased $11 billion worth of military equipment from Russia, including submarines, Sukhoi fighter jets, assault rifles and army tanks. The Russian and Venezuelan navies have also performed military exercises together off the Venezuelan coast.
Iran. Perhaps the most disturbing relationship that Venezuela has maintained under Chavez has been with the Iranian government. On multiple occasions, Chavez and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled through Caracas and Tehran and publicly embraced one another, referring to each other as allies and brothers in the struggle against imperialism. In 2010 and 2011, the Chavez government defied U.S. sanctions against Iran and delivered oil to the Middle Eastern country, which resulted in U.S. sanctions, albeit largely symbolic ones, against PDVSA. Although this relationship disturbs much of the outside world, it is a far less novel relationship than, for example, Belarusian-Venezuelan relations. In fact, Venezuela and Iran have had diplomatic relations since 1947 and have participated together in OPEC since 1960. Since this time, the two countries have mutually preferred maximizing their oil profits through limited production.
In recent years, Iran and Venezuela have established hundreds of agreements, including accords involving food, technology and communications, among other areas. Historically, and more specifically, the two countries’ agreements have involved the transfer of medical equipment, gun powder and agro-industrial equipment. They have also involved Iranian assistance with the construction of government housing for Mision Vivienda as well as several factories. In 2012, bilateral exchange amounted to $17 billion.
Belarus. Venezuela first established substantial foreign relations with Belarus, the former Soviet country that has been ruled by President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, in July 2006, when Chavez visited Lukashenko, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” and referred to Belarus as a “model of a social state, which we are also building.” Since this time, Chavez and Belarus have established a “strategic alliance” that has included joint oil ventures in Venezuelan oil fields between the countries’ state-owned oil industries, PDVSA and Belarusneft. Belarus has also established oil refining sites in Venezuela and now aims to sell Belarusian products within the region in the near future.
The Venezuelan government has benefited from Belarus’ industrial production of heavy equipment, including tractors, trucks and other vehicles. In addition, Belarus has provided Venezuela with military equipment, including night-vision goggles and military training for Venezuelan military cadets. Since 2008, alongside Russia, Belarus has been assisting Venezuela in creating a single air defense system by providing Venezuela with military software and short- and long-range missiles. Belarus has committed to help Venezuela in housing, forestry and food imports. While trade between the two countries amounted to only $1.9 million in 2000, it stood at $1.3 billion in 2011.
It is easy to overstate the extent of change in Venezuelan foreign policy in the Chavez era, as the country has long seen itself as a champion of Latin American independence and autonomy, and has long had common economic interests with countries such as Iran and Russia. Furthermore most of its neighbors have also expanded economic ties with China. However, Venezuela’s aggressive attempt to balance the United States’ regional influence is a significant departure and has accentuated these existing tendencies.
The Venezuelan Military: Capacities, Priorities and Issues
During the Chavez period, the Venezuelan armed forces have taken a quite different direction than they did during the previous 40 years of democracy, in which there was an emphasis on professionalizing and depoliticizing them. They now fulfill myriad public sector functions. There has also been a significant push in recent years to update and modernize the military’s capacities.
The Politicization of the Military. While Venezuelan military leaders had played prominent roles in Venezuelan politics throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, the democracy founded in 1958 sought to bring Venezuela’s military under civilian control and limit its influence.
Throughout the next several decades, the Venezuelan government sought to de-politicize the military, establish civilian control and primarily center military aims on foreign security threats. While some scholars agree that the Venezuelan government did indeed establish this civilian control, others suggest that the military continually prioritized counterinsurgency, taking aim at revolutionary, leftist elements, from urban and rural communist guerillas to the leftist populations that existed throughout the Caracas barrios. Most scholars agree, though, that since the 1998 election of Chavez, a lieutenant colonel himself, the military began to take on a more prominent and politicized role within domestic life.
The military has long been the most highly esteemed public institution in Venezuela and is second only to the Catholic Church overall. For the average citizen it represents order and efficiency against a background of chaos and dysfunction, and giving it an important societal role appears logical.
From the first years of his administration Chavez used the military to carry out domestic missions, including vaccinations and food distribution in low-income areas. Military officers have also occupied important government posts at every level, and under Chavez, Venezuelan military personnel became eligible to vote in elections.
This, of course, has been part of a re-politicization of the military that had unsurprising consequences. In the months prior to the 2012 presidential elections, several high-level military officials declared that they would not recognize the presidency of anyone other than Chavez. Yet, some observers have surmised that fractures exist within the PSUV, with Maduro, supported by the Cuban government, on one side, and politician and former member of the military Diosdado Cabello, supported by several high-ranking military officials, on the other. Rumors even developed in early 2013 that Cabello and several military officials were planning to forcefully depose Maduro, the recordings of a pro-government television host speaking with a Cuban intelligence official revealed.
Venezuelan government officials, including Cabello, Minister of Defense Adm. Diego Molero, and other military officials, however, have repeatedly denied these claims. Maduro recently reshuffled his cabinet, making Molero the ambassador to Brazil and appointing Adm. Carmen Melendez in his place as defense minister. Melendez is understood to be a military institutionalist, who has not publicly advocated for a strong political role for the military. Indeed, in 1992, Melendez objected to Chavez’s failed coup and, in 2002, refused to partake in the coup against him.
Capabilities. The National Armed Forces of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (FANB) includes several components: an army, a navy, an air force, a presidential guard, a national militia and a national guard. In 2012, it had a defense budget of $4.01 billion. This is the government’s largest allocation since 2009, but it does not surpass the annual allocations during the 2006-2008 period, in which the Venezuelan government had most vigorously sought to modernize its military equipment. While some U.S. government officials have exhibited alarm with recent Venezuelan military spending, analysts point out that it is far from out of line with what other Latin American governments have spent recently to modernize their military equipment, including Argentina ($4.3 billion in 2012), Brazil ($33.1 billion), Chile ($5.4 billion) and Colombia ($12.1 billion).
Since 2006, the Venezuelan government has actively sought to modernize its military’s weaponry and functioning. It has purchased at least $11 billion worth of weaponry from Russia, with additional weaponry purchased primarily from Belarus, China and Iran, among other countries. This has included small arms and equipment, such as night- vision goggles for all assault rifles, as well as big-ticket items such as tanks, submarines, aircraft and Sukhoi fighter jets.
Reliable numbers for Venezuelan military capabilities are hard to come by, but estimates of troop strength range from 100,000 to 150,000. The armed forces are said to have approximately 1,000 tanks and armored vehicles, 500 total aircraft and 36 naval vessels, including 2 submarines.
The National Militia and the Colectivos. On July 31, 2008, using an enabling law, Chavez signed the Organic Law of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces, which was reformed in 2011. This law created a fifth branch of the armed forces: the Bolivarian National Militia. The doctrine of the Bolivarian National Militia is the Integral Defense of the Nation, and its purpose is (.pdf) “to act as a complement to the active armed force by providing replacements and relief forces, and completing missions that are a part of the FANB’s greater strategic goals.” The law describes the Bolivarian National Militia as “a purely defensive institution . . . that is to contribute to sustaining the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation.” The Bolivarian National Militia is also supposed to coordinate and collaborate with communal councils.
The international media frequently conflates the Bolivarian National Militia with the citizen-based armed “collectives” that exist throughout some of the Caracas barrios, many of which existed prior Chavez’s 1998 election. These groups imagine themselves as the real power behind the Venezuelan revolution and see it as their task to ensure its continuity. While some have portrayed the collectives as maintaining moral and social order within locations that local police hardly understand, others have portrayed them as self-serving vigilantes that engage in illicit activities and intimidate the opposition. They are best seen as armed and autonomous parts of the Chavista movement that the government does not have clear control over.
All segments of the Venezuelan political spectrum have an interest in exaggerating the numbers and firepower of both the militia and collectives. Pro-government sectors trumpet them as a deterrent against belligerent action from domestic or international opponents, while anti-government sectors point to them in order to portray Venezuela as a dangerous “rogue state.” Some estimates put the militia at between 300,000 and 800,000. Other expert analyses suggest (.pdf) the real number is between 30,000 and 40,000.
Drug-Trafficking and Relations With the FARC. The “Cartel of the Suns” refers to the alleged drug-trafficking network that exists within the Venezuelan military forces. The term “cartel” is a bit misleading, however. Analysts point out that various cells exist throughout the military with no hierarchical leadership. These cells are alleged to primarily exist in western Venezuela, along the border with Colombia, and to traffic drugs, primarily cocaine, across the border with assistance from the FARC and through several ports on the Caribbean coast. While the notion of a cartel within the military developed in 1993 as a result of an investigation into several military officials assisting with drug trafficking across the Colombian border, it is suspected that drug-trafficking has increased over the past decade or so, due to the termination at that time of the peace process between the FARC guerillas and the Colombian government, and the alleged security threats that the Venezuelan government faces from U.S. military bases in Colombia. The former development pushed FARC guerillas closer to the Venezuelan border, while the latter dynamic meant the placement of more Venezuelan military personnel along the border with Colombia, increasing interaction between the two groups.
Since 2008, when several laptops were retrieved by the Colombian military during a raid on a FARC base across the Ecuadorean border, the U.S. and other countries have accused high-ranking Venezuelan government and military officials of participating in the drug trade. As a result, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has placed sanctions on several high-ranking officials, including Henry Rangel Silva, Venezuela’s former minister of defense, and Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, Venezuela’s former minister of the interior and justice, among others, claiming that they assisted the FARC in smuggling cocaine into Venezuela. The Venezuelan government has repeatedly denied these claims, and, in recent years, has even deported several high-ranking FARC members and drug-traffickers to Colombia for prosecution.
The Venezuelan military’s social and political role significantly increased during the Chavez years, as did its capabilities. However, it has little international profile. It has not participated in peacekeeping missions, for example, although it has engaged in humanitarian actions in Haiti, Bolivia, Nicaragua and other countries. Transparency in military expenditures and operations has declined significantly, and there is a good deal of debate (.pdf) concerning expenditures and capabilities. Most observers, however, suggest there is considerable corruption (.pdf) and involvement in drug trafficking. This combined with politicization likely affects its overall readiness.
The success of Venezuela’s assertive foreign policy during the Chavez years depended upon the president’s popularity and charisma, the strong economy and ever improving social indicators. Maduro’s most significant challenges are domestic, and his foreign policy will likely depend on whether he can successfully meet them. The strength and unity of the Chavista political coalition, the Venezuelan economy, the infrastructure and basic issues of rule of law all shows signs of instability.
Political Instability. The transition from Chavez to Maduro was traumatic, with Maduro barely winning the April 2013 snap election, despite having a 15 percent polling lead at the time of Chavez’s passing. The first few months of his presidency were rocky, as the opposition contested the elections, and the government has faced serious economic and infrastructural challenges.
Polls show that Maduro’s job approval is stable, with people apparently still giving him the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, these same polls show that the public perceives considerable instability in his administration. This is remarkable, given that power in Venezuela is concentrated in the executive branch, and reveals a perception that Maduro is not in full control of the government. The coalition Chavez brought together—including center-left progressives, far-left activists and nationalist military sectors—fit Chavez himself well, but will be hard for Maduro to keep together. In May the release of the Silva tapes revealed far-reaching conflict and infighting.
Nevertheless, the opposition has not been able to capitalize on the political instability of the past five months. Opposition presidential candidate Capriles’ poll numbers have actually declined slightly since April, and his net job approval numbers are negative—43.0 percent evaluate his job performance positively, 48.1 percent negatively. Nor is it clear that the opposition will be able to capitalize on Maduro’s weakness in the December 2013 elections. These elections will be not only a referendum on Chavismo without Chavez, but on an opposition without Chavez. Occupying only a handful of governorships and a minority in the National Assembly, the opposition has struggled to put forth a viable alternative agenda.
Citizen Security. No issue in Venezuela draws more attention than homicide rates. In 2012, the government reported 14,852 homicides, and the number continues on an upward trend. For Venezuela, this means a rate of 51 homicides per 100,000 citizens. When deaths attributed to “resisting arrest” and deaths “under investigation” are included, this number rises to 23,506 homicides, or 78 per 100,000 citizens.
In 2008 the government launched a significant effort at citizen security reform. A new policing law created the General Police Council to oversee the elimination of the corrupt Metropolitan Police and the creation of a new civilian National Police, as well as a system of police academies. This was followed by a comprehensive push for gun control. Both efforts were headed by human rights activists that had long worked on issues of police abuse and torture. In 2012 these efforts were brought together into the Full Life Venezuela Mission. Parallel to this, however, there has been a competing reassertion of the military’s role in citizen security with a series of plans that put soldiers in the streets.
During Maduro’s months in office the tide has clearly shifted in favor of militarized policing, as continued upward trends in crime and violence have reduced political support for civilian police reform. The backdrop of the fraying effort at police reform is a corrupt and dysfunctional judiciary and penal system. In 2012 the World Justice Project, which ranks countries based on the rule of law, put Venezuela in the bottom 25 percent of all countries worldwide. Venezuela ranked dead last in terms of criminal justice and near the bottom regionally in all categories measured. Venezuela’s prison system, as well, is one of the worst in the region. In 2012, 591 individuals were killed in prison, and 60 were killed in violence in one prison this January.
Inflation and Shortages. Venezuela is flirting with hyperinflation—defined as inflation rates higher than 40 percent—for 2013. The basic problem is that, despite extraordinary oil earnings, Venezuela no longer has enough dollars to meet demand. In 2012 the Chavez government pulled out all the stops to generate a growth rate of greater than 5 percent, using loans from China and internal debt to supplement income.
The overvalued currency—black market rates are at least 500 percent higher than the official exchange rate—leads to an insatiable demand for dollars, and the government cannot honor all requests. This makes an expensive parallel market the only feasible option for many businesses. In addition it creates enormous incentives for corruption. Huge amounts of the government’s dollar supply, potentially up to 25 percent, are used for capital flight.
Another manifestation of distortions in the Venezuelan economy is widespread scarcities in basic consumer goods. Since Maduro took office, scarcity indexes have averaged 20 percent, meaning that any given consumer product is unavailable in one of five stores. It should be remembered, however, that these scarcities come in the midst of record-breaking levels of consumption because of price controls and an overvalued currency. While GDP per capita only grew by 15 percent between 1998 and 2012, private consumption experienced an increase of 55 percent. For example, in the past 15 years, average daily calorie consumption has increased from 2,000 to 3,000.
Corruption. Venezuela’s inflated exchange rate provides enormous incentives and opportunities for corruption. In addition, the Chavez and now Maduro governments have tended to critique institutions and modern norms of management such as transparency and accountability as bourgeois or characteristic of old-fashioned “representative democracy.” As a result corruption has thrived.
At the same time, perceptions of corruption have increased in importance in recent years as the social and economic progress of the 2004-2008 period seems to have stagnated. Even among government supporters there is a feeling that things should be better than they are and that corruption is to blame. Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis released data in June showing that perceptions of the government’s work against corruption are worse than those for any other issue except for crime. According to Transparency International’s 2013 Global Barometer, 57 percent of Venezuelan respondents think that corruption has “increased a lot” in the past two years. The same percentage said that the government’s efforts in fighting corruption were ineffective, and 83 percent said corruption is a serious problem in the public sector.
The Maduro government has launched a high-profile anti-corruption effort, but experts are pessimistic about its chances for success.
Infrastructure. Despite the economic boom caused by high oil prices, there has been a serious lack of investment in Venezuela’s infrastructure. The government nationalized most of the electrical system in 2007 and has fallen seriously behind in expanding capacity, resulting in rolling blackouts in much of the country since 2010. The water system, roads and parts of the oil industry have also fallen into disrepair. In September 2012 an enormous explosion at a gasoline refinery killed 47 people. Since then Venezuela has been importing much of the gasoline it uses from the U.S.
Maduro’s success in addressing these domestic issues will determine how much strength he has to continue Venezuela’s regional role. Increasing domestic demands will diminish the resources the government can dedicate to subsidized oil programs such as Petrocaribe.
Venezuela’s entire foreign policy has been predicated on the idea of balancing Washington’s regional influence by facilitating Latin American unity, and the past decade has seen significant progress with the creation of Unasur and CELAC. One of the most significant achievements in recent years was rapprochement with neighboring Colombia, a strong U.S. ally. This relationship was an important step in reducing the United States’ ability to counter Venezuela.
However, Colombia’s distancing itself from Venezuela in May highlighted the ways in which Venezuela’s position in the region will likely be threatened in the coming years as the U.S. seeks to re-establish strong relations with countries like Brazil, Colombia and Argentina. How Maduro responds to these challenges will determine if Chavez’s vision of Venezuela’s international role is consolidated or set aside.
David Smilde is senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and associate professor of sociology at the University of Georgia. He moderates WOLA’s blog Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights and is co-editor of “Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation Politics and Culture in Venezuela Under Chavez.” You can follow his work on Venezuela at @dsmilde.
Timothy Gill is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Georgia, where he is completing a dissertation on international funding for civil society organizations in Venezuela. He is also a regular contributor to WOLA’s blog Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.