Maduro’s ever growing challenge

It appeared almost surreal that the world’s fourth largest oil producer had been reduced to a shortage of basic consumer items so serious as to cause the 12-member Union of South American Nations (Unasur) to issue an appeal to other countries in the hemisphere to do what they can to ensure access to staples in Caracas, and yet that is exactly the position in which Venezuela found itself in a week when the country’s President Nicolás Maduro’s political problems appeared to grow markedly worse.

After a meeting in the Venezuelan capital with Maduro last week Unasur Secretary General Ernesto Samper disclosed that the organization was setting up a commission to help strengthen distribution chains for basics like soap, detergent, milk and cooking oil, which, in recent years, have been periodically in short supply in Venezuela. It is not a circumstance which the oil-rich South American republic would have envisaged.

A scarcity of basic items is just one of a tsunami of challenges which, this past year, has descended on Maduro’s administration. An equally imposing challenge has been the condition of rising tension between itself and the opposition, the latter emboldened by what it considers to be a falling away of popular support for Hugo Chávez’s hand-picked successor.

Then there are the hostile postures struck by Washington and Caracas which have led to the imposition of sanctions by both capitals, plunging relations to a new low since the two countries withdrew their respective ambassadors in 2010. In response to Washington’s sanctions Maduro’s government appeared to win some modest diplomatic victories in the form of a condemnation of the sanctions by the Group of 77, Unasur and the Non Aligned Movement, though those gestures did little to alter the reality of Mr Maduro’s headaches at home.

Observers of US bilateral relations in the hemisphere may well ask whether Caracas does not appear to be trading places with Havana, since the December 18 sanctions against Caracas by Washington which allows the US President to deny visas and freeze the assets of Venezuelan officials deemed to have violated the rights of anti-government individuals and groups came just a day after President Obama announced a range of initiatives to normalize relations with Cuba.

What has unfolded in Caracas in the post-Chávez era is a sustained if measured push by opposition forces against what they regard as the remaining vestiges of the late President’s socialist regime from office. Maduro has continually asserted that Washington is his government’s destabilizer-in-chief, the truth or otherwise of that assertion not gainsaying the fact that the US has continually expressed its reservation about the Chávez socialist experiment.

What is not helping Maduro push back against his political opponents is the fact that continually declining oil prices continue to suppress the Venezuelan economy, causing consumer goods to be scarce thereby disgruntling the populace and keeping him politically off balance.

After his failed attempt late last year to persuade OPEC member countries to cut oil production in an effort to boost falling prices, both the country’s economy and his own political standing took a serious hit. Reports from Caracas suggest that enthusiasm amongst the Chavistas for the fare offered them by Chávez’s successor may have resulted in dwindling enthusiasm for facing off against the President’s political opponents. It would appear that Maduro’s political future will probably depend on whether Venezuela’s economy can recover in some measure.

First the International Monetary Fund (IMF) then the US government suggested to the beneficiaries in the Caribbean that they maybe should start seeking alternatives to the PetroCaribe agreement, though the outcome of a meeting in Caracas on Friday between representatives of the beneficiary countries and Maduro gave no indication that he was about to pull the plug on oil supplies. Hemispheric analysts have come to regard PetroCaribe as a holdover from the Chávez regime that has little economic or political purpose except to allow Maduro to point to his loyalty to part of his mentor’s foreign policy.

Still, and worryingly Maduro remains wedged between a rock and a hard place. He has been drawn into a direct confrontation with Caracas’ Mayor Antonio Ledezma whose arrest last month provoked fresh waves of domestic protest as well as a sharp ‘telling off’ from Washington. On the heels of that came the February 23 killing of a 14-year-old schoolboy during an anti-Maduro protest. Further political instability arising out of demonstrations that have resulted from these incidents would bode ill for the Maduro administration given the reality of a military that would only countenance a certain level of upheaval.

At the other extreme Mr Maduro is faced with a US administration that no doubt would much prefer the reinstatement of the pre-Chávez political status quo which, apart from anything else and for all its warts, would better serve US interests.

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