On the night of September 3rd, 2016, the quiet Venezuelan island of Margarita became the epicenter of a national crisis. But this Friday night was not punctuated by gunshots or taut with the threat of an armed rebellion: it was throbbing with the unmistakable pounding of pots and pans.
The residents of Villa Rosa participated in a form of protest known as a cacerolazo. Thousands of people marched the streets banging pots and pans to protest the current president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, as he made a visit to the island town. Maduro navigated the streets on foot despite the flagrant and ignominious demonstrations in favor of what has become the central issue of the current protests–a referendum to recall him.
Protests have only increased in frequency in the past year as Venezuela’s economic crisis has reached a new extreme. According to World Bank figures, GDP shrank by 7% in 2015 and is expected to shrink an additional 8% in 2016. A CNN report found that goods shortages have forced citizens to travel to neighboring countries in search of affordable essentials, including toiletries, medicine, and even food.
Much of the crisis has been attributed to Maduro, successor of Hugo Chavez after his death in 2013. There are a battery of reasons for why Maduro has emerged as a target for this guilt, including that Chavez built his government through a populist movement. Chavismo, as the movement is known, is a socialist movement that aims to use distribution of Venezuela’s oil wealth as a means of achieving general social welfare. Professor Paris Aslanidis of Yale University told The Politic that Chavismo was heavily dependent upon the personality of Chavez himself for its success. Splinters emerged within the movement even before Chavez’s death, but he was able to bridge these gaps due to his credentials as a revolutionary and his persona.
Maduro has neither the charisma of Maduro nor his credentials, Professor Aslanidis continued, having won his position not through struggle against the political elite but rather by appointment. Consequently, citizens and members of the government that might have taken Chavez’s side in such a crisis have few qualms about turning on Maduro. Moreover, as oil prices have deflated in recent years and mismanagement has lowered productivity, the efficacy of hallmark Chavismo policy has fallen flat.
That little has been done to fix the economic crisis does Maduro’s image no favors. In June the Organization of American States underscored this point when it cited Maduro’s passivity as it advocated for a recall vote. At the heart of the crisis is the universally accepted but little discussed fact that there are no easy solutions. Resolving the economic crisis will be a long, unpleasant process, but there are tangible solutions the government could employ to work towards a resolution. According to Professor Alejandro Velasco of NYU, devaluation could reduce the extreme goods shortage by improving the exchange rate. While politically toxic, this solution would not hurt citizens of Venezuela; hyperinflation is already damaging personal economies. Additionally, the government could cut back on international spending, such as upholding obligations to exchange oil with regional parties for political capital. Changes in the political landscape regionally have made space for Venezuela to enact such an option and generate cash.
Independent of which path to recovery is taken, the road will be long, hard, and wildly unpopular. Professor Velasco described that the Chavistas do not want to be associated with these extreme measures, many of which effectively undo years of Chavismo policy. In response to the deepening crisis and lack of government intervention, the public has petitioned for a recall vote for Maduro. The opposition gathered enough signatures, but the government has deferred the recall vote until early 2017. Following this decision, which many voters viewed as a constitutional violation, the protests achieved a fever pitch. The country’s economic crisis intersected with a constitutional one, mobilizing even greater segments of the population.
The opposition seized on to this momentum in order to mobilize their countermovement, one that Professor Aslanidis notes to have strong populist undertones. Professor Aslanidis contends that “the opposition has two options: provide an altogether different face, like a liberal and cosmopolitan movement, or adopt elements of populist rhetoric.” The numbers support the opposition’s self-characterization as being “of the people,” given Maduro’s current approval ratings of 24%. But the opposition itself is not a coherent political ideology, as few populist movements are. Instead, the opposition more closely resembles a coalition of diverse interests all invested in the common causes of ousting the government and fixing the economy. Forbes has reported on the dissonant groups that have joined in this opposition, such as far leftists who formerly supported Chavez and traditionally conservative, religious groups. So even within coalitions, the political situation in Venezuela is tumultuous at best.
Despite the turmoil in Venezuela, the Villa Rosa protests stand out. Cacerolazo itself is not an uncommon form of protest, with origins in Brazil in the 1970s and a history of appearances in Venezuela. Professor Velasco explains that it is unusual for such a protest to go unanticipated and uninterrupted by the legion of secret service members typically found with the president. On September 3rd, Maduro’s unusually small cotillion of secret services members did nothing to stop the protests even after they were under way.
The protests registered a harsh tone after the failure of a government counter-protest on Wednesday, September 1st, just two days earlier. Professor Velasco indicated that, in order to respond to the growing anti-Maduro protests, the government called a rally of supporters to demonstrate continued public support for the government. Once a surefire way of demonstrating government support, the poorly attended protest only underscored the weakness of Maduro’s current position. For the first time in decades the opposition party not only had strong public support but highly visible support in the form of demonstrations. These demonstrations coupled with the weak showings at the government protests to vault the opposition into a position of political strength.
In the wake of an extreme economic crisis, calls for a recall vote, and an enormously popular opposition, Maduro’s days as president seem limited. Stratfor reported that on September 13, three powerful government members – Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodriguez, former National Assembly Speaker Diosdado Cabello, and President Maduro – confirmed to that instead of laying on pressure against the government, the opposition party had been negotiating.
Professor Velasco also told The Politic that “these conversation show that the opposition has a big problem. They don’t want to take over with the economy as it is.”
Severe austerity measures. Draconian service cuts. Regardless of who controls it, dramatic measures must be taken by the government to provide a durable solution to the crisis. Professor Velasco explained that despite the harm to the economy that this deferral is inflicting, the opposition does not want to be branded as the party that betrayed public trust by playing a hand in devastating policy changes. Public awareness of the negotiations has become a major embarrassment for the opposition, as it muddies their claims of power and public support. While they have the potential to control, they do not want to govern.
The protests in Villa Rosa take on a new significance in light of the current negotiations. In tandem with the failure of the anti-government protests, Professor Velasco explained that Villa Rosa served as a major wakeup call for Maduro. Maduro believed that despite the crisis Chavismo and his presidency were still politically viable. However, the negotiations suggest that other members of the government had already moved on. The protests awoke Maduro to the realization that he too needed to participate in this intrigue because he has become a scapegoat of his own party. He speculated that the secret service failures were not an accident but rather a calculated political move by someone in the government to further weaken the position of Maduro.
Professor Velasco explained that the negotiations into which opposition strength forced the government likely motivated this sabotage. Both parties serve to profit from negotiations. The opposition hopes to place the blame for drastic economic measures onto the Chavistas. A Chavista figure in the presidency allows the opposition to negotiate solutions and share blame for their drastic nature, even if these negotiations come at a cost to the quality and range of solutions enacted.
Professor Aslanidis suggested that the goal of the government has shifted from holding the presidency and power through the previous election to saving Chavismo in any form. While the pendulum is shifting towards the opposition, the Chavistas are crafting plans to swing it back. The only way for the movement to save itself from the enormous backlash that the policy changes would bring would be to incriminate Maduro. By allowing for the referendum to occur in 2017 instead of 2016, the government would be responsible for enacting the first stages of economic reform instead of the opposition. Blame Maduro, lose the government, and come back in the next election cycle —in this way the Chavistas plan on living to fight another day.
Maduro, however, still carries power in his position as President. He does have his own trump card–resignation. Professor Velasco described how Maduro’s resignation would trigger a nightmare scenario for both the government and the opposition. The government would lose the ability to distance itself from Maduro before the 2017 recall vote. The opposition would be forced to enact drastic measures without the blaming them on the Chavistas. To avoid this scenario, the opposition and the Chavistas are incentivized to protect Maduro.
According to Carlos Lauria of Journalists without Borders, the government is already taking direct action to control the narrative of the opposition. He told The Politic that “the situation has deteriorated. It has become much more difficult for journalists to do their work. Newspapers do not have adequate supplies to actually print—they have had to cut sections.” The government, he explained, has disrupted the supply chains of various supplies crucial to the newspaper industry, even materials so essential as paper.
Mr. Lauria explained that this new wave of disruption in the work of journalists has roots in 2014, when the government did not want civil rights groups and the international community to documenting the country’s deteriorating conditions. This censorship enabled the inaction of the government, which in turn produced more criticism and more censorship. On news media, individuals have been expelled as a result of their beliefs and investigative efforts. Consequently the president and members of the cabinet launch attacks against the opposition in spaces without any voices to rebuttal.
A paucity of news media representation has forced the opposition to turn to social media. Professor Aslanidis explained that while censorship of many mainstream sources continues, satellite stations and social media have allowed opposition movements to coordinate with resilience. Protests such as those in Villa Rosa demonstrate how fully Venezuelan politics have circled. The Chavistas were a populist movement that came into power, became the political elite they once protested, and risk being ousted in turn by a new populist movement.
The cost of this political standoff is that no economic solutions are likely to take place before the recall vote in 2017. The optics constructed by both the opposition and the government–applying enough pressure to get to the table, but not enough for Maduro to resign–have pots locked both parties into a stasis of political inaction. Ironically, the pots and pans on the street of a people desperately in need of political movement has contributed to the continued lack of such solutions by forcing both the government and opposition into this intricate dance of narratives. The open ugliness of partisan politics and the public blame game have decoded only one aspect of Venezuela’s future. The pots and pans will remain empty for many months to come.