Venezuela's Colectivos: One of Many Problems for Maduro

5 MINS READNov 12, 2014 | 10:04 GMT
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (C) attends a military promotion ceremony in Caracas on July 1.
(LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

A recent dispute between the Venezuelan government and members of a pro-government political patronage group, known as a colectivo, has exposed potential problems for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The incident demonstrated Maduro's inability to exercise definitive control over the colectivos, which function as auxiliary security forces for the state. Fortunately for Maduro, he still has the approval of the country's armed forces, which have so far ensured his continued rule. However, the deteriorating national economy, Maduro's low public approval and potential splits within the ruling party will all pose threats to the Venezuelan government over the next several years. Unable to address any of these issues conclusively, Maduro is likely to mitigate the threats by maintaining military support through political appointments and direct benefits.

The disagreement stems from an Oct. 7 police raid in the Quinta Crespo neighborhood of Caracas in which five members of the March 5 colectivo, including its leader, Jose Odreman, were killed. The group threatened to protest in retaliation. To prevent the protest, Maduro dismissed Gen. Miguel Rodriguez Torres from his post as interior minister — one of the colectivo's key demands. On Nov. 5, the colectivo held a news conference, during which its leaders called for a dialogue with the national government to re-establish political ties but explicitly said the group would not surrender its weapons.

Although the Maduro administration employed the March 5 colectivo to disrupt opposition protests in early 2014, recent evidence suggests the government deliberately targeted the group. According to a Stratfor source, a possible reason for the Oct. 7 raid was Maduro's insistence on disarming some of the colectivos involved in criminal activities. Many of the colectivos in Caracas are likely involved in criminal activities, but the March 5 colectivo apparently is the only one that the government targets consistently. In August 2013, Venezuela's Interior Ministry hosted a disarmament drive that relieved the group of some of its weapons. However, the Fabricio Ojeda Front, a propaganda group loyal to the government, claimed in an Oct. 22 news release that the March 5 colectivo was opposed to government plans to disarm criminal organizations.

A Logical Move?

The wider context for the struggle between the colectivo and the government offers some clarity on the conflict's direction. For Maduro, the most important issue is the effect the national economy is having on his support bases. Maduro leads a fragmented party comprising competing personalities that until last year were held together by the charismatic leadership of Hugo Chavez and the political support garnered from the redistribution of oil wealth. These ties will probably unravel in coming years as the Venezuelan government contends with a decaying economy that will erode voter support.

Throughout most of Chavez's rule, a steady, albeit declining, stream of revenue from state-owned energy firm Petroleos de Venezuela kept the national economy mostly stable and protected public finances from significant depletion. With a secure source of oil wealth for public spending, the Chavez administration did not face notable internal threats once it excised dissidents from Petroleos de Venezuela and the armed forces. Maduro faces a much more dire situation mainly because he cannot resolve the country's economic problems. The Maduro administration will have to maintain the loyalties of multiple security institutions inherited from Chavez while dealing with an economic downturn it cannot prevent.

During Maduro's tenure, inflation has risen steadily to more than 60 percent year-on-year, and the government's expansionary monetary policy has only aggravated the effect of inflation on the population. Shortages of food and goods are ongoing, and the stock of available foreign currency from which to fund these imports is declining steadily. At worst, these social pressures could cause another outbreak of protests. As the Maduro administration loses popularity, competition from elites within the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will likely increase. Under these circumstances, the colectivos would become unpredictable forces that could find political backers among the president's opponents in the ruling party (although as the Oct. 7 incident has shown, even a portion of the colectivos can pressure the state if it chooses to). Consequently, disarming some or all of the colectivos — making them useless to other factions within the PSUV — is a logical move for Maduro.

Challenges at the Polls

Although the colectivos represent a latent problem, the threat they — or any other security forces or political groups — could pose will depend on further public reaction to the ongoing economic crisis. The 2015 legislative elections could be an inflection point for Maduro's administration. According to recent opinion polls, Maduro's approval rating is hovering around 30 percent, and the political opposition has seemingly grown more popular. According to an October poll carried out by private firm Datanalisis, 27 percent of respondents identified themselves as PSUV members, and 38 percent identified as opposition loyalists. Venezuela's next presidential election is not scheduled to occur until 2019, but a poor showing in the 2015 legislative election could spur opponents within the ruling party to undermine his rule. Maduro currently faces some divisions within the PSUV, mostly from small factions such as Marea Socialista that criticize the government's management of the national economy and seemingly arbitrary decision-making. A bad performance by the ruling party in these elections could further divide the party and turn these minor groups into real contenders for political power.

For the rest of his tenure, Maduro will prioritize the loyalty of the armed forces, which he sees as the main guarantor of his government's stability. He will mainly rely on measures Chavez used, such as extending credit and subsidized goods to the officer corps and implementing broad salary increases, including the 45 percent wage hike announced Oct. 28. Because of declining oil prices and production, there will inevitably be less money to go around, but the military's support will remain a crucial priority.

Given the costs of directly targeting the March 5 colectivo, including the replacement of the interior minister and the group's threat of unrest, Maduro is likely to back away from using a similar strategy on the colectivo movement as a whole. Regardless of the ongoing disagreement with the colectivos, the most significant challenge for Maduro will be the drop in voter support caused by the economic crisis. And even though the military has acquiesced to Maduro's rule for now, the degree of political unrest caused by Venezuela's economic decline will define the future of his presidency.

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