Ever since Nicolás Maduro put on Venezuela’s tri-colored presidential sash on April 19, 2013, people have been wondering how long he might get to wear it. And as the 53-year-old, mustachioed former union organizer begins his fourth year in power, speculation that this year might be his last is once again hitting fever pitch.
At issue is a recall referendum that could potentially end Maduro’s term and trigger new elections. And polls show a vast majority in the ailing country favor doing just that.
But Maduro — like his predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chávez — has spent his career defying expectations, particularly those that write him off as a short-timer.
There’s no question that Maduro is bracing for pain. Hounded by an ailing economy, rampant crime and a newly emboldened opposition, he’s now facing an existential crisis.
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“Maduro and chavismo are going to lose this referendum and any future election,” said Jesus Seguías, with the DatinCorp polling firm. “Even if Nicolás Maduro fixed all of the country’s social and economic problems people still want him gone. His levels of rejection are that high.”
According to a DatinCorp poll released Thursday, 69 percent of those surveyed said they’ll vote to oust him in a recall.
Season of Malaise
Reasons for the discontent abound. Plummeting oil prices in a country addicted to crude revenue have eaten away at the government’s ability to import even basic goods, like food and diapers.
Shortages sweep through the marketplace, driving speculation, hoarding and soul-crushing lines. The International Monetary Fund is expecting inflation to hit 720 percent this year — almost double last year’s already record levels.
To add insult to injury, the government this week instated rolling four-hour blackouts. Despite sitting on the world’s largest crude reserves, Venezuela is dependent on hydroelectric power and an El Niño-related drought has water levels falling. Among the array of electricity saving measures? A two-day work week for all government employees.
For many, the blackouts — and what’s seen as government indolence — were the last straw. The country has seen a spike in protests, looting and arrests this week.
Amid this chaos, the opposition began collecting signatures Wednesday to start the recall process. Organizers needed to gather just over 195,000 signatures in one month to clear the first hurdle. Instead, they collected 1.1 million signatures in 48 hours.
Nothing that they’re doing is politically viable. … You’re going to have this president at least until 2018.
President Nicolás Maduro
“We accomplished within hours what we had 30 days to do,” said Henrique Capriles, the opposition governor of Miranda state. “The government knows it. They know it and they’re rattled.”
The signatures will be handed over to the National Electoral Council next week for verification. If they’re given the OK, organizers will have to collect almost 4 million signatures to trigger the recall vote.
If Maduro is worried, he’s not showing it.
“Let them do their things,” he told supporters this week. “I’ve said it before, nothing that they’re doing is politically viable, and this revolution will continue. You’re going to have this president at least until 2018.”
He may have reason to be relaxed. If the opposition can force a recall before year’s end, then it would trigger new elections. If, however, the recall doesn’t take place until after Jan. 10, 2017, then Maduro’s ouster would simply mean that Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz completes the term through 2019.
Many fear the abridged government work schedule is aimed at slowing down the process. The CNE’s regulations for recalls are peppered with language referring to “working days” — meaning that a step that would usually take a week might now take three, as workers only clock-in Mondays and Tuesdays.
While polls overwhelmingly say Maduro will lose a recall, analysts aren’t so sure. Despite the current crisis, nearly a third of the population still support the administration, if not Maduro himself.
“Chavismo’s core support has a high melting point,” said Michael McCarthy, a research fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. “And that allows them to stay active as an organized political movement and have a base from which to build on during electoral periods.”
Despite being trapped in one of the deepest economic crises in half a century, Maduro still has an approval rating hovering around 25-35 percent. (By comparison, in neighboring Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos has approval ratings of 24 percent, according to a Gallup poll from March, and no one’s talking about ousting him.)
Then there’s the opposition. Despite its big win last year to capture the National Assembly for the first time in 15 years, it remains a disjointed coalition. In a country where chavismo has wooed the masses through generous social programs, the opposition still has trouble connecting.
“Maduro and his government lose elections, it’s not the opposition is winning them, and you see that at the ballot box and on the street,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst. “There’s not a social core within the opposition that truly inspires. There’s not consistency in their leadership and no national leadership.”
When DatinCorp asked people which public figure “inspires the most confidence to lead the nation,” 22 percent named Leopoldo López, the former presidential candidate who has been in jail since 2014. Not far behind, however, was Maduro with 17 percent and then Capriles with 14 percent.
“Even though there is widespread discontent, that doesn’t translate into active support for the opposition,” said Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Universidad del Oriente in Puerto La Cruz.
Ellner predicts that even deeply disillusioned chavistas aren’t prepared to flip sides.
“People generally feel that the opposition represents an unknown,” he said, “and they feel that voting for a recall will just create greater instability — and that’s what they don’t want right now.”
There’s also room for miracles. If the rains pick up, the blackouts might end. Rising oil prices might replenish government coffers. And China — one of Venezuela’s last viable economic partners — might throw the administration a lifeline, at least one long enough to survive a recall.
Since Maduro won office with a narrow and contested margin, the opposition has felt they’ve had him on the ropes several times, said Seguías with DatinCorp. In 2014, when nationwide protests broke out, many thought he was about to fall. And when the opposition took control of the National Assembly in January, many believed the body could flex its muscle. Instead, the congress has been neutered by the pro-government courts.
Even if the opposition comes to power through a recall, the nation is too destroyed for them to fix it alone, Seguías said. And the chavistas — even out of power — would remain too powerful to ignore.
“The first thing everyone has to do,” he said, “is step out of the boxing ring and start talking.”