On March 7, in his inaugural speech as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Brazil, Aloysio Nunes expressed his concern about the escalating authoritarianism in Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela. While a legitimate concern, Venezuela’s crisis today goes well beyond the regime’s dictatorial tendencies; authoritarian political power has become fused with drug trafficking. Could Venezuela become a narco-state?
During Maduro’s administration, Venezuela has gone through a fast and clear metamorphosis that intensified in late 2016 and early 2017. Most analysts, myself included, have labeled chavismo under Maduro as “electoral authoritarianism,” or some variant thereof including “competitive authoritarianism” or “illiberal democracy.” Specialists on electoral issues such as Argentine expert Daniel Zovatto explain that under electoral authoritarianism elections are held, but political competition is unequal. The playing field is completely gamed in favor of the regime.
In December 2015, chavismo reached a turning point. Having lost the legislative elections, the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, founded by Hugo Chávez in 2007) ended up with a minority in Congress with the opposition coalition, Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) gaining a majority in the single chamber national legislature. What made the MUD’s victory all the more astounding was that the electoral playing field had been clearly tilted against them, with the electoral commission firmly under the control of the governing party and the government blatantly using state resources to promote oficialista candidates.
The election results demonstrated that Venezuela had changed and its citizens showed that change. The electoral results made clear the Maduro administration’s loss of grassroots support; and subsequent surveys demonstrated that chavismo faced the imminent prospect of defeat in future electoral contests. In April 2016, a survey carried out by Venebarómetro showed that most Venezuelans were in favor of Maduro’s removal from power via the recall referendum.
According to confirmed sources, at that point government officials took the position that there would be no new elections until they had the certainty of victory—though of course they never said so openly. Instead, Maduro and other high-ranking chavistas assured the people that the greater priority was fighting the economic crisis, therefore there was no place for elections at that time.
Venezuela went from electoral authoritarianism to plain-and-simple authoritarianism. In October 2016, two events made it clear for many Venezuelans that their government had slipped into dictatorship. First, the pro-government National Electoral Council (CNE) indefinitely postponed the state governors’ elections that should have been carried out in December 2016. Second, seven criminal judges (without having authority to rule on elections) declared fraud in the recall referendum’s petition against Maduro’s presidential term. Oddly, though, five months later nobody seems to be interested in the dubious legal process that led to the foreclosure of electoral options, not even the opposition.
On January 5, Tareck El Aissami—until that time governor of the Aragua State and former minister of Interior—was appointed as executive vice-president. With this move, many inside and outside chavismo became optimistic. The idea of Maduro leaving office early due to his unpopularity gained strength, with the possibility of bringing to power a more economically pragmatic sector of chavismo that could oversee the political transition and effectively face the economic crisis.
A series of behind-the-scenes machinations made the possibility of an imminent transition look even more possible. Less than a month after Maduro appointed El Aissami, the president issued a decree giving his second a series of powers reserved to the president. Maduro’s apparent anointment of an heir also led to El Aissami having both a greater media presence and leading the cabinet in Maduro’s absence.
On Monday, February 13, the U.S. Department of the Treasury blacklisted Tareck El Aissami as a narcotics trafficker, “for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking,” according to the U.S. government’s official press release. It was a serious accusation. Washington made it clear that this decision, which banned the Venezuelan vice president from traveling to the U.S. and having financial interactions with U.S.-based banks, was not new or unexpected but the “the culmination of a multi-year investigation.”
Maduro’s administration and the military high command closed ranks to back El Aissami. Venezuela’s attorney general received the U.S. message directly but also made clear that there would be no investigation by the Venezuelan police or judicial system on behalf of the U.S. case.
As Luis Cedeño, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Organized Crime, has pointed out, we cannot lose sight of the allegations against El Aissami in the broader context of chavismo. He is, in effect, what appears to be a part of a broader network of criminality in the government. The vice-president is not the only public figure with alleged ties with narcotics traffickers. Before this case the U.S. had also blacklisted the governors of the states of Trujillo and Guarico. In addition, as Cedeño points out currently 80 percent of the cocaine trafficked to the U.S. and Europe passes through or over Venezuela.
The U.S. sanctions and the Venezuelan response have raised the stakes on a potential transition for the current government and the implication of the other members of the government. When chavismo closes ranks behind El Aissami, does this mean that they also defend narcotics trafficking? Will this whole affair merely affect the individual fortunes of El Aissami and his partner Samark López in the U.S. or will it bring about a course correction in the way the U.S. handles its relationship with Venezuela?
And most important, will the MUD sit again, as they did in November, at the same dialogue table with El Aissami after these serious allegations? For now, I believe the definition of Venezuela as a “narco-state” should be left between question marks, or Sean Spicer -like air quotes. But it is doubtless an issue that will have an impact in Venezuelan and regional politics in the near future.