The other day, I asked a leading Venezuelan opposition figure what he thought was the main difference between Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan comandante, and his successor, Nicolas Maduro. "If Chavez was Frank Sinatra," came the reply, "then Maduro is the guy in the karaoke bar singing an out of tune version of My Way."
The point here is not that Chavez was a preferable alternative to Maduro; as Roger Noriega correctly points out in the New York Post, Chavez's "divisive, illegitimate regime polarized society and devastated the economy." It's that the uncharismatic, foul-tempered Maduro has, during the seven months that he's been in power, exposed the totalitarian tendencies implicit in the ideology of chavismo, with the result that he's fast losing support among those segments of Venezuelan society, like the three million Venezuelans now living in extreme poverty, who regarded Chavez as a savior not so long ago.
The crisis facing Maduro's regime has coincided with a bitter political campaign around the upcoming municipal elections on December 8, which the opposition MUD coalition is billing as a referendum on the country's future. One recent opinion poll indicates that 48 percent of electors intend to vote for opposition candidates, as against 41 percent for the ruling party, but that is not necessarily a reliable guide to what will happen on the day. Maduro can always do what he did during the April presidential election: deploy chavista thugs to hector voters arriving at the polling stations, or even rig the result in his favor.
Maduro's behavior over recent weeks suggests that he has chosen the path of intimidation as the key to his political survival. With inflation running at 54 percent, the highest in the Americas, and a constant shortage of basic household goods like cooking oil and sugar, on November 19 Maduro railroaded through a Ley Habilitante, or Enabling Law, which allows him to bypass the National Assembly and rule by decree. Claiming that Venezuela is the victim of an "economic war" waged by the United States and its local allies, Maduro's new powers will assist him in prosecuting what his vice president, Jorge Arreaza, delightedly calls "class warfare."
So far at least, the regime's offensive against those it labels "speculators" and "bourgeois parasites" has manifested in two ways. Firstly, harassment of the opposition: last weekend, just hours before an MUD election rally, military intelligence officers beat up and arrested Alejandro Silva, a senior aide (or "fascist henchman," in the words of Andres Izarra, one of Maduro's ministers) to opposition leader Henrique Capriles. Secondly, it has begun targeting the entire business community, from large retail chains to small merchants, with state-enforced price controls.
Mindful of the potential electoral benefits to be gleaned from the approaching Christmas holiday, Maduro has abruptly ended the long-established practice of selling consumer goods at the black market rate for U.S. dollars–currently ten times the official rate. Initially, this resulted in open looting of stores belonging to retailers like the "Daka" electronics chain. In the days that followed, police officers turned up at other stores demanding that their owners immediately reprice their wares. A video being circulated by opposition activists shows a devastated Lebanese immigrant merchant in the eastern city of El Tigre begging for sympathy: "I bought at 60 thousand Bolívares [Venezuela's currency denomination]," he wails, as he stands helplessly in front of his goods. "I can't sell at 6 thousand!"
The main result of these measures, which have similarly impacted thousands of other merchants, will be to ruin the retail sector, since owners cannot possibly hope to recover their initial outlay if they are compelled to cut prices so radically. Further, they demonstrate the painful absence of any long-term strategy on Maduro's part to address Venezuela's capsizing economy.
Instead, the beneficiaries of Maduro's policies are principally found among Venezuela's military elite. As the constitutional lawyer Asdrúbal Aguiar observes in an interview with El Universal, military officers are now running key institutions like the Interior Ministry and a shadowy new intelligence body known as "Cesspa" (Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Motherland). Consequently, as Roger Noriega summarizes the situation:
Virtually every Venezuelan is infuriated by the daily fight for survival. The anti-chavistas are fed up with the harassment by an illegitimate and incompetent one-party state. All sides in the military are busy weighing their options.
Any act of repression, street brawl, electoral fraud or corruption scandal could unleash all the fury built up over the regime's 15 years. Tragically, the sight of military units squaring off in the streets of Caracas is not a distant memory.
Noriega concludes from all this that the U.S. "must act urgently to prevent a Syria scenario on our doorstep." Another equally depressing comparison can be drawn with Zimbabwe, whose dictator, Robert Mugabe, embarked on a similar price-controls crusade in 2007. Either way, the prospect of a bloody denouement cannot be ruled out.