Weakest Strongman

An Interview with Harold Trinkunas

Nicolás Maduro may have held on to political power. But the collapse of the state he heads is continuing apace by any measure. We spoke with Harold Trinkunas, of the Brookings Institution and Stanford University, about Maduro’s own fecklessness, the decaying internal and external institutions attending it, and Venezuela’s ongoing crisis.

Octavian Report: What is next for Nicolás Maduro as he faces a massive internal crisis?

Harold Trinkunas: I think there are two top things that Maduro has to be worried about, and you'll be surprised to hear that neither is the economy.

The first is that the elections highlighted, via a large-scale abstention, the weakness of the governing party's hold on the population at this point. Probably half as many people voted as normally vote in a presidential election in Venezuela. Presidential elections usually have about 80 percent turnout. And despite the government's efforts to mobilize voters — providing transportation, offering food at checkpoints to people who could prove that they voted, even making cash payments to people for voter registration at so-called "red points" — there was a very large-scale abstention, and I think it has to be concerning to Maduro that he can no longer mobilize people the way that his government used to be able to do.

The second point is he has got to be worried about the military. Maduro never had the kind of relationship with the military that Hugo Chávez had, but he is much more reliant on them than Chávez was. This is a double whammy for him. The military has been suffering from the same economic crisis as everybody else. There's been a sharp spike in the number of officers and soldiers arrested and accused of conspiring against the government. And the military, which is in charge of protecting elections, got a massive display on May 20th of how little popular support this president has.

Obviously, the third thing is the economy. Venezuela relies almost entirely on oil for its export earnings; about 95 percent derives from oil exports. It is a country that imports almost everything. Even a couple years ago, 70 percent of the basic goods it needed came from outside the country. Oil production has been dropping rapidly. It's now about 1.4 million barrels per day. By way of reference, it was around 3.4 million barrels a day when Hugo Chávez first came to power about 20 years ago. This new rate is lower than at any time in Venezuela's history since 1950. This is really a dramatic fall, and some people think it will be below a million barrels per day by the time we get to the end of the year. That means that even though oil prices are rising worldwide, Venezuela can't take advantage of that the way Maduro would like.

OR: How can Maduro remedy the collapse in political authority he saw on May 20th? Can you talk more about how the military — headed by Defense Secretary Vladimir Padrino — might be the source of a potential challenge to his power?

Trinkunas: On the first front, it's not exactly clear what Maduro can do to re-solidify his base. It's not just the traditional ruling party, the PSUV, that's a problem. He started a new, more personal political project that really didn't pick up many votes in the election. Most of the votes went to the Chávez-created party, the PSUV. The things Maduro traditionally did — patronage, privileged access to foreign exchange — are not that available anymore. I suspect he's going to try to go that route. He's going to try to see if he can rely on his relationships with Russia, with Turkey, with China to import things that he can dedicate to his base. But with dwindling oil supplies, it's a lot harder. He doesn't have a whole lot of options on that front.

He relies heavily on his own military intelligence and on Cuban intelligence to monitor the populace. He has also, much like what has occurred in Russia, developed quite a sophisticated social-media operation integrated with traditional media and community radio and television, to manipulate public opinion.

On the military: I think he trusts Padrino more than others. Venezuela's general officers are selected for their party loyalty. Venezuela is shockingly over-officered. There are 2,000 general officers and admirals in Venezuela. By way of comparison, the United States has less than 1,000. This is a select group of people that have been picked for their political loyalty. The military junior ranks, the cadets and the second lieutenants and so on, are heavily ideologized through the Bolivarian Military University. There's a lot of political indoctrination at that level. But then there's this middle layer that entered the military before politicization became really mainstream. They're the majors and lieutenant colonels. The problem for Maduro is that those are the guys who are actually in charge of tactical units, who can actually seize a road or a bridge or take the presidential palace.

As I mentioned, there's been an uptick in the tensions around those officers. The issue in Venezuela is that a classic military coup where the senior leadership overthrows the president is quite unlikely. Just like the general population, the military is heavily infiltrated and watched. The Cubans play a major role in watching them, too. What you're more likely to see are these small, spontaneous uprisings that don't require much planning but can be messy and dangerous in this very unpredictable situation where you have an immiserated population, rising levels of malnutrition, and lack of access to medicines. It's quite volatile, and so it becomes increasingly unpredictable what will happen. This is why Maduro is focusing on trying to keep the middle ranks of the military from conspiring.

OR: Are there other factions within the government that might be sources of palace coups, or is that also unlikely?

Trinkunas: There's a couple other “name brands,” so to speak, in Venezuelan politics. Diosdado Cabello, former president of national assembly for the ruling party, is one that comes up frequently. But Maduro has been pretty good about getting rid of these name-brand types and pushing them aside or sending them into exile.