It's July of 2017.
Thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets to protest President Maduro's increasingly oppressive rule and general incompetence. Mass inflation, food shortages and violent crime have seen the leader's approval rating plummet to about 20%.
Clearly, most Venezuelans think it's time for a regime change.
But how is it that - in a country that has been suffering so long, with many angry, gun-owning citizens - Maduro is able to cling to power?
To a foreigner that's read anything of Latin America, it seems baffling. Countries down here change regimes like you take a piss, and often for reasons much less significant than critical food shortages and a dizzying 800% inflation rate...not to mention irrefutable ties to international drug smuggling.
Brazil recently impeached its president for much less than this.
So, what's going on?
What is Keeping Maduro in Power?
There are essentially three things that are allowing Maduro to hold on:
1) The State Apparatus
2) A Poorly Organized and Distrusted Opposition
3) The Loyalists
Let's take a look at each aspect individually.
1) The State Apparatus
Maduro's government has arrived at a point where no significant internal factions can rebel without seriously fucking themselves over.
First you have the military who, in addition to getting better pay, food and housing than most Venezuelans, are also involved in criminal activities such as drug smuggling and black market food sales. Not all of them of course, but enough of them. For many soldiers, a regime change would almost certainly mean jail time, or death by lynch mobs. Even if they managed to escape one of the aforementioned fates, it is extremely unlikely that they would be able to land a cushier gig than the one they have in this gov. This means there is very little incentive for the military to stage a coup.
And it's virtually impossible to stage a coup with the military on the side of the government.
And the military can't exactly coordinate and change teams and overthrow Maduro while keeping their posts, either. After the coup against Chavez in 2002, one of the main things that fucked the opposition's shit up is not replacing security personnel that were still loyal to the former president. The presidential guard retook Miraflores Palace and reinstalled Chavez.
I don't reckon the opposition will make the same mistake again. Anyone with a gun working in the former regime would be ousted so fast it'll make your head spin.
There are also several important members of government - including non other than Vice President Tareck El Aissami - who have been implicated in drug trafficking. If Maduro loses power, they will likely be extradited and serve lengthy prison sentences.
Unsurprisingly, these high-ranking officials will do anything they can to hold on to power.
Side note: You may have heard about recent dissenters within the government that are speaking out against President Maduro. The most famous is Luisa Marvelia Ortega Díaz, the former Attorney General of Venezuela, who was recently relieved of her post for speaking out against the government.
You should be suspicious of such acts, as the Maduro government is skilled at misinformation. This could be an example of controlled opposition. Even after speaking out publicly against the regime, Maduro curiously let Ortega stick around awhile. Although she was finally let go, the fact that the government did not silence her immediately made them appear slightly more reasonable than what is often projected in the media.
I believe she is legit, but we'll have to see. She goes to trial soon.
Another magnanimous act was the recent release of political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez, who has been transferred to house arrest.
No one can explain why the government might have done this.
Seems like a PR stunt to me.
2) A Poorly Organized and Distrusted Opposition
Another thing allowing Maduro to keep power is the fact that the opposition is a fucking mess.
The closest thing they've got to offer as an organized political alternative is the MUD party, a ragtag collection of pre-Chavez politicians who can never seem to agree on anything. Their feeble attempt to claim credit for the current protests haven't translated into party loyalty among the public because they lack a clear figurehead and plan for moving forward.
Most people are only thinking as far as getting Maduro out. They are not thinking about what happens next. Always a recipe for disaster.
There is also a new group of politicians and young activists. These are the ones that make up many of the street protestors. They are part of a movement, but not unanimously allied with a political party. They face a similar problem to MUD: no organization; no leader.
And then you have the disillusioned Chavez supporters - largely poor people - who are pissed off because they feel abandoned by Maduro. These people are in a tough spot. They aren't satisfied with the current government, but they do not trust the opposition because they still remember the pre-Chavez days when they were completely ignored.
The opposition isn't making more gains likely because they think that their win is inevitable. With things so bad in the country, and MUD as the only discernible alternative to Maduro's United Socialist Party, they simply do not see how they could lose popular support. Therefore, they're not putting in the work to organize themselves or come up with a concrete plan for the country.
This is foolish.
The reality is that Venezuelan's have every reason to be distrustful of the opposition. There was the attempted coup of Chavez of 2002 (although he did end up destroying the country through his idiotic policies, he was democratically elected...), as well as various massacres in the 1980s and 90s. These things are still fresh in the memory of poorer Venezuelans, perhaps explaining why - despite all the problems in the country - Maduro still has a higher approval rating than both the Mexican and Brazilian presidents.
The other thing that is keeping Chavistas on Maduro's side is the fact that many still believe in the viability of Chavez's reforms. Since Chavez got in power just as oil boomed and died just before it slumped, shit didn't get really bad into Maduro took power. This caused many to attribute Venezuela's problems to its new leader, rather than the fact that Chavez had structured the country's economy to depend entirely on global oil prices, which collapsed spectacularly right after his death.
It might be easy for us to see that Venezuela's problems were due to a lopsided economy that Maduro inherited.
But it's not as easy for a illiterate Venezuelan from the barrio to draw the same conclusion.
Yet another problem is that the anti-government protestors are no angels. There's evidence that they may be responsible for more deaths than government supporters. There are even allegations that anti-government protestors burned a chavista alive simply for being a chavista. This, along with shutting down roadways, reports of looting and unprovoked intimidation isn't winning hearts and minds.
It's impossible to say whether these allegations are true, or if they are, whether they are perpetrated by government plants. But the point is that the opposition has failed to sufficient decry or deter acts of violence during protests.
Moral implications aside, this is just bad PR. If they expect a peaceful transition, the opposition must do more to secure public trust and support, and provide a clear and thoughtful plan for moving forward.
3) The Loyalists
And then you have the people who remain fiercely loyal to chavismo and all it stands for. There's the desperately poor, who Chavez helped immensely, giving them food and cash handouts and in several cases, even cars and apartments. Their lives improved under the regime inherited by Maduro, and they haven't forgotten that. You also have the collectivos, organized groups of armed civilians that go around wreaking havoc and intimidating people. They are essentially enforcers that prop up the unpopular president. Their numbers are significant enough that they effectively control large swaths of the country.
They've most recently directed their efforts to quash the protests. Many Venezuelans that oppose the government understandably value their safety more, and therefore are staying home out of fear of becoming targeted by these fearful bands of armed criminals.
The remaining Chavistas are a serious barrier between opposition supporters and the government.
Why Doesn't the USA Get Involved?
Some are asking why the USA doesn't step in. They'd be able to end the suffering of the Venezuelan people while at the same time ensuring their influence in a nation with the world's largest oil reserves.
A fair question. The USA is certainly no stranger to meddling in Latin American affairs, or in the affairs of countries with oil. Why are they steering clear of this one.
There are a few reasons.
The first simply amounts to: why would they bother. Maduro is already stepping on his dick so much that there is little doubt that his days are numbered. It's just a matter of time. The USA is better off staying out of it and just letting nature run its course. The USA knows full well that the opposite will have little recourse than to work with them. Shit, they'll probably be anxious to.
Second reason is that, well, the USA has learned that overtly intervening in Latin America is bad PR.
Let's say Maduro is overthrown today. It's still going to take at least another 15-20 years before Venezuela can reach the level of productivity or economic stability that even Colombia has today. So, even with a regime change Venezuelans are going to suffer for a long time to come.
Suppose the United States facilitates this regime change. When things don't get better after a few years - regardless of the fact that things getting better in a few years is impossible under any circumstance - who are the people going to blame?
The United States.
It won't be long before you start hearing the same old song about privatization, natural resources money being sent offshore and how at least the former regime put Venezuelans first.
Again, what's the point?
Third, is the fact that Venezuela isn't that important to the United States. Sure, they've got a ton of oil, but so do a lot of countries. Fracking, oil sand extraction and offshore drilling has basically put to bed any rumour that the earth will run of out oil anytime soon.
The USA also has neighbouring Colombia under their thumb for conducting any regional naughtiness they may want.
Why get involved in the clusterfuck next door.
It's a shitshow, folks.
Even if you have boots on the ground, it's hard to get an idea of the truth. Both sides are disseminating false information, and the lines between good and evil in such a lawless country are all but indistinguishable.
Maduro won't last, that much is for sure. But he'll probably stick around longer than most expect. Goldman Sachs seems to be betting on the government staying in power. Another factor is that, despite the fact that Venezuela has been bleeding cash for a seriously long time now, it always somehow manages to meet its debt payments. As long as it keeps doing that, there won't be much incentive for any outside body to intervene, aside from human rights issues (...just kidding, no international body ever really gives a fuck about human rights issues).
For the record, I'm 100% hoping the opposition pulls through. I've met too many Venezuelans from all walks of life that have suffered as a direct result of this regime...and minimum wage is $40 a month...and Caracas is the most violent city on earth...and people are leaving the country en masse.
Change is obviously needed.
You had your chance, socialists. And you fucked things up again (you always do!).
It's time to rebuild.
Venezuelans are cool people and their women are sexy.
Hope you learned something here today.
And I'll continue to watch this closely.
Hoping for the best.