Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro shocked his country this week when he announced that he was giving exceptional powers to his Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López. Maduro made Padrino Lopez a sort of food czar, giving him all responsibilities for overseeing food distribution in a country with critical levels of food shortages. More important, Maduro declared that all his ministers will now need to report to the general.
A civilian president making a military man the head of his own government is a remarkable event. Almost every analyst in Venezuela has interpreted Maduro’s decision as the clearest sign that a dangerously weak government, rapidly losing control of the situation, has taken desperate measures to survive.
But there’s another possible interpretation: that this was a semi-coup by the military against a rudderless, ineffective and discredited Maduro government.
Who you gonna call?
As the press has amply reported, Venezuela has been descending into a humanitarian and economic disaster for the past year. One of the worst public deficits in the world has led to one of the worst inflation rates in the world. Rather than relax the price controls inherited from his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez, Maduro has tightened them, leading to a production crisis across all industries and to capital flight. Rather than defaulting on foreign debt, Maduro has defaulted on paying for imports, which are vital for a country that now produces virtually nothing except for oil and crime. Price controls, declining imports and rampant criminality has led to a level of scarcity and lawlessness typical of war-torn nations. No single indicator of governance has gotten better under Maduro, and the perception in the country is that Maduro is now the weakest, if not the most inept, president ever in Venezuela.
So when Maduro designated General-in-Chief Padrino López as the lead political figure in the country, the common argument in Venezuela was that this was a sign of an endangered government resorting to the military to save itself. But there is an alternative interpretation: maybe the military has now decided to tell Maduro to relinquish his autonomy and governing authority to the military. If so, we might have just witnessed a new type of coup in Latin America, one in which the president is not displaced, but effectively handcuffed. We could call it a co-habitational palace coup.
The sources of Maduro’s authority (or lack of)
Maduro has never been a president with a clear, established political base, and, as a result, from his first day in office Maduro had only a limited autonomy to govern. He inherited his job thanks to Chávez who, undemocratically, chose him as successor. Then after Chávez’s death, Maduro won a presidential election with one of the weakest popular mandates ever in Venezuela. Since then, he has had to rely on other strongmen. Initially, this role was played in part by Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly and the un-official head of one of the military wings under chavismo.
But Cabello (like Maduro) was significantly weakened after the December National Assembly elections, which the opposition won handily. Once sworn in, the opposition took charge of the National Assembly, automatically knocking Cabello out of his job as president of the legislature. The man that provided cover for Maduro became a dying star. A power vacuum descended upon Venezuela. Chaos in the street and a power vacuum at the top echelons of government is always inviting ground for the military to step in.
Even before Cabello’s political downfall, Maduro had been increasingly giving in to the military. In granting even a greater role to the armed forces, Maduro was simply relying on Chávez’s model of governance. Chávez always emphasized that his Bolivarian Revolution required a “civil-military alliance.” Chávez governed as the all-mighty broker of this civil-military alliance, using his powers in office (and his authority as a former military man) to strengthen each pole. Consequently, both the civilian Bolivarians and the Bolivarian military got big power boosts under Chávez, and each pole remained subservient and grateful to Chávez.
But Maduro never had that type of political gravitas or legitimacy within the armed forces. He came from the civilian wing of Chávez’s civil-military alliance and started his government already weak. That he has become weaker over time meant that the civilian side of the alliance was faltering.
Maduro compensated his steady loss of power by relying more and more on the military to govern, giving them more and more prerogatives.
It could very well be that this week we finally came to a Frankenstein moment in Venezuela. Maduro’s awkward creation has gone awry. A super-inflated and super-privileged military has now decided to turn against its creator.
Is Padrino López Maduro’s Frankenstein?
The argument that we might have witnessed a coup in Venezuela can only be shown through circumstantial evidence. What are the signs?
First, the fact that this was a public event is telling. Given that the military already had so much control in government (with more than half of the government ministers) and in the economy (having a large role in state oil company PDVSA and managing its own bank), why would Maduro need to be so explicit about making Padrino López a new czar? Why identify one person, Padrino López, above anyone else? One possible answer is Maduro has finally been forced to let others know, in his government especially, who is really the power behind the throne.
Second, Padrino López had been increasingly vocal in his criticism in recent months. Right before his appointment as Maduro’s “second in command,” Padrino López was quite outspoken about the chaos racking the country:
“This country right now is in the midst of an unconventional situation where all the rules are broken, some of them by design, others by our own weaknesses that we have to correct, others because, as our Vice President says, of the failure of governance. In all these cases we need to re-align our system.”
To have a member of the cabinet, who is also a member of the military, complain publicly about “failure of governance” and insisting on the need to do something about it, is something one would hear from a boss, not from a subordinate who takes orders.
Third, Padrino López is a clear non-madurista chavista. This is important simply because any explanation of recent re-shuffling must answer a key question: where does Padrino López get political power from? The answer is Chávez and a current of officers and civilians who trace their political authority to the former president and lieutenant colonel.
Padrino López was a Chávez protégé, not a Maduro or Cabello protégé. He became famous in July 2012 when Chávez named him general-in chief and second in command of the army, shortly after the Independence Day parade of July 5, which Padrino López headed.
Chávez had been impressed with Padrino López since 2002 when Padrino López, in charge of a battalion then, was one of the few military leaders who stayed loyal to Chávez during the brief coup of April 2002.
And after that point, Padrino López missed no occasion to re-assert his chavista credentials. At the famous independence-day parade before his public promotion, when Padrino López asked Chávez permission to start the parade, he openly declared:
“Thanks to [Chávez’s] leadership of the Bolivarian armed forces—made stronger as never before in its morale, philosophy, thinking, capacity, humanitarian vision, and its insoluble connection with the Venezuelan people—it is now ready to defend with reason—as well as militarily —the benefits and inspiration that the Bolivarian Revolution has brought to the country through the socialist project that we are building.”
As his fulsome endorsement of Chávez and later promotion made clear, Padrino López is part of the military cohort, empowered by Chávez and left by Chávez in positions of authority before Chávez’s passing. This group of chavista military figures included the top echelon of the military, several ministers, and 11 of the 20 chavista governors.
Now, in retrospect, it looks like Chávez made a dual succession before his death: a civilian succession (by naming Maduro) and a military succession (by leaving a group of military leaders in positions of authority). Padrino López was part of the latter.
This wing of the military that is loyal to Chávez represents the sector of chavistas today who see Maduro as ruining, maybe even squandering, Chávez’s legacy. Those military loyalists may well have decided that Maduro’s chance to lead and save the revolution had expired and they needed to step in.
This still leaves the question, why didn’t they just remove him from office? Why keep Maduro around?
The answer is the constitution. Padrino López may well be willing to keep Maduro in office for now simply because the constitution states that if the president resigns prior to the completion of his fourth year in office, there needs to be a presidential election. And the last thing that chavistas want—civilian or military—is to have an election at a time when the approval ratings of all chavista-controlled institutions (from the presidency to the judiciary) are at an all-time low. But if Maduro were to resign next year—due to any number of pressures—Padrino-López is now well positioned to steer that transition away from Maduro, making sure that the succession never ends up in the hands of the opposition or in the hands of a clique of autonomous, civilian chavistas.
Coup d’état nouvelle?
We may have just unwittingly witnessed a curious palace coup. The power grab is made all the more curious because the target is being asked to stick around—though that makes perfect constitutional sense of a military that would want to avoid a rupture and the opposition gaining control electorally.
Naturally, this is just a theory. We may never know whether, in fact, Venezuela experienced a moment of remarkable presidential decision-making or a quiet military imposition. But in a country that invented a new form of authoritarianism under Chávez—a so-called hybrid regime that mixes autocratic practices with some democratic institutions with some local flavors—it would not be surprising for it to invent a new form of palace coup.
If it was a new, semi-coup, it is still remarkable that the semi-deposed president has not complained, at least not publicly. But perhaps Maduro simply couldn’t say no to these events; his silence may be the ultimate sign that a coup did take place. If so, civilian authority has now become fully subordinate to the wishes of the military. And in that sense, this seemingly strange coup nouvelle, in reality, may not have been that unconventional or new after all.