Over the past two years, Venezuela has sunk into a deep economic crisis brought on by a decline in oil prices, and its reverberating effects have left the country's ruling party desperate. In an environment where regular protests and widespread disapproval have become the norm, President Nicolas Maduro's administration is clinging to power despite the increasing likelihood that it will lose the next presidential election. Now, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has begun coalescing into opposing factions, and how its struggle plays out will determine just how long the administration is able to protect its rule.
For the president and his inner circle, losing control of the country could mean being jailed by an opposition government or even being extradited to the United States on criminal charges. To prevent this, Maduro and his allies, including influential PSUV power broker Diosdado Cabello and Vice President Tareck El Aissami, have called for a constitutional assembly to rewrite the constitution. The move could allow the government to rework elements of the country's electoral law and perhaps delay the next presidential race, cementing Maduro's position in power in the process.
An Opposition Faction Emerges
But segments of the administration are already thinking about a future without Maduro. A faction of the PSUV that includes Attorney General Luisa Ortega has emerged hoping to block Maduro's attempts at firming up his political position. Over the past three months, Ortega has consistently opposed the Maduro administration's actions, including its attempt to dissolve congress in March and its use of military courts to try civilian protesters. More recently, Ortega also attempted — albeit unsuccessfully — to get the Supreme Court to halt the constitutional assembly. In her fight against the president, Ortega is joined by former Cabinet ministers, retired military officers, district attorneys and retired and active law enforcement officials.
For Ortega's faction, the strategy chosen by Maduro and his comrades is simply unsustainable. A majority of voters likely now oppose the PSUV and there have been consistent clashes in the streets. The current administration cannot survive without further repressing demonstrators and manipulating the electoral system to its benefit — tactics that would drive increasingly violent and potentially deadly protests over the coming year. A heavier crackdown on protests also could attract the attention of the United States, which has considered implementing damaging sanctions against Venezuela's crucial oil sector. In the face of these risks, PSUV officials belonging to Ortega's group have begun to search for a political solution that protects their interests in the long run. That solution, it seems, is to oust the virtually unelectable Maduro.
According to a Stratfor source, the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) believes Ortega's ultimate aim is to use Article 350 of the constitution in her quest to remove the administration from power. The article states that the nation's republican values should be protected against any legislation, authority or government that disregards them, essentially permitting the country's armed forces and civilians to commit insubordination in certain circumstances. By issuing a statement invoking Article 350, Ortega would be gambling on the hope that Venezuela's wavering armed forces would definitively choose a side, potentially giving her faction the institutional heft it needs to remove Maduro.
In conjunction with the invocation of Article 350, Ortega also could encourage a declaration by the country's National Assembly that the president is not fulfilling the constitutional duties of his post. This could spur the attorney general's office to conduct pre-trial hearings against members of the ruling party and possibly the president himself. The DGCIM, moreover, believes that Ortega would also use the threat of recognizing foreign extradition warrants to further pressure the government.
A Ruling Party Clings to Power
Despite Ortega's efforts, ousting Maduro's administration will not be easy. In recent years, key individuals threatened by institutional dissent, such as Cabello, have developed a network of defenses designed to make any attempts to remove them as messy as possible. These moves date as far back as 2014, when Maduro removed former National Bolivarian Intelligence Service chief Miguel Rodriguez Torres as interior minister. According to a Stratfor source, Rodriguez Torres was becoming an obstacle to Cabello's influence within the country's security institutions, and Cabello was concerned about his close relationship with Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino Lopez. The following year, Maduro appointed his ally Gen. Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez as interior minister.
The removal of Rodriguez Torres was critical for allowing Cabello to build up his network of colectivos, or unofficial government-funded militias. By early 2015, Cabello and his allies had begun the process of expanding their command over the colectivos previously controlled by the Interior Ministry. Freddy Bernal, a PSUV civilian official sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, then coordinated with Cabello-allied state governors to create a nationwide colectivo movement that boasts thousands of members. National Guard Commander Nestor Reverol has backed the use of these expanded colectivos, drawn from the patronage networks known as Bolivar-Chavez Battle Units, to fight against protesters, and they have been closely aligned with the National Guard and Bolivarian National Police in the latest wave of protests. Maduro's administration has even considered including these units in the regular military as an auxiliary force against ceaseless unrest.
The colectivo expansion of the past few years has provided greater security for Cabello and his allies, despite the government's unpopularity, and has served as a deterrent against a potential uprising from a military whose loyalty to the political leadership is increasingly in doubt. Any segment of the armed forces thinking of rising up against the administration would risk having to fight the colectivos' thousands of armed civilians — a conflict sure to be bloody.
A Nation Looks Ahead
As it stands, the PSUV's opposing factions are locked in what could prove a lengthy struggle. Maduro, Cabello and their allies may be at the helm of a nation with an increasingly hostile population, but they control enough political and security institutions to make challenging them difficult. Meanwhile, the face of that dissidence, Ortega, is not likely to back down, though she presently lacks the means to stop the government's push toward a constitutional assembly. She can and likely will, however, use every tool she has to work toward her ultimate goal of removing Maduro from power, including threatening investigations against PSUV and military officials and urging the armed forces to rebel.
As violent protests escalate and dissident PSUV members ramp up the pressure on Maduro and his allies, the most important figure to watch will be Padrino Lopez. As the head of the armed forces, he will eventually be forced to make a decision about where his troops' loyalties lie as the rift between members of the ruling party widens. Padrino Lopez's support for the Maduro's administration likely depends on the level of unrest in the streets and whether the defense minister wants to be party to severe crackdowns on the opposition. In the event of a serious incident such as a massacre of protesters, it's possible that Padrino Lopez's allegiance will shift to Ortega.
Maduro and his circle of supporters have not yet acted to remove Ortega, probably because doing so would bring the government's split out into the open. But the divisions within Venezuela's ruling government will only grow in the months ahead as Ortega's faction continues finding new ways to pressure the administration. Unless the military switches sides or makes a sudden coup attempt, there are few organizations capable of halting Maduro and Cabello as they fight to stay in power. Nevertheless, Ortega and the nation's consistent waves of protesters ensure that the threats to Maduro's administration will not be eliminated anytime soon. And as Maduro continues to push for a constitutional assembly, conflict and dissent will weigh heavily on the government in Caracas.