Venezuelan ruler Nicolás Maduro fared very badly in the May 20 elections. He wanted to show worried chavistas that he's still popular enough to lead the revolution, but the extremely low turnout proved exactly the opposite, analysts said.
His insistence on holding the elections, despite warnings from the international community, served only to increase the risk of further economic sanctions on his regime. The demands of foreign debt-holders for lack of payment are putting oil operations at risk, and Maduro faces one of the toughest moments in the history of chavismo (the leftist political ideology of late President Hugo Chávez) with only one weapon — repression.
“Inevitably, this will dramatically increase the risks that we Venezuelans face,” opposition leader Maria Corina Machado said in a recent interview with el Nuevo Herald.
“I foresee a period of enormous repression, which they are already planning, not only against civil society but also against the … armed forces,” Machado added. “They are going to move against those officers and soldiers who still know their historic responsibilities and who understand that Venezuela is today a failed state controlled by an outlaw regime.”
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Maduro did not wait long to start the arrests.
At least 11 navy and air force officers, suspected of involvement in an alleged plot against the government, were detained recently.
The arrests, first reported by Foro Penal, a human rights organization, were carried out shortly before Maduro expelled the two highest-ranking U.S. diplomats in Caracas, accusing them of being linked to the plot.
“Maduro feels he's unstable, and his main threat comes not from the opposition or the empire [the United States],” said Rocio San Miguel, president of Citizen Security Monitoring, which studies military issues in the oil-producing country.
The government feels threatened by the armed forces, San Miguel added, which like a large majority of Venezuelans have been hit hard by the political, social and economic crisis lashing the country.
Facing an accelerating economic collapse and growing discontent in all sectors of the population, Maduro will have no choice but to speed up the process of installing a Cuba-like totalitarian system that eliminates direct elections, said Russ Dallen, managing partner of the Caracas Capital investment bank.
“As the country enters this new phase, we expect an increase in instability, vulnerability, cruelty and an inability to govern, while the Maduro regime tries to finish destroying what little is left of the country's democratic institutions,” Dallen wrote in a bank report.
“To counter the increasing likelihood of domestic unrest, the regime will continue arresting more soldiers even as Maduro issues more calls for dialogue, for reconciliation and peace — and simultaneously tries to consolidate the regime's controls,” Dallen added.
Maduro is feeling more pressure now, especially because he did not manage to prove to the world that the chavista revolution he leads continues to have the support of the Venezuelan people.
The chavista-controlled National Electoral Council announced the night of the election that Maduro had won the election, in which 46 percent of the 20.5 million registered voters took part. That number clashed with the many images of empty voting stations broadcast throughout the day by international news agencies.
The polling company Meganalisis, which carried out an exit poll on the day of the election, reported that the real number of voters who cast ballots did not surpass 3.6 million, or about 18 percent.
And many of the voters turned out under government blackmail — threats to lose their access to state subsidized food programs. In a country racked by hyperinflation and food shortages, the subsidized food can mean the difference between life and death.
The low turnout was a heavy blow to Maduro at a time when he's trying to convince the military and his supporters within the chavista movement that he's still capable of overcoming the crisis.
“Maduro's electoral goals, in the short run, essentially sought to end the pressures he was feeling from within chavismo, from the very strategic sectors of the revolution that were amazed to see the disaster he was creating,” said Oscar Valles, dean of political science studies at Metropolitan University in Caracas.
“With this election, he wanted to send an internal message that he personally still has popular support and that he is still the leader of the revolution. 'You might be unhappy, but the people are voting for me,' ” Valles said.
Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM