The End of Unified Chavismo and the Beginning of a New and Turbulent Era

“In these complicated years we have managed to keep together the political high-command that the commander Hugo Chávez bestowed us and, we have kept the politico-military high-command united too, and we have held all the political forces of the Revolution together [But today] we have created new political forces, new political movements, new social movements. We are not only united, but we are in a dynamic of expansion, if this were not the case, we would not today have the support of 55% intended voters.” –President Maduro, Feb. 24, 2018

When Hugo Chávez was president, there were various groups with political and economic interests within his government, but he held the reins. Chavez always had the final word on every important decision. With Nicolás Maduro as president, the configurations of power have changed. During the first, unstable years, it was evident that he placed the need to survive over the need to govern. Maduro had to rely on a range of actors and groups that offered him their support in exchange for control of key areas of the state. This situation seems to have changed during the turbulent past year, with power relations inside the “revolution” starting to change shape.

The purpose of this piece is to understand the new reality inside the government’s camp, and the new direction of Maduro’s leadership. This task is complicated by the lack of information and general opacity that characterize the Maduro government, and the complexity and changing relations between the main actors inside the “revolution.” What I will provide here is an interpretation based on conversations with actors that have inside knowledge of the Maduro governments; comparisons between Maduro’s current political decisions and those of the recent past; and a review of recent news coverage.


The “High–Command”

In the first years of his presidency, Maduro made decisions on the most critical issues through a system of cooperative consultation we can think of as the “political high command of the revolution.” This “high command” was not a constitutional, or formal, body voted on by the People or members of the Socialist Party (PSUV), rather it was an ad hoc mechanism made up of the most important figures of Chavismo, which had already started to gain prominence and assume decision-making powers during the period of President Chavez’s illness.

While its membership was not fixed, insiders suggest that the permanent members of the high-command were Maduro’s wife Cilia Flores; strongman Diosdado Cabello; the skillful organizer and governor of Carabobo Francisco Ameliach, the young governor of Aragua and close Maduro ally Tareck El Aissami; Elias Jaua, a figure popular inside the Chavista left-wing bases, and the powerful minister of Energy and president of PDVSA, Rafael Ramirez. A few other actors were added to these core members depending on the circumstances, especially Jorge Arreaza as a representative of the Chavez family (he is married to Chavez’s daughter) and more recently, and brother and sister team Delcy and Jorge Rodriguez, confidantes of Maduro.

This high command evaluated and made the most important decisions. Not surprisingly, the varying personalities, interests and ideological positions of the members of government that constitute this body created tensions and uncertainty regarding the government’s views and plans. President Maduro often appeared as if he were trying to balance and reconcile these differences, rather than assuming a leadership role as the one with the last word in the government. The unity and the consensus of the Chavista members of the high command came at the expense of governability, and important policy decisions were simply put on hold leading to the stagnation and continued decline of the economy.


The end of cooperative consultation

The political high command started to show some cracks after the disastrous parliamentary elections of 2015, which destabilized the power sharing arrangement. The National Assembly had been the domain of Diosdado Cabello, who embodies a fraction of the Army, and provided a forum in which many other members of the PSUV and other smaller parties had an official role and could coordinate their actions.

The final blow, however, came in 2017.  During the massive protests of April – July, 2017 against the Government, Maduro had to rely almost exclusively on the state security forces, controlled by his close ally, Vladimir Padrino Lopez. Padrino Lopez had experienced a stellar ascendancy in the country’s political landscape during the Maduro presidency, and his successful handling of the protests, through brutal force and violation of human rights, made him an essential actor inside the government. At the same time, Maduro realized that he had many external challenges to his rule and that it was no longer sufficient to rely exclusively on his old allies. To wit, the idea of a Constituent Assembly came from an external actor,  lawyer Herman Escarra.

Maduro supported Delcy Rodriguez as head of the Constituent Assembly, instead of other members of the high command offering her one of the most important institutional positions in the country’s governance. Rodriguez during the Chavez era was in the shadow of her brother, Jorge Rodriguez — an important Chavista figure but with little influence on the army (he is a civilian). The Rodriguez siblings together with Padrino Lopez, and of course Cilia Flores, became Maduro’s close circle while the other members of the high command saw their power waning. This does not mean that their power is obsolete, but their power has significantly shrunk vis-à-vis a Maduro.

The strategic errors of the opposition after the protests and Maduro’s significant electoral victories in local elections in October and December 2017, together with his increasing authoritarianism, gives the impression that Maduro is at the top of the game. Maduro sees this historic moment as his opportunity to become a “hegemonic” leader,  who must still co-govern with the other important Chavista actors bequeathed from the Chavez era, “the sons and daughters of Chavez”, but who is clearly in charge. Thus, he is moving forward with a strategy that appears to be a liberation from the structures and actors of the past (something that he had even expressed in tempore non suspect).


Liberation from the past, the beginning of Madurismo

To create his own movement, Maduro needed to remove and isolate those close to Chávez, including the 1992 coup movement in the Armed Forces, and civilian officials important during Chávez’ government.  We can see Maduro ‘s main efforts to liberate him from the past beginning with the pursuit of the ex-oil chair Rafael Ramirez, and other PDVSA managers related to Ramirez, for corruption. Ramirez was an actor close to Chavez, but he had terrible relations with the Maduro family.  This ‘purge’ continued in the other de-facto pillar that has supported the government so far, the army. The recent detentions of the ex-powerful minister of interior, Miguel Rodriguez Torres (after first disqualifying him from electoral participation), together with the demotion and the arrest of other lower rank army officer are an indication of a Chavista internal battle that extends to all of the people and institutions that have supported the civic-military coalition of the previous time.

The next step in the same direction was the creation of a new political party, Somos Venezuela. The last time a president created a political party in Venezuela was Hugo Chavez, in 2007 with PSUV, and he had made it clear that his objective was to absorb all the other parties that were part of the Chavista coalition- even if he did not finally succeed in doing so. .

Maduro’s decision to create a new party has to do with the power relations- as it was the case with Chavez- inside the Chavismo. Maduro is the nominal leader of the PSUV but he does not control the party. Diosdado Cabello and Francisco Ameliach control all of its structures. Maduro created the new party to have his own political vehicle for future elections, especially for the legislative and local elections where the Cabello/Ameliach team used to fill the posts with candidates of their preference.

The recent public spat between Ameliach and Maduro’s trustee Rafael Lacava, the new elected governor of Carabobo, shows the emerging divisions in the Chavismo and the internal fights that sprung from the bottom to the top.  Furthermore, the appointment of Delcy Rodriguez as president of the new political party, and the fact that the new party is a transformation of a bureaucratic structure that Maduro created to promote a social policy that he built in 2017 (and of which he is proud of), shows signs of his desire for ‘independence.’

Further evidence of this can be seen in his style of electoral campaign in the last several weeks with emphasis on the presidential couple, downplaying the importance of Chavez and other important Chavista figures in the country’s political scene. He also is not denying the existence of a new political phenomenon called “Madurismo” (something that he vehemently rejected even in early 2017). These developments contribute further to the conclusion that Maduro slowly is breaking from the old Chavista order.

The other members of the high command have not shown their discontent with these developments publicly. However, two events give further evidence that the high command of the revolution has lost its collective decision-making.

First, the idea that Diosdado Cabello expressed in a televised show–to hold snap parliamentary elections together with the presidential elections—seems to have brought discomfort to President Maduro and Delcy Rodriguez. In the days after Cabello expressed his idea the Presidency, the Constituent Assembly, Cabello and the electoral body (CNE), showed a lack of coordination, something not seen often in the Chavismo era (ultimately the CNE and the Constituent Assembly decided not to accept Cabello’s proposal).

Second came the declarations of Cabello that Somos Venezuela is part of a tactical strategy to win the elections,  “but the PSUV is and will continue to be the largest, most powerful, best-organized party in the entire political history of Venezuela.” This declaration was accompanied with a mobilization to give new ID cards to all PSUV members with no clear indication what benefits this card will offer to the PSUV members. These actions and declarations look like defensive moves against Maduro’s political maneuvers.

The abovementioned developments suggest that a new political era may be starting in Venezuela. However, as these developments are taking place in real-time and other internal and external factors can influence in the country’s course, it is not clear if the new political reality will have immediate consequences. What we can be sure of is that Venezuela will be unstable and unpredictable in the coming months and those who are on top today could quickly become scapegoats for the country’s failures.