Venezuela’s opposition swept to a resounding victory in legislative elections in December 2015. In theory, this watershed result presented an opportunity to rein in the powers of Hugo Chávez’s anointed successor, President Nicolás Maduro. Yet, in a country with no modern precedent for a separation of powers, Chávez’s heirs have since attempted to side-line the legislature and retain control. Against the backdrop of a weak judiciary, the opposition has fallen in on itself and divisions have emerged. By contrast, chavismo has rallied with a united front. In short, chavismo has some life in it yet.

That said, Lansberg-Rodríguez pointed to the current recession—the worst in the continent—as an impending crisis. He suggested that Maduro’s government will hold on until 2017, and it will be next year when more radical change might come to Venezuela.

Lansberg-Rodríguez based this prediction on three pillars:

  1. Deeply suspicious that financial re-structuring risks undermining their patronage networks in the oil sector, Maduro and his allies will seek to avoid defaulting on Venezuela’s debt for as long as possible. In this, many politicians hope for either an upturn in oil prices or for China—which has a vested interest in the status quo having invested so heavily in Venezuela—to bail them out on concessionary terms. If neither happen, Maduro will be unable to resist defaulting by 2017.
  2. Maduro is desperate to survive until 2017 since, if anything were to happen to him before then, elections would be held. But in 2017, power would transfer to the vice-president, which would secure chavismo’s hold over the country. As a result, Maduro and his followers have a vested interest in closing ranks for the rest of the year. It will be in 2017 that latent fissures in the party will rise to the surface, as key players vie for the position of vice-president.
  3. At the same time, the people of Venezuela have been less vocal in their opposition partly due to the demoralising effect of the 2014 protests. These wide-spread protests encapsulated a mood for change but yielded little. To make matters worse, the opposition has not been able to offer a credible alternative to the current economic crisis.

As a result, Lansberg-Rodríguez suggested that significant progress towards change may only come when the ruling party cannot avoid defaulting. At this point, high-profile members from chavismo movement may defect, which could add much-needed impetus to the opposition. Maduro’s own policy of embracing the military to the detriment of other traditional supportive constituencies only adds to this risk.

Until then, the international community seems unprepared for the coming humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, which is already suffering chronic shortages. Any transition will painful, and more should be done to prepare for it but Lansberg-Rodríguez pointed towards Columbia’s remarkable (and swift) recovery as a cause for hope for Venezuela. 

About the Speaker

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches at Northwestern University in Chicago, and is Latin America director at Greenmantle, a geopolitical and macroeconomic consulting firm. A regular blogger on Venezuela for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab, his analyses and journalism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times and the Financial Times, among others. He also contributed to the Legatum Institute’s 'Beyond Propaganda series with a paper called “Aló Presidente! Venezuela’s Reality Show Authoritarianism”, available in The New Authoritarians: Ruling Through Disinformation.

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.