As Maduro begins new term in Venezuela, opposition sees trouble looming

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, right, shakes hands with Venezuelan opposition leader Julio Borges during a meeting at the residence of the U.S. ambassador, in Lima, Peru, on Friday, April 13, 2018.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, right, shakes hands with Venezuelan opposition leader Julio Borges during a meeting at the residence of the U.S. ambassador, in Lima, Peru, on Friday, April 13, 2018. AP

For the past six years, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has ruled over a nation in ruins. Inflation is expected to exceed 10 million percent this year, oil production is collapsing and millions are fleeing amid the hemisphere’s worst migratory crisis in decades.

And yet the 56-year-old former union organizer and bus driver has managed to stay in control. Maduro came to office in 2013 as the hand-picked candidate of Hugo Chávez, who died that same year due to an undisclosed form of cancer. Since then, he has survived coup attempts, massive protests, international sanctions and internal divisions.

On Thursday, he will begin an even more controversial term. More than a dozen nations — including all of Venezuela’s neighbors — say they will not recognize Maduro’s authority, claiming the May 20 election that kept him in power was fatally flawed.

Julio Borges, 49, has been one of the president’s harshest critics over the decades. A co-founder of the Primero Justicia political party and the president of the National Assembly from 2017-2018, he’s been living in exile since March, amid fears that he would join other colleagues who have been detained or died in jail. In August, Maduro accused Borges of being one of the masterminds behind an alleged assassination plot that included an explosive-packed drone.

Talking at a café in Bogotá, Colombia, his home in exile, Borges said there are plenty of reasons to believe that Maduro may not get to finish out his new term.

“Maduro remains in power, fundamentally, due to two things: the support of the military — really just the upper ranks — and the dictatorial know-how of the Cubans,” Borges said. “Outside of that Maduro has nothing. There’s no economic support, no diplomatic support, no political support. ... I think he’s irredeemably defeated and it’s impossible for him to overcome the crisis he’s created.”

Predictions of Maduro’s imminent political demise have come and gone over the years. When he first took office, many analysts didn’t expect the one-time foreign minister to survive more than six months. When the opposition won the National Assembly in 2015, many hoped they might impeach Maduro or move up elections. Instead the president stripped congress of its super majority, used the courts to neuter its power and then established a parallel, more powerful, National Constituent Assembly.

Asked if he was surprised by Maduro’s political survival skills, Borges said there was nothing impressive about it.

“To be politically astute would have been for him to survive while allowing the National Assembly to fulfill its constitutional duties,” Borges said. “I wouldn’t say he’s astute, I would say he’s like any other dictator who destroys and smashes opposing points of view.”

Borges said the democratic opposition has used every avenue possible to create change: organizing protests, engaging in dialogue, winning the National Assembly, calling for a boycott during the 2018 presidential election, promoting international sanctions. But nothing has moved the needle.

“We have done everything we can through civil society and organized politics,” he said. “But the government doesn’t care how much damage is produced as it clings to power.

“Venezuelans alone cannot change this,” Borges said. “We have to be honest, the problem is so big that we cannot do this alone.”

As one of Venezuela’s most visible opposition figures who’s not in detention, Borges has spent his time lobbying foreign governments to turn the screws on Maduro. And it’s been working. The United States, the European Union and Canada have rolled out targeted and economic sanctions. More than 40 nations have called his May 20 election fraudulent and now more than a dozen say they will only recognize the National Assembly as the country’s legitimate leadership.

Not surprisingly, Borges’ advocacy has put him in Maduro’s cross-hairs. The president routinely accuses him of plotting coups and encouraging international invasions. While Borges says he has always favored a peaceful, democratic transition, he said the Maduro administration has opened the door to violence by closing off real opportunities for change.

“The constitution itself says that any citizen, with or without authority, has the right to restore the constitution, and that’s what society is pleading for the armed forces to do,” he said. “They are asking for the armed forces to restore the constitution, which Maduro is ignoring.”

The foundations of Maduro’s power are based on military support. And he’s bought their loyalty by giving them control over key parts of the economy. Military officials are now in charge of the critical petroleum sector and food distribution. In a country where hunger has helped fuel a mass exodus, the assignment is key.

Borges said that Maduro clearly has the support of the military’s higher echelon, “the corrupt elite,” but is losing the rank and file. And that’s where the real threats are brewing.

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“Maduro is always looking for an external enemy in the United States or Colombia. ... It’s a technique he always uses,” Borges said. “But what I can tell you with certainty is that inside Venezuela’s armed forces they are not only tired of Maduro, but they’re in revolt. And the country is asking for them to complete their ‘divorce’ … for a dignified, constitutional and democratic armed forces to see a resurgence.”

Even the administration has had to admit that it has squashed several military coup plots. As a result, Borges said, Maduro has become more reliant on Cuban advisers, who are also leading the effort to squelch military dissent.

“Cuba has deeply penetrated Venezuela and right now [Maduro] is a subordinate to the Cuban regime,” he said. “In that sense, it’s incredibly hard for us to fight, because we’re fighting two dictatorships at the same time: against Havana and against Maduro.”

Borges’ critics, and he has many, accuse him of being part of the problem. They say politicians like him squandered the popular support they had during 2014 and 2017 when massive national protests rocked the nation and seemed poised to effect real change. And they claim he made a mistake in boycotting the 2018 presidential elections rather than supporting Henri Falcón, an independent candidate who many saw as flawed but at the very least an alternative to Maduro.

Borges said he has never been a believer in electoral boycotts but that this election was a mere charade. The government had jailed or sidelined all the viable candidates and outlawed the principal opposition parties, including the MUD opposition coalition.

“The issue wasn’t should we participate or not, the issue was that the government [sidelined] our leaders so there was no chance of rebelling against the fraudulent process,” he said. “The government killed the election before it was ever born.”

As Maduro begins his new term on Thursday — one that will have him leading the nation until 2025 — Borges is aware of the perception that Maduro is firmly in control. But Borges doesn’t buy it.

“I think there’s a very firm realization inside and outside Venezuela that, come Jan. 10, we are beginning the final chapter of this long struggle in Venezuela,” he said. “I think the entire world knows that this is the beginning of the end.”

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