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Super Bigote: Maduro Has Secured His Position Within Venezuela

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Head of Communications

Nicolás Maduro, President of Venezuela - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 2013 Henrique Capriles, a former Venezuelan presidential candidate, said “I don’t see how Nicolás Maduro has the capacity to stay for an extended time in government”. In 2017, political scientist Ian Bremmer concluded, “Its near the end for Maduro”. And in 2019 Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state claimed, “Maduro’s days are numbered”. They have all been proven wrong.

Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s autocratic ruler, has clung to power for over a decade, solidifying his rule and forcing the opposition into exile. He has left Venezuela in ruins since he came to power in 2013. GDP has shrunk by more than 75% and 7 million people have fled the country fearing either oppression or starvation (roughly 20% of the population). Venezuela’s much coveted democratic institutions have been completely trashed and a police state has emerged from its ruins.

Until recently, the Western and American world had united in disgust over Maduro’s gross disregard for Venezuela’s institutions and popular will. Every important democracy in the Americas (bar Mexico) had vowed to shun Maduro and his administration. Meanwhile the West had placed crippling sanctions on Venezuela’s vital oil industry since 2018, when Maduro castrated the National Assembly, the only truly democratic body left in the country. 60 countries recognised Maduro’s democratic challenger, Juan Guiado, as interim president, and millions of Venezuelans had risen up in protest sparking serious talks of a coup.

Yet, despite all the sanctions, unrest and economic collapse Maduro has managed to stabilise and secure his position within Venezuela’s murky new government. This is a deep shame for a country that has prided itself on nurturing a diverse democracy for many years. It has disheartened millions of Venezuelans, seeing an 18% drop in those who describe democracy as their preferred system of government. Polls suggest that around 80% of the country want him gone.

What has allowed Maduro to cling to his office is a mix of brutal domestic oppression and favourable international developments. International actors have indeed played a key part in propping up his regime. Russia and Cuba have been keen to support a fellow anti-Western autocracy, providing some much-needed relief in the face of a crippling global sanctions regime. However, Maduro’s real blessing was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The West, now desperate for alternatives to Russian oil and gas, have started (reluctantly) to approve trade deals with Venezuelan state oil companies. The Biden administration in particular has pivoted from Trump’s policy of ambiguous threats and “maximum pressure”. The president has approved some limited trade deals and encouraged talks between the opposition and Maduro’s regime. Biden may be keen to thaw relations in some way, yet there is little chance of a fist-bump between the two leaders, like that seen with Saudi prince Mohammed bin-Salman.

The greatest positive shifts from Maduro have come from regional allies. Lula’s Brazil, keen to show that “Brazil is Back” following years of Trumpian rule in the form of Jair Bolsonaro has led the push for an end to the isolation of Maduro’s regime. Observers note the Brazilian wants to position himself as a global ‘peacemaker’, partly explaining why he foolishly placed equal blame on Zelensky for Russia’s war. Yet Lula’s claims that Maduro “is the victim of a constructed narrative” is not just wrong, its completely out of touch. Even if you ignore the $15 million bounty on Maduro’s head on narco-terrorism charges, the ICC has indicated he is likely to be charged with human rights abuses following evidence of 1,700 counts of torture. Many have been tortured to death, including some disloyal top brass of the Army.

Colombia, a vital trade and political partner, has also started to thaw relations, opening the border to car travel for the first time in 5 years. The recently elected Mr Petro, a guerrilla fighter turned president, is keen to end a long-standing war with the ELN guerrilla group, which has many bases across Venezuela. He sees Maduro as perhaps holding the sway to convince the guerrillas to negotiate with the government. Colombia’s 1.7m Venezuelan refugee population is far from happy with these developments. The opposition in exile’s base in Bogota now seems uncertain.

Yet where Maduro has seen the greatest success is in subduing domestic opposition with brutal crackdowns, bribery and limiting press freedoms; all newspapers which are not state owned have been forced to close. Where once millions took the streets to protest his rule, after years of brutal oppression and risk of torture, protests have petered out. People now rely on state handouts to survive as the currency has collapsed and wages and pensions have become close to worthless. To access state aid, you need an ID card, which is checked and noted by party officials at election booths. Many fear starving should they not tow the party line.

The Army has been placated, as Maduro enabled top generals to greatly enrich themselves through illegal oil and diamond mining rackets (the carrot). Failure to comply can result in demotion, torture, or death (stick). Maduro has made it clear that he can be brutally violent if he wants to be. As one commentator noted, “[Maduro] has all the guns, and he is prepared to use them”.

The opposition, once united behind their brave leader Juan Guiado, has splintered. Opposition candidates are divided between those that want to negotiate with the regime and attempt to coexist, and those who wish to resist. The last remaining vestige of democracy in Venezuela, the now lame National Assembly, had been bypassed years ago, and Guiado, until recently serving as its speaker, was ousted in the last set of rigged elections. He has now fled the country, smuggling himself to Colombia, soon to travel to the United States. Although still declaring himself interim president, he no longer poses a serious threat to Maduro’s rule: only 8 countries still recognise his claim, down from 60 originally.

Talks between Maduro and the opposition are ongoing, and there has been some small optimism from both sides resulting in a joint declaration. However, most Venezuelan’s dismiss the talks. They have seen it all before.

With his domestic situation far more secure Maduro is likely feeling secure in his future but this does not mean he is without challenge. The opposition, although divided and bruised, is still widely more popular than Maduro’s thuggish autocracy. The Unity Coalition, formed from all the anti-Maduro parties, has stated they will participate in some future elections, although they are aware it is likely that they will not be “conventional nor fair”. Inflation has indeed dropped from its peak at 2,000,000%, but remains at an uncomfortable 500%. Sanctions, while eased on some oil products, remain in place.

Yet, there is a sense of smug confidence coming from Maduro’s allies in Venezuela. His position as president seems secure (for now). Regional neighbours have begun to welcome Venezuela back from exile. Big international players are beginning to ease up pressure on their previously crippling sanctions regime. The opposition is divided, and some have begun participating in elections once more, despite the fruitlessness of the endeavour. The “Súper Bigote” (“Super Moustache”) as his allies call him, has seemingly emerged on top. Maduro loyalists can be seen handing out plastic toys and t-shirts with Maduro sporting a cape and superhero costume in bustling streets. ‘We will rescue Venezuela!’ one shirt reads. The irony is not lost on the millions of Venezuelans who are displaced, scared and hungry.


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