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May 21, 2012 | 10:01 GMT

8 mins read

Venezuela: The Presidential Election and Chavez's Support Structures


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has returned to Venezuela after reportedly undergoing his sixth round of radiation therapy for abdominal cancer in Cuba. Because the system of governance Chavez created depends largely on his personal oversight, Chavez's health concerns have cast doubt on whether Venezuela will undergo a peaceful transition after the Oct. 7 presidential election.

The election likely will mark a transitional period for the Venezuelan government regardless of the outcome. While Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro appears to be Chavez's successor in the event the president does not run for re-election, Miranda department Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski has waged a modestly effective presidential campaign showcasing himself as a viable opposition candidate. Whoever becomes president will have to maintain stability amid several outstanding challenges.

A peaceful transition is possible, but the risk of instability remains. It is the manner in which Venezuela's next leader deals with the Chavez regime's key support structures — popular support, oil revenue, the military, non-military security forces and the Cuban government — that will determine the placidity of the transition.

The life or death of a single individual, even a head of state, rarely changes the forces driving a country. But the degree to which Chavez has permeated the political system has created uncertainty surrounding the impending Venezuelan presidential election.

When Chavez came to power in 1999, he redefined Venezuela's political system by ignoring the two-party power structure and placing his own loyalists in key positions. Chavez has since maintained a system of governance that depends heavily on his personal involvement. To retain power, Chavez constructed a system of mutually adversarial support structures against which he can pit one another if one becomes too strong. There are five such support structures.

The Five Pillars

Popular Support

The first pillar of support is popular acceptance of the Venezuelan government. Despite the traditional centrality of Venezuelan governments, regimes inevitably serve at the pleasure of the masses. (Even the military at times has awaited public approval before clashing with the civilian governments.) Chavez's popularity was a product of the economic and political circumstances that preceded his rise to power.

Using oil revenues from price spikes in the 1970s and 1980s, Caracas rapidly expanded government expenditures to satisfy the populist demands of an underdeveloped country. During this period, corruption plagued the government and inflation rose to untenable levels. Caracas attempted to address these issues through neoliberal reform, including eliminating subsidies and raising taxes. The most damaging response to the reforms was the 1989 riots, known as the Caracazo, which were triggered by a rise in the price of gasoline and left an estimated 300 people dead.

Chavez, then a lieutenant colonel in the Venezuelan army, made his entrance into politics during a failed coup attempt in 1992, for which he was jailed. Well-spoken and charismatic even in defeat, Chavez impressed Venezuela at a time when the country's political system clearly was breaking down. After his release from prison, Chavez again sought leadership of the country and was elected president in 1999.

As a leader, Chavez is a strong central figure capable of reining in Venezuela's various factions. Chavez's persona is that of the common man, and he has built his policies around poverty alleviation. Programs that distribute food and health care in poor areas are highly popular — even if they are inconsistently implemented.

Chavez remains the most popular politician in the country. His approval rating usually is 50 percent or higher and has remained consistent despite serious problems in Venezuela's economic system, including consistently high inflation, basic goods shortages, the rising frequency of electricity failures and rampant housing shortages.

Oil Revenue

The second pillar of Chavez's support is oil production. With the discovery of oil in Venezuela in the early 20th century, the country immediately and almost entirely became focused on its production. From World War II to the late 1990s, the economy diversified somewhat, using oil money to finance development of secondary industries, such as steel and food production.

But since 1999, and particularly after a failed coup attempt in 2002 that involved senior management from state-run oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), Chavez fired most of PDVSA's higher-level and technically skilled workers. PDVSA's staff has since doubled, but output has declined. Oil production dropped from a high of 3.2 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2001 to an estimated 2.4 million bpd in 2012.

The decline in production reflects a decline in new exploration and production, as well as a deterioration of production capacity at extant oil-producing facilities. In addition, as reserves in the Maracaibo region are depleted, Venezuela's oil composition has become heavier and sourer, making bitumen deposits in Orinoco even more important.

The quality of the Orinoco deposits requires greater levels of investment, greater commitment from investors and a higher level of risk. Even if a new regime invited substantial amounts of investment, an increase in oil production would take several years to achieve. Without tens of billions of dollars in investment, Venezuela's oil industry faces stagnation at best; more likely, it will decline gradually.

In 2009, PDVSA gave 93 percent of its income to the government through various taxes, grants and deposits into government accounts. In 2010, it gave 97 percent of its income. Clearly, oil is Venezuela's most important source of revenue. If the country were to destabilize after the October election, continued output would be a political imperative for whoever is in power.

The Military

With its near monopoly on arms ownership, the military is a critical consideration in any transition or destabilization scenario. The military has been involved in three failed coups since 1992. In each instance, elements of the military either sought to generate public support for regime change or attempted to capitalize on existing unrest. The attempts failed in part because there was not enough political support for a change in government, and the military itself was not united behind the effort.

To minimize the threat posed by the armed forces, Chavez has kept the military highly divided. Indeed, involvement in organized crime, political polarization, poor staffing and regional divisions have left the military fractured and weak. It is possible that the disparate elements of the military could miscalculate ahead of the election, moving against Chavez before he has lost full legitimacy. This is a particular danger among military leaders who are under international sanctions and rely on the current regime to protect them from extradition. In this scenario, clashes between different military factions should not be ruled out.

The most likely outcome is that the military will support, or at the very least refuse to involve itself in, a civilian current government unless public security completely destabilizes.

In past instances of unrest, the military abstained from conflict until it was sure the government had lost legitimacy. Despite the risk of internal fragmentation, the military will be compelled to intervene if public security is compromised by the outcome of the election. (Public security could be jeopardized if Chavez loses the election, wins re-election but becomes incapacitated or cedes power to an ineffective government.) Factions within the military have reportedly been making plans for such an eventuality, though those plans are not clear.

Auxiliary Security Forces

Bolivarian militias and the National Guard are secondary military forces that must be considered in the event of a power transition. Built as a tool to counterbalance the military and organized by neighborhoods throughout Venezuelan cities and in the countryside, the Bolivarian militias are one of Chavez's insurance policies against a military coup. More recently, Chavez has prioritized factions of the National Guard and put them under his direct control.

By creating armed groups with only a faint connection to the armed forces, Chavez has made any direct action against the government more risky and has increased the chances that any threat to his government will trigger widespread violence. The president's brother and the governor of Barinas department, Adan Chavez, tacitly condoned the use of these militias by saying it would be inexcusable for the government to limit itself only to the electoral and not look to other forms of struggle, including armed struggle.

But these militias may have limited utility. While the military is believed to maintain strict control over most of the weapons used by the militias, the degree to which it actually controls arms distribution is unclear.

The Cuban Government

Cuba plays an important role in keeping Chavez in power by serving as an outside and loyal observer of political affairs in Venezuela. Former Cuban President Fidel Castro has even served as a personal adviser to Chavez. Using the intelligence assets of an outside player with a key interest in keeping cheap oil flowing has helped Chavez maneuver carefully and manage a potentially treacherous domestic political situation. The Cubans probably are willing to cooperate with whoever is in power in Caracas. However, the two governments are closely aligned ideologically; Cuba may be concerned about how the election of a more pragmatic Venezuelan president would affect the more than 90,000 barrels of subsidized oil that Cuba receives every day.

Cuba does not have a great deal of power over Venezuela outside its arrangement with the Chavez regime. What Cuban involvement there is in the Venezuelan government is viewed with deep skepticism throughout Venezuela. Nevertheless, the Cubans maintain many allies in Caracas. Any regime change would put the oil shipments in question, and a decision to halt the oil shipments would certainly trigger debate — and perhaps turmoil — among the political elite.

Because of his position in government, Foreign Minister Maduro has a close personal relationship with the Cuban regime. For Havana, Maduro can be counted on to maintain bilateral relations and, more important, oil deliveries. Capriles is not as close to the Cuban regime, but he has promised to continue shipping oil to Cuba. Nevertheless, the Cubans undoubtedly worry that a Capriles electoral victory could force the island nation to lose its Venezuelan benefactor. 

Venezuela: The Presidential Election and Chavez's Support Structures
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