The CSS Blog

Slow-Motion Coup in Venezuela

Courtesy Antonio Marín Segovia/Flickr

This article was originally published by the International Crisis Group on 5 August 2016.

Nicolás Maduro was elected president of Venezuela in April 2013 by a narrow margin. His term is due to end in January 2019, unless the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance can force a recall referendum this year – and win it. But does President Maduro really run the country?

In recent weeks Nicolás Maduro appears to have taken a back seat to Venezuela’s top general, defence minister Vladimir Padrino López, who also – unusually – holds the post of operational commander of the armed forces.

On 11 July, Maduro announced that he and Padrino would jointly head a newly-created “Civilian-Military Presidential Command”, charged primarily with resolving the country’s acute shortage of food, medicines and other basic goods. All other ministries and state institutions have been subordinated to this body, whose functions not only cover stimulating production, controlling prices and overseeing distribution and imports of food, but also the country’s security and defence.

The prominence of the military in determining Venezuela’s political future was illustrated once again by the appointment on Wednesday of Néstor Reverol as interior minister. Unlike Padrino, who rose through the army, Reverol hails from the National Guard. His alleged criminal connections – he was promoted to the post of minister after being served a US court indictment the day before for assisting drug traffickers – suggests that different factions in the military may now be jostling for shares of influence in the state.

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Unholy Alliance: Kleptocratic Authoritarians and their Western Enablers

Blood money

Courtesy ccmerino/flickr

This article was originally published by World Affairs in July 2016

It is widely understood that corruption is a pervasive problem in many societies and undermines public confidence in the political system and government institutions. The scourge of corruption is generally viewed as a symptom of a larger problem of the failure of judicial, media, and other institutions of accountability in new or developing democracies. In kleptocracies, which is the term used to designate “government by thieves,” corruption is the lifeblood of the system and therefore the heart of the problem.

Karen Dawisha, the author of Putin’s Kleptocracy and one of the foremost experts on this issue, makes the observation that “in kleptocracies risk is nationalized and rewards are privatized.” Participation in the spoils of kleptocracy is organized and controlled by top political elites, who raid state resources with immunity and impunity. Whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and others who seek to expose corrupt practices become targets of law enforcement and are treated as enemies of the state.

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Venezuela’s Toxic Combination: Too Many Guns, Too Little Food

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Chavez, courtesy of mwausk/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by The International Crisis Group on 6 June 2016.

Venezuela is a country of almost 900,000 square kilometres with over 30 million inhabitants. But a few, run-down city blocks in the west of the capital, Caracas, carry a significance far beyond their size and population. Known as “el centro”, this part of Libertador municipality holds the presidential Miraflores palace, many ministry buildings, the Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, or TSJ) and the headquarters of the electoral authority (Consejo Nacional Electoral, or CNE). In the past few days “el centro” has been the scene of a variety of events that speak volumes about the depth of the combined political, economic, social and humanitarian conflict that seems finally to have caught the attention of the wider world. And about the difficulty of resolving it through dialogue.

Crisis Group has for years warned that authoritarian governance, economic mismanagement, violent crime and lawlessness in Venezuela would eventually prove a toxic combination. The crisis spiralled out of control following the untimely death from cancer of the country’s charismatic leader Hugo Chávez in 2013 and the near simultaneous plunge in the price of oil, on which the economy is almost wholly dependent. Acute shortages of food, triple-digit inflation, one of the world’s highest homicide rates and the collapse of public services, including health care, are signs of deeper dysfunction. This is a country on the verge of implosion.

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Do We Want Powerful Leaders?

Fist

courtesy of Dustin Jensen/flickr

This article was originally published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) The Strategist on 7 June 2016.

A trend toward greater authoritarianism seems to be spreading worldwide. Vladimir Putin has successfully used nationalism to tighten his control over Russia and seems to enjoy great popularity. Xi Jinping is regarded as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, presiding over a growing number of crucial decision-making committees. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, recently replaced his prime minister with one more compliant with his drive to concentrate executive power. And some commentators fear that if Donald Trump wins the US presidency in November, he could turn out to be an “American Mussolini”.

Abuse of power is as old as human history. The Bible reminds us that after David defeated Goliath and later became king, he seduced Bathsheba and deliberately sent her husband to certain death in battle. Leadership involves the use of power, and, as Lord Acton famously warned, power corrupts. And yet leaders without power—the ability to cause others to do what we want—cannot lead.

The Harvard psychologist David C. McClelland once distinguished three groups of people by their motivations. Those who care most about doing something better have a ‘need for achievement.’ Those who think most about friendly relations with others have a ‘need for affiliation.’ And those who care most about having an impact on others show a ‘need for power.’

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Mediation Perspectives: Spoiler Alert – How Governments Can Undermine Peace Agreements

Pacman figure made with 9mm Parabellum cartridges about to eat the peace sign. Courtesy of Ragnar Jensen/flickr

Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts.

Most armed conflicts since the end of the Cold War have been civil wars. In contrast to wars between states, civil wars last longer – on average for seven to ten years – and usually end in some kind of settlement. Such settlements can result in mere ceasefires or, in more ideal cases, power-sharing agreements and genuine attempts to deal with the root causes of conflict. Yet one in two civil war settlements fail and violence reoccurs. Today’s blog provides one explanation for why this rate is so staggeringly high – the ‘spoiler’ role played by governments.

In most cases, peace deals in civil wars are signed when warring parties are weak, particularly the government. Military stalemate, exhaustion, and external pressure may encourage belligerents to settle at the negotiating table. Under such circumstances, a settlement is likely to be a compromise that still threatens some actors’ power, worldview and interests. As a result, they may try to undermine or ‘spoil’ the agreement in a way that allows them to reap the benefits they consider favorable, while not paying its designated price. The benefits may include retaining state power, gaining international or domestic recognition for committing to peace, continued exploitation of resources, and maintaining patronage networks, among many others.

Given these benefits, the underlying reasons why peace deals aren’t complied with are thus plentiful. Yet the media, as well as academia and its ‘spoiler theory’, all too often focus on the violent breaches of a peace and attribute blame to the rebel group. But since being a ‘spoiler’ works both ways, we’re left with a glaring question: How do governments impede or violate peace agreements and what non-violent means do they employ towards that end?

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