‘Multitasking’ Maduro tightens hold on Venezuela as coronavirus surges


The Venezuelan opposition hoped that 2020 could bring new momentum after several failed pushes to overthrow Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Then came the coronavirus. Analysts say the pandemic has helped suck away the opposition’s already flagging support, The Washington Post reports:

Fear of contagion has helped keep protesters off the streets, and the virus-driven end of a slight economic upturn has kept Venezuelans focused on daily survival, not politics. Against that backdrop, Maduro has instituted sweeping measures ensuring Venezuela’s electoral system is bent in his favor. Meanwhile, opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s popularity has continued to plummet….

Human rights advocates say the Maduro government is using the quarantine to further erode civil liberties. The Caracas-based prisoner rights group Foro Penal said Maduro’s government this year has arrested 281 people the group considers political prisoners, most during the quarantine. Foro Penal’s executive director Alfredo Romero said that prisoners often aren’t allowed courtroom hearings or visits with attorneys and relatives.

“The pandemic is being used to further deprive them of the right to a defense and due process,” he told The Post.

Venezuela’s autocratic regime remains in power due to a blend of traditional repressive techniques and more innovative practices, including the deployment of uncivil society groups, says a leading expert.

Venezuela’s chief prosecutor ordered an investigation after a man was shot and killed, Reuters reports (HT:CFR), allegedly by a National Guard member, during a protest over gas shortages.

Maduro’s regime has survived despite a multitude of crises, notes Amherst College professor Javier Corrales, author of Fixing Democracy: Why Constitutional Change Often Fails to Enhance Democracy in Latin America (2018) and (with Michael Penfold) Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chávez (second edition, 2015).

It has done so by relying on classic autocratic tools, but also by deploying what I call “function fusion”: granting existing institutions the ability to perform a variety of functions typically reserved for other institutions, he writes for the NED’s Journal of Democracy. The military is acquiring civilian and business functions; organized civilian groups have been given the function of conducting quasi-military operations; a constituent assembly has acquired the function of legislature and ruling party combined; and the state is sharing sovereignty with foreign armed forces and criminal gangs. Such forays into function fusion help an authoritarian regime in a number of ways:

  • First, the executive engages in some form of power sharing with other components of the ruling coalition, thereby expanding that coalition’s reach.
  • Second, function fusion allows the state to either save on the use of traditional authoritarian tools or at least to deny its involvement in traditional authoritarian practices such as outright repression, cronyism, smuggling, and brutal environmental and labor practices.

Venezuelan dissident Rodrigo Diamanti (above) explains the importance of protecting a free press from the reach of authoritarians; the way in which a populist dictator came to power in his home country; and how nativism, isolationism, populism, and protectionism are the symptoms of a disease that can destroy a democracy if left unchecked, the Bush Center reports. 

Michael Penfold, a Caracas-based fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, said Maduro’s “goal is to behead the leadership of the democratic opposition by electing a new National Assembly.” Maduro also seeks a loyal opposition, “hoping to continue to gain time until the international community loses any hope of a change in the country,” Penfold told The Post.

Another institution that has become fodder for function fusion is the network of civilians whom the ruling party has organized into what are known as colectivos. In Venezuela, this term signifies groups of civilians whom the government encourages—and even pays—to terrorize political dissidents, Corrales adds in the JOD:

The regime began using them in the early 2000s under Chávez. As the government’s popularity has decreased under Maduro, the state’s need to rely on colectivos has increased.15 Today, the colectivos comprise mostly ruling-party followers, paid civilians, moonlighting police officers in plain clothes, delinquents, and assorted thugs, sometimes even former convicts.16 The government hires them informally to carry out some of the dirtiest forms of repression. Distributed across low-income neighborhoods throughout the country, these groups can be sent into city streets quickly. Altogether, colectivos may control as much as a tenth of the country’s urban space.17

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