Can Maduro Play Realpolitick?

Michael McCarthy

Recent geopolitical developments in U.S.-Cuban relations and in international oil markets pose a key question for the Maduro Government.

Can the Maduro government follow the lead of two strategic allies, Cuba and Saudi Arabia, and put national interests first? Or does Maduro’s support of a “multi-polar, anti-imperialist” foreign policy leave no room for practical maneuvering and realpolitick deal-making?

One oft-discussed scenario projects Maduro following the path of Deng Xiopang who gradually consolidated a technocratic government to liberalize the economy, all in the name of carrying on Chinese communism. Under this scenario Maduro could strengthening the economy through market friendly reforms. Indeed many financial stakeholders would like Maduro to learn Deng’s “it does not matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice” pragmatism.

But with Maduro doubling down on his discourse of an “economic war” being waged against Venezuela, it would seem significant market reforms, other than a currency devaluation or asset sales, are unlikely.

Another scenario, more popular in Left-wing circles, would see Maduro prosecuting the corrupt within his own ranks while recommitting to a program of gradually building socialism. Supporters of this path suggest that Maduro is not following Chávez’s lead in rooting out corruption and holding accountable the inefficient sectors of the government. Whether Chávez actually made real progress on those fronts is highly questionable. But in any case, for leftists Maduro needs to radicalize to honor Chávez’s legacy and keep the opposition on the defensive.

There are many obstacles to this kind of radicalization. The military’s economic power is growing, a trend that seems inversely related to an effective fight against corruption. Moreover, amid highly unfavorable economic conditions, Maduro does not have the financial flexibility to further nationalize “inefficient” or uncooperative sectors of the economy.

Given Maduro’s predicament, small politics might suit him better. He could recover gradually by making pragmatic moves that will neither scare off investors nor betray left-chavistas.

Maduro’s announcement that the government will resume collecting fares at highway toll booths and return this responsibility to regional governments may be more of a cost-cutting gesture than a genuine shift to fiscal decentralization. Regardless, the example speaks to the point: Maduro needs to be perceived as a conciliator or problem-solver. Small steps that suggest the government is interested in results, on either the domestic or international front, are potential ways for him to thread the needle of moving the agenda forward.

At the same time, the government may not have much time to search for the right cards to play.

Given the urgent state of affairs on the economic front, and the strong possibility of re-energized street demonstrations ahead of the anniversaries of Leopoldo López’s jailing (February 18) and Chávez’s death (March 5), these next few months are more likely to be about just pulling through. 

Michael McCarthy is a research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.