By Ben Raderstorf and Michael Shifter
26 June 2016
(Slate) – Venezuela faces a disaster. Over the past month, food riots have broken out across the country as mostly empty supermarkets are looted. Its capital, Caracas, is now the most violent city in the world. The economy is in a tailspin, set to contract 10 percent this year. Oil production, the country’s lifeblood, has plummeted as the neglected state-owned energy sector crumbles. The government lacks the money to print its money. Inflation may top 700 percent this year. Severe medical shortages, of even the most basic equipment and medicines, may be causing thousands of deaths. In April, the government mandated a two-day workweek for state employees to save electricity. Embattled President Nicolás Maduro rules largely by decree, and dozens of political prisoners are held behind bars.
The country’s problems seem so profound, complex, and unpredictable that something, it seems, has to give. But precisely because of the convoluted nature of the deepening crisis, the most likely scenario is continued stalemate between offsetting forces. Anything else may not yet be possible.
The biggest obstacle to change is political: The government still holds nearly all the cards. Maduro, Hugo Chávez’s hand-picked successor, has his predecessor’s bent to concentrate power behind the chavista movement, including the military. In fact, the military is a fundamental part of his government. Almost one-third of ministries are controlled by current or former military officers.
Opponents of Maduro were heartened by a sweeping electoral victory in the congressional elections last December, but since then the government has used its iron-clad grip over the executive and judicial branches to essentially render the legislature powerless. The Supreme Court, in particular, is packed with chavista loyalists. To date the court has arbitrarily blocked several National Assembly members from taking their seats, denying the opposition a critical two-thirds majority. It also deemed any attempt to free political prisoners through legislation unconstitutional and defended Maduro’s emergency powers from being struck down—despite the Venezuelan constitution explicitly giving Congress that power.