Venezuela Revisited: A Crisis of Leadership

Image 1 Lopez Arrest

Leopoldo López, a former candidate for the Venezuelan presidency and a central organizer of the opposition to Mr. Maduro, turned himself in for arrest on February 18, 2014. Does it signal the beginning of a more repressive Venezuela? Image from El Universal de México.

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In November of last year, Praemon published an article discussing the legacy of Hugo Chávez and the woes of his successor Nicolás Maduro as the new president of Venezuela. Since that time, things in Venezuela have quickly spiraled downward—annualized inflation rates have hovered around 50 percent, the homicide rate rose 8 percent in 2013 (it now triples that of Mexico), and a charismatic opposition leader named Leopoldo López has organized massive protests that have resulted in over ten deaths since January. Venezuela, quite simply, is in a crisis of leadership.

Part of that crisis is a reaction to the vacuum left by Chávez’s death. Though things were not perfect during the Chávez years—indeed, most of Venezuela’s current economic and social woes can be traced back to policies enacted by the former president—he was a man who knew how to win the hearts of the people. They loved his populist rhetoric, reveled in his conspiracy theories about the United States and Colombia, and tuned in for weekly television shows that could last hours. Against such a charismatic, eclectic backdrop, the current leadership must strike Venezuelans as bland.

Three men currently hold much of the political clout in Venezuela: Nicolás Maduro, Leopoldo López, and Henrique Capriles. Maduro, as the head of state and Chávez’s handpicked successor, holds most of the decision-making power. He has frequently exercised that power to strengthen his party’s hold in the country, including the expulsion of three US diplomats on February 16. López is a Harvard-educated former opposition candidate for president who has been banned from running for office for over six years. His protests resulted in an arrest warrant from Maduro’s government, and in a surprise move, he turned himself in on February 18 with the following statement: “The options I had were leave the country, and I will never leave Venezuela!” Henrique Capriles, another opposition leader who has run for president more recently and has been the primary opposition figurehead for several years, has won more hearts than López because of his moderate views and humble background. He has joined the recent protests—though with some hesitation because of the destabilizing effect they have had on the nation—and protesters will look to him for leadership now that López is in jail.

Image 2 Venezuela Protests

Recent protests in Venezuela have included more than 10,000 people, many of them students. The capital city of Caracas has been heavily affected, and more than 10 deaths have resulted across the country since major protests ramped up on Feb. 12. Image from

Venezuela’s problem, however, is not that the hearts of the Venezuelan people remain uninspired by their current leadership options—that happened in 2012 in the United States, and it occurs frequently in democracies around the world. The problem is that this crisis of leadership comes in the midst of an economic crisis. Thousands of Venezuelans are without basic necessities, and a burgeoning black market has emerged for currency (and a host of other goods) because the government tightly regulates the currency market. Smart economic policies are needed, but they will not be enough—the people of Venezuela need something or someone to believe in. Perhaps they will find it in the forceful, charismatic López; his incarceration may turn him into a martyr (it worked for Nelson Mandela, though it took nineteen years behind bars). Or perhaps Capriles will steady the opposition ship and unify divided factions in opposition to Maduro. Nor is the current president out of the running: if he can blame the violence and deaths due to the protests on his enemies, Maduro may be able to shore up his crumbling position and inspire enough trust to kick start his populist policies. But whatever happens, it appears that the only short-term resolution to the problem is an internal solution—either some leader must rise out of the rubble or some combination of leaders must come to an uneasy truce before international powers can step in.

And yes, that includes the United States. The United States has been a strong ally of all Venezuelan anti-government organizations since Chávez took power in 1999, and it has cautiously continued to provide at least emotional support since Maduro took power.  The temptation for US intervention—monetary or diplomatic—will be intense during such a time of protest and unrest, but it must resist the temptation. Already Venezuela has warned the U.S. government to stay out of Venezuelan politics, and Mercosur—an alliance of powerful left-leaning South American governments and a traditional ally of Chávez— “described the recent violent acts in Venezuela as attempts to destabilize the democratic order.” In other words, most of South America wants the United States to stay out of Venezuela (and its oil) until the crisis has passed. Though this may be a maddening solution for many US policymakers, it is the only sensible solution at this tense period. When the dust clears, no matter which side wins, the United States will only find its position strengthened if it exercises the restraint to stay out of Venezuelan squabbles and lets the crisis of leadership resolve itself. Who knows—perhaps the crisis will result in a leader who actually negotiates with the United States, if only it can wait that long.


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