Like many of you, I spend a lot of time lately reading about Venezuela. But I’m absolutely not a Venezuela expert.
Over the years, I often disagreed with the U.S. government’s approach to him, but I was never a fan of Hugo Chávez. I’ve always supported demilitarizing politics in the Americas. So naturally I spoke out against his militaristic populism, criticized his arms buildups, and called out his affinity for dictators. But I was not following the country on a day-to-day basis.
Now I am—from my vantage point outside Venezuela, a country I’ve only visited once. We all are. But as I try to understand what’s going on and what might happen next, it’s almost impossible to get good information about two sectors that are central to the story.
Venezuela’s military and its poorest citizens are “black boxes.” Anytime I find anything written about them, I read it with great interest.
The military. The armed forces are the most crucial support for the regime. Generals and colonels head several ministries and serve as several state governors. Chávez purged opposition-minded officers after the disastrous 2002 coup attempt. They appear to play a central role in narco-corruption.
But how factionalized or unified are they? How solid is Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino’s grip on them? Is Padrino a closet pragmatist or a true believer? Do they favor a certain faction of President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling clique, like that of former officer Diosdado Cabello? How willing are the armed forces (not including the National Guard) to repress protest? Is there discontent in the underpaid ranks?
Among the few recent information sources I’ve seen:
- The work of the NGO Control Ciudadano, headed by Rocío San Miguel
- Girish Gupta, At Least 123 Venezuelan Soldiers Detained Since Protests – Documents (Reuters , Friday, July 7, 2017)
- Hannah Dreier, All Eyes on Venezuelan Military as Country Teeters (Associated Press , Friday, June 9, 2017)
- Venezuela’s Defense Chief Warns Guardsmen on Excessive Force (Associated Press , Thursday, June 8, 2017)
- The Armed Forces Will Decide the Fate of Venezuela’s Regime (The Economist (Uk), Friday, May 5, 2017)
- Alexandra Ulmer, Anggy Polanco, As Venezuela’s Unrest Grows, Security Forces Struggle to Boost Ranks (Reuters , Friday, April 21, 2017)
- Report Charts Evolution and Militarization of Venezuela’s Drug Trade (InsightCrime, Wednesday, March 22, 2017)
Poorer Venezuelans. The street protests happening every day in Caracas are a disproportionately middle-class affair. Less clear is what is happening among Venezuela’s poor majority. Poorer Venezuelans were a bulwark of support for Chávez and his party. For about 15 years, they guaranteed them affordable food and other services. Opposition leaders, meanwhile, tend to come from the elite. “The opposition has done nothing to speak to their issues or mobilize the popular class,” says David Smilde, WOLA’s senior fellow for Venezuela.
Now that the situation has deteriorated so badly, what is happening in poorer neighborhoods and rural areas? Why aren’t they marching in larger numbers? Did they participate in the symbolic July 16 vote against Maduro’s proposed constituent assembly? Are poorer neighborhoods actually aflame with looting and disorder, or are they quiescent? If the latter, is it fear of repression from colectivos and other quarters, fear of losing whatever government handouts remain, or something else?
Here are a few recent efforts to cover low-income sectors:
- Pablo Stefanoni, Venezuela: ¿por Que No «Bajan» de los Cerros? (Nueva Sociedad, Tuesday, June 13, 2017)
- Virginia Lopez, ‘Everything Is in Chaos’: Night of Violence Reveals Depths of Venezuela Crisis (The Guardian (Uk), Wednesday, May 3, 2017)
- Anatoly Kurmanaev, Kejal Vyas, Many Poor Venezuelans Are Too Hungry to Join Antigovernment Protests (The Wall Street Journal, Thursday, April 20, 2017)
- Alexandra Ulmer, Corina Pons, Venezuela Protests Spread to Poor Areas, Two More Deaths Amid Unrest (Reuters , Thursday, April 13, 2017)
- Yesman Utrera, Venezuela’s Two Scarcities: A View From Antimano (Washington Office on Latin America, Monday, August 29, 2016)
A possible third “black box” is what would happen if the United States stopped buying Venezuelan oil, a step the Trump administration is considering. Former AP journalist Hannah Dreier, who just left Venezuela after 3 years, wrote yesterday that a U.S. embargo would cause the Maduro regime to “implode” but could also trigger “famine” and mass migration out of a country that gets over 96 percent of its foreign exchange from oil sales. Would that happen, or is the world oil market more elastic? And since Venezuela is devoting so much of its oil earnings to foreign debt payments anyway, how much worse would Venezuelans suffer?
Even a 50 percent probability of a humanitarian catastrophe makes an oil-import cutoff a horrible choice. Recent coverage I’ve seen indicates little consensus on what the actual probability might be. But there’s a general consensus that it would be really rough on the Venezuelan people:
- Hannah Dreier, To Venezuela, This Week’s Sanctions Are a Joke (ProPublica, Thursday, August 3, 2017)
- Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, Trump Has Sanctioned Venezuela’s President. Let’s Hope He Leaves the People Alone. (The Washington Post, Tuesday, August 1, 2017)
- Christopher M. Matthews, Jose De Cordoba, U.S. Weighs Sanctions Against Venezuela’s Oil Industry (The Wall Street Journal, Monday, July 31, 2017)
- Michael Weissenstein, AP Explains: What Are Trump’s Options in Venezuela? (Associated Press, The Washington Post, Thursday, July 20, 2017)
- Alex Nussbaum, Lucia Kassai, Meenal Vamburkar, Who’d Lose Most From U.S. Ban on Venezuela Crude?: Quicktake Q&A (Bloomberg, Wednesday, July 19, 2017)
- Ian Talley, Kejal Vyas, U.S. Prepared to Sanction Venezuela, Including Possible Ban on Oil Imports (The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, July 19, 2017)