Has Venezuela’s Crisis Reached a Tipping Point?

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Penn's William Burke-White and Dorothy Kronick discuss Venezuela's ongoing economic crisis.

Venezuela’s ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis has assumed graver proportions over the past five weeks and pressure is mounting for a regime change, even as doubts persist over the likelihood of the next presidential elections, originally set for October 2018. Fresh protests broke out after President Nicolas Maduro earlier this month signed an order aimed at forming a new constituent assembly of some 500 members and rewriting the country’s constitution to reshape his powers and those of legislators.

Many Venezuelans clearly saw Maduro’s ruling as a way to snatch powers from the opposition-led National Assembly and consolidate it in a constituent assembly over which he might have a better hold. “[Maduro] tried to do this as a way to unite the country, but it was seen as an attempt to retain power and sparked the latest round of protests,” said William Burke-White, director of the Perry World House and professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Venezuela’s crisis has probably hit a tipping point and Maduro’s days in power are numbered, said Burke-White. “The path forward is Maduro will be pushed out of power, or there will be a repressive, horrible crackdown where the death tolls keep mounting,” he noted. “It may be better to be moving in that direction [towards Maduro’s ouster] than be in an ongoing political quagmire that we have been in for the last few years.”

According to Dorothy Kronick, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, “The best way forward for Venezuela would be elections and having a new government in power.” She noted that 2017 is the fourth consecutive year of negative GDP growth for Venezuela; last year, its economy contracted by more than 17%. “There are devastating shortages of food and medicine, and inflation is above 300%. And there is tremendous suffering.”

Burke-White and Kronick discussed the scenarios likely to emerge in Venezuela in the foreseeable future on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Move to Consolidate Power

The recent crisis had its first flash point on March 29, when the country’s Supreme Court passed a ruling to assume the functions of the National Assembly, but strong protests forced it to subsequently backtrack. Meanwhile, protestors continued calling for elections and a regime change. Maduro, who was elected in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez, signed the executive order to form a new constituent assembly and rewrite the constitution on May 1. “We must modify this state, especially the rotten National Assembly that’s currently there,” he had said.

Opposition leaders are pressing for a removal of the Supreme Court justices who issued the March 29 ruling, general elections in 2017, the creation of a humanitarian channel for medicine imports and the release of all political prisoners, according to a BBC report.

Burke-White did not expect elections to happen anytime soon. He noted that Maduro had indicated that fresh elections would be held as part of the new constitution. “His [United] Socialist Party [of Venezuela] would lose those elections if they were held today,” he said. “Much of this is a move to push those elections out indefinitely.”

Maduro’s plan for the new constituent assembly is to have about half of its 500 members elected directly from among all sections of Venezuelan society, including workers, youth, women, peasants and indigenous people, according to a CNN report. The other half would be made up of delegates chosen from among businesses and workers’ collectives. Kronick noted that the provisions in the rewritten constitution would “undoubtedly … favor the government.” She also predicted that the Maduro government would try to ensure that the convention “is full of delegates that are its supporters.”

“The oil industry is no longer able to provide the economic support that Maduro needs to consolidate, or buy off, power.”–William Burke-White

Even so, with Maduro’s low approval ratings, Maduro is taking a big risk, according to Kronick. “His approval ratings are so low that even with electoral rules that are extremely favorable to the government, the opposition could potentially gain control of this constitutional convention,” she said. “That could be very dangerous to the government and lead to regime change.”

With growing protests, Maduro had his back against the wall, according to Burke-White. “He didn’t have many cards left,” he said. “This was a tactic that was legal within the constitutional structure — that the president can call for a new constitution — which you wouldn’t undertake if you weren’t in this moment of desperation.”

An Economy Embattled

Along with those political uncertainties, Venezuela’s economy is also in a sorry state. Oil accounts for 96% of the country’s exports, according to World Bank data, and low oil prices have taken a huge toll. Venezuela has the world’s largest proven supply of oil reserves, but much of that oil has high extraction costs, noted Burke-White. “When oil prices fall, those are the first to cease production because it is economically unviable to do so.” What makes that situation worse is the country has lost both technical talent (fired by the Chavez and Maduro governments) and investors, after foreign investments in the sector were nationalized. “They have lost a great deal of oil extraction capacity, which has both increased the cost of production and decreased the ability to keep production up,” he said. “The oil industry is no longer able to provide the economic support that Maduro needs to consolidate, or buy off, power.” Added Kronick: “Chavez had a windfall when oil prices rose, and raked in hundreds of millions of dollars, but they were not well invested and were squandered.”

“Certain actions [the U.S.] might take against the government help [Maduro] to be able to more credibly say, ‘This is the imperialist U.S. that is responsible for the problems of the country.’”–Dorothy Kronick

In addition to low oil prices, the Maduro government’s decisions “to maintain some destructive and expensive exchange control measures, and price controls” are responsible for the food and medicine shortages, Kronick said. “Economists have been urging Maduro to introduce “common sense” reforms for years such as lifting price controls, she added, noting that “price controls create shortages.”

Pressures Closing in on Maduro

Meanwhile, Maduro could face other threats as he tries to cling to power. For one, it is critical for him to ensure the military’s support. However, as the economic misery widens, it also affects the families of members of the military, Burke-White noted. “It is much harder to maintain a military-based regime when you have to point your guns at your own people,” he said. “Maduro realizes that that’s the support base he can’t let slip, and if it does slip, it could well be the end of his regime.” Kronick noted that a popular chant during protests translates from Spanish to English as: “Soldier, listen. Join the protest, join the fight.”

Expectations run high that the Trump administration could impose sanctions on the Maduro government. Sanctions might not work well on an economy that is “already devastated,” and “very much isolated and closed from the rest of the world,” Burke-White said. However, if sanctions are targeted at specific individuals or supporters of the Maduro regime, they might work, he added. “Many of those people have bank accounts and condominiums in Miami, and getting them to feel some of the pain a little bit more might work.” However, targeted sanctions against Maduro’s supporters “could raise exit costs for members of the regime” said Kronick. “If they were to leave power, they won’t be able to go to Miami and enjoy their post-government life, and that could actually make regime change more unlikely.”

The U.S. does not seem to have sufficient “diplomatic capacity” to engage with Venezuela, given the understaffed State Department, said Burke-White. But he did note Thomas A. Shannon, Jr., undersecretary for political affairs, is well versed with the region’s problems. In February, Donald Trump and Mike Pence met with Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López. “The Trump administration is much more willing to be much more openly critical of Venezuela than the Obama administration was,” he added.

U.S. involvement in working with the Venezuelan opposition or trying to influence a regime change could backfire and strengthen Maduro’s hand, Kronick said. “Certain actions [the U.S.] might take against the government help [Maduro] to be able to more credibly say, ‘This is the imperialist U.S. that is responsible for the problems of the country.’”

Pressure could build up on Maduro also within the region. Venezuela has been an important trading and energy partner in the northern part of South America, and it has provided aid to many countries in the region in the form of oil or cash. But its current status has left it unable to drive economic growth in the region. It has socialist-leaning countries as neighbors, including Cuba, “but those countries are leaning in different directions at the moment,” said Burke-White. He expected Cuba to be more susceptible to U.S. pressure “not to be as supportive a trading, economic or even health care partner for Venezuela” as it has been in the past. Kronick said pressure could come on Maduro from regional forums such as the Organization of American States.

Indeed, some of that has begun. Burke-White noted that the Argentine foreign minister has openly criticized Maduro’s call for a new constitution. “That is unusual given that Latin American and South American states have traditionally been hesitant to criticize one another,” he said. “We’re starting to see the edges of that tacit alliance begin to crack.”

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