Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is in an increasingly tenuous position. During his nearly two-year time in office, Maduro has contended with an increasingly weak national economy, eroding his ability to manage the various factions within the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). In this context, widespread unconfirmed reports have emerged, none clearly reliable, that a coup is being planned against the president.
According to information from Stratfor sources, military commanders and auxiliary security forces known as colectivos will coordinate with the majority of PSUV congress members to prevent Maduro from returning to power once he returns to the country. Maduro is abroad on a state visit that took him to China and Russia as well as Iran, and he has so far not provided a return date. Venezuelan Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino Lopez, is also part of the delegation accompanying Maduro.
Given Venezuela’s dire economic situation, it is plausible that elements of the government are planning extreme action. Because Venezuela depends on oil exports for more than 90 percent of its foreign currency inflows, several months of declining oil prices have exacerbated its already strained public finances. In October, the government cut the allocation of dollars for food and consumer goods imports by nearly $2 billion monthly after it hit a high for the year at $4 billion per month in March. The reduction has worsened existing shortages and has raised prices even higher. The lack of dollars has also driven up demand for foreign currency, and the bolivar has depreciated by nearly 80 percent in only four months. To address this strain on the country’s finances, Maduro reportedly asked China for a $16 billion loan during his visit there. However, because Venezuela has a limited capability to leverage oil production for new loans, any advance would likely be accompanied by strict terms.
The country’s downward economic spiral has directly affected Maduro’s ability to rule. He has steadily lost support from potential voters and has an approval rating of around 20 percent. With mounting financial imbalances, and lacking Chavez’s popularity among the public, Maduro has been unable to implement decisive measures to deal with the economy. He has also struggled to manage the various factions that make up the PSUV, threatening the stability of the party. As the country draws closer to December legislative elections — and as opposition protests gain momentum and Maduro’s approval rating plummets — the possibility of a coup with the participation of PSUV members becomes more likely.
The declining Venezuelan economy is spurring mounting protests by dissatisfied citizens, and could provoke dissident factions to act against Maduro. Sporadic demonstrations involving several dozen people at most have occurred for the past several days in the heavily anti-Maduro state of Tachira, but also in places such as Caracas and the states of Lara and Merida. The protests have been accompanied by calls on social media for a nationwide strike Jan. 12 and another Jan. 23. If the isolated protests coalesce into a larger, nationwide protest movement similar to the one observed in early 2014, factions within the PSUV could perceive them as a threat to the party’s continued rule and may consider the removal of Maduro to be a plausible choice to offset public anger against the party.
Whether security forces remain loyal to the government is another factor determining Maduro’s eventual fate. The Venezuelan government has historically relied on the Venezuelan National Guard and on armed political patronage groups known as colectivos to disrupt opposition protests and to guard against potential disloyalty by the armed forces, as seen during the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez. In October 2014, police in Caracas targeted one of the colectivos, suggesting that the government was trying to disarm the potentially disloyal factions in light of the unstable political situation. However, the attempt likely failed, and Maduro may no longer be able to count on these units to protect his presidency. If the colectivos or the National Guard demonstrate disloyalty (by refusing to disrupt opposition protests), it would clearly indicate that Maduro has lost the support of key state security institutions. Movement of additional armed forces units besides the National Guard would be another sign that action against Maduro is imminent.
Given the various factions within the Venezuelan armed forces, the military could fragment in the event of planned action against Maduro, which would translate into splits within the PSUV. Stratfor will continue to closely monitor the actions and statements of politically powerful figures within the government, such as National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello, former Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez, and high ranking military commanders, such as Padrino Lopez. It is also important to monitor the actions of key opposition figures, such as Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, for signs of an impending political change in Venezuela. Conspirators against Maduro would also likely try to neutralize the threat posed by Cuban military and intelligence units in Venezuela as well. Because of Cuba’s importance in assisting the Maduro government with intelligence cooperation, we would expect any forces opposed to Maduro to target Cuban officials and forces in the country.
Finally, it will be crucial to observe what kind of foreign economic assistance Maduro is offered to mitigate the financial situation in the country. Actions by potential lenders such as China and the United States could temporarily influence Maduro’s ability to handle the economic crisis. However, without any meaningful economic lifelines, Maduro will have few options to counter Venezuela’s economic decline.
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