Venezuela’s Game of Thrones

Per the constitution, Venezuela has called elections for April 14, 2013.  The newly called elections are necessary because President Hugo Chavez died on March 5 from complications from an unnamed cancer, a heart attack or maybe a respiratory infection.  As with all things political, dilution of the truth with half truth and outright lies is the best way to hide in plain sight.  Regardless, Henrique Capriles has come out swinging, calling into question whether or not Chavez died when Maduro says he did.  A fair question, but without proof, irrelevant to what happens next.  In response, Maduro called Capriles a fascist intent on destroying the country.  He also said the United States was culpable in Chavez’s cancer.

The game of thrones kicked up a notch.

The Venezuelans and everyone else has, or should have, a vested interest in maintaining the status quo for the next six months to a year.  The Venezuelan opposition (and some US hawks) may not believe this, but they are wrong.  The last thing anyone needs is major instability in Venezuela with its oil supplies, burgeoning criminal organizations and exhausted population.  Yet, instability and violence is a distinct possibility.  A lot depends on the opposition and how much they are willing to push for victory.  Some of it depends on external pressure, namely from the United States.

The current regime must consolidate power, get through the election, and then figure out who they are and where they want to go – and if they will go there together.  Chavistas also must balance the need for stability with getting as much propaganda value as they can from Hugo Chavez’s death.  The ability to stoke the fires of “revolution” without lighting the match is a dangerous game.  The Chinese play the game very well, but it only takes one miscalculation to set it all ablaze.  Uncontrolled violence could lead to chaos, and there are no winners in that scenario, especially for Venezuelans.

The opposition must decide just how badly they want to burn resources and flirt with open conflict in a fight they don’t have much chance of winning and aren’t prepared to fight.  Henrique Capriles doesn’t have a lot of money for a campaign, he just got beat in a grueling election, and the Chavistas should be energized as all hell.  The tension, and chance for open conflict, could be very high if it becomes a real race.  If Maduro loses, it could go sideways and all bets are off.  Interestingly, it is rumored many in the opposition don’t want to win the upcoming election because it would be better if it all fell apart on Maduro’s watch.  It will be interesting to watch just how hard Capriles goes for victory, but more importantly how much support he garners from the Venezuelan opposition elite.

How much the United States wants to put skin in the game could affect the calculus for the Venezuelan opposition, but in my opinion US involvement at this stage (especially covert) is a potentially catastrophic idea for all concerned.  There is no better way for the Americans to create anti-American blowback, and consolidate the regime, than to meddle in Venezuelan affairs right now – which is what the expulsion of two US Air Force military attachés for espionage was meant to bring attention to.  Unfortunately, the United States has shown absolutely no proof they have learned this lesson in Latin America.

Maduro’s supporters must figure out if he can deliver or if they would be better off striking out on their own.  The transition will be a dynamic situation with many moving pieces and plots.  After six months or so, everyone with interests in Venezuela will have a better understanding of what, and who, Maduro is – and where the country is headed.

It is impossible to know who a second in command truly is until the King is dead. Although Chavistas will overtly hold the line until the elections, covertly the games have begun.  Maduro’s capabilities are somewhat of a mystery, but his ability to become Vice President and maintain his position in Chavez’s inner circle could signify three things – the trust Chavez had in him because he was loyal to the cause, Maduro’s ability to politically maneuver which denotes ruthlessness, or profound weakness that Chavez didn’t feel threatened by.  It will take some time before a true picture emerges.

Maduro and his intelligence apparatus must also spend a lot of time collecting on the second and third tier officers within the Venezuelan military.  Maduro is believed to be closely connected to the Cubans, and so it is likely he will rely on them to run internal intelligence operations.  Most coups come from lower tiered officers because they are typically close enough to see the corruption but unable to stop it, or completely take advantage of it, depending on their desires.  Of particular interest will be officers suspected of connections with the Cartel del Soles and international drug cartels along the Colombian border and Caribbean coast.

Overt intelligence sharing on common enemies is somewhere that the United States could help the Maduro’s administration.  Cuban intelligence will do everything in their power to stop that relationship from developing.  However, increased cooperation with the US (and Colombia) in the drug war would be a significant indicator of where Maduro is at when it comes to the United States – and Cuba.

Regardless of opinions of Chavez, the security situation in Venezuela has drastically deteriorated under his charge.  The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence said in their 2013 study there were 21,692 homicides in 2012, up from 19,336 in 2011, which was the most violent year in Venezuelan history. Venezuela is now the most violent nation in Latin America.  To blame Chavez is simplistic, but he never found an answer to rampant crime and a corrupt police force.

To make matters worse, those in control of all the countless fiefdoms created during Chavez’s tenure will be scrambling to maintain/increase power; making it all the more unstable.

On the economic front, the currency has devalued and it is rumored gas prices may be raised to pay for social programs.  A reduction in social programs may be what is needed to save the economy, but it is also precisely what tends to bring down governments in Venezuela.

In the long term, Venezuela will still face the same problems it always has.  Geographically population centers generally hug the coast, but the interior (Orinoco) is rich in resources, including oil.  PDVSA, the state controlled oil company, is extremely inefficient and in desperate need of technology and expertise they can only get from major foreign oil companies and former PDVSA employees who were exiled when the company was nationalized.  Maduro must follow through with current deals with foreign firms and create more opportunities for future cooperation.  At the same time, the current government must continue to control the majority of profits from oil sales to maintain the social programs that brought them to power.

The biggest wildcard is the Venezuelan people.  The attempts by competing political organizations to manipulate the population to support their agendas is obvious and timeless.  However, the Venezuelan people really want change and they want someone to deliver on what Chavez promised – a social revolution that improved their lives.  The people will need time to determine who has their best interests at heart.  Let’s hope they get time to decide.  Right now, they are dealing with many changes within the context of severe economic and security problems.  Maintaining stability and helping to support the legitimate government of Venezuela is in everyone’s interest.

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