Venezuela in Chaos

Venezuela’s economy is spiraling toward collapse and its political future uncertain, while the United States is nearly sidelined, acting cautiously behind the scenes.

In a recent report, the International Monetary Fund said consumer price inflation is going to hit 480 percent this year and  top 1,640 percent in 2017. An IMF bailout of the oil-rich country, which is suffering from a severe lack of food and medical supplies, may be in the offing. Things are so bad that tens of thousands of Venezuelans cross the border to Colombia to purchase food and other basic necessities and the military has been placed in charge of the control of food stocks.

The plunge in the price of oil – a commodity that for years has kept Venezuela afloat --  and severe mismanagement have been blamed for the collapse. While opposition to Venezuela’s Socialist leader Nicolas Maduro is rising, the nation’s political future is unclear.

At the center of the political controversy is the timing of an effort to recall Maduro.

While the prospect of a recall is likely, the date it will be held, which will determine Venezuela’s political future, is not. If it is held by the end of the year, Venezuela’s constitution dictates there will be new elections if Maduro is recalled. If the recall is held in January, when Maduro has served more than half of his term,  his vice president would succeed him.

“It’s a problem to have a legal recall right to a recall, but have the government controls the timeline and the process,” said Ben Raderstorf, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue.

Meanwhile, the United States is limited in what it can do to stabilize Venezuela. According to Raderstorf, the Obama administration has “tried to take more of a back channel approach,” in dealing with Venezuela. “Anything the United States says publicly, the Venezuelan government will jump on,” he said.

Like Cuba’s leaders, former President Hugo Chavez was successful in stirring up populist resentment of the United States, accusing the administration of former President George Bush of supporting a failed coup attempt in 2002 against Chavez. Maduro, Chavez’s political heir, has continued the anti-American sentiment.

Congressional attacks on the Venezuelan government, mostly from Republicans, doesn’t help, Raderstorf said: “Congress attempts to sanction Venezuela are counterproductive because that plays into Venezuela’s accusations that the United States is waging an economic war against Venezuela which forces the government to entrench further.”

Tom Shannon, a top State Department official who once headed the agency’s office of Western Hemisphere Affairs, visited Venezuela last month, speaking for over two hours with Maduro.  But it may be other foreign diplomats, and the Vatican, who will have more influence.

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and former heads of state from Spain, Panama and the Dominican Republic have been trying to bring together the government and members of Venezuelan’s opposition, a coalition known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD.)

It may be up to the Vatican to make a breakthrough.  Venezuela has agreed to include a  Vatican representative in negotiations. Alejandro Velasco, a historian who specializes in modern Latin America at New York University, says the success of Pope Francis’ involvement in the crisis will hinge on whether the Vatican supports a referendum that is held sooner, rather than later.

Yet the ousting of Maduro and the election of a successor isn’t likely to solve Venezuela’s political unrest, Velasco said.

The coalition of opposition forces are now “papering over” their differences by their unity in recall strategy and three fierce political rivals are likely to emerge if Maduro is recalled and elections are held. One is Henrique Capriles Radonski, who ran against Maduro in 2013 and lost by a slim margin. Radonski is a founder of the Primero Justicia party.

Leopoldo Lopez is a co-founder of the Primero Justicia party, but left to form the Voluntad Popular party. Velasco calls the former political prisoner “a populist, neoliberal candidate.”

A third contender to replace Maduro is likely Henry Ramos Allup, an old-time politician and president of Venezuela’s national assembly who belongs to  the Accion Democratica party.

Velasco said “there is still deep distrust” among these potential presidential candidates and their parties.

The victor in any election held in Venezuela, he said, depends on the result of the referendum. If the margin is wide, a more radical candidate could win, but if it is narrower, Venezuelans will want a more gradual transition and the victor could be a more moderate sector of the opposition.

Ana Radelat