'Things could explode': Why pressure is mounting as Venezuela's economy melts down

Venezuela’s economic meltdown has become so dire that speculation from political analysts now centres on when and how President Nicolas Maduro will be removed from power.

Speculation centres on when President Nicolas Maduro will be removed from power

Women chant against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro during a march in Caracas on May 14, 2016. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

Popular uprising? Recall referendum? Coup d'état?

Venezuela's economic meltdown has become so dire that few political analysts believe President Nicolas Maduro will manage to finish his term, which ends in 2019.

Instead, their speculation now centres on when and how the leader of Venezuela's socialist government will be removed from power.

A former bus driver, union organizer, foreign minister and vice-president, Maduro replaced revolutionary leader Hugo Chavez upon his death from cancer in 2013.

Since then, prices for oil, Venezuela's main export, have tumbled. The currency has collapsed, while expropriations and other socialist policies have led to falling production, the world's highest inflation rate and chronic shortages of medicine and basic foodstuffs like milk, meat and flour. 

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures at supporters during a demonstration in Caracas on April 19, 2016. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty)

But instead of free-market reforms, Maduro has stuck to Chavez's socialist blueprint while blaming the country's problems on an "economic war" that he claims is being waged against his government by the political opposition, the private sector and Washington.

"There is a sense, even among government supporters, that Maduro is driving the revolutionary project off a cliff," said David Smilde, a sociology professor at Tulane University in New Orleans who specializes in Venezuela. 

"His policies have just torn apart the economy."

'There is a crisis coming'

Polls show that 70 per cent of Venezuelans now want to see Maduro go.

But it's unclear whether this would happen through peaceful, democratic means or through a more violent scenario.

Briefing reporters in Washington, U.S. intelligence officials warned that Maduro could be ousted by his own military. One commented: "You can hear the ice cracking. You know there is a crisis coming."

Unlike Chavez, a former army lieutenant-colonel who led a failed coup in 1992, Maduro lacks his predecessor's charisma and his close ties to the military.

Opposition supporters clash with Venezuelan National Guards during a rally to demand a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on May 11, 2016. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Like most Venezuelans, soldiers feel the pain of the country's economic slide.

Analysts say they are also concerned that they will be called upon to turn their guns on civilians protesting against an extremely unpopular government.

More than 40 people were killed during clashes between protesters and security forces during country-wide anti-government demonstrations in 2014. 

Already, opposition leaders are reaching out to the military.

Time to decide?

Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said last week: "I want to tell the armed forces that the hour of truth is coming.

"You must decide whether you're with the constitution or Maduro."

But others claim that Maduro has shored up his support among the armed forces by promoting hardline loyalists and by naming officers to head about one-third of government ministries.

Maduro has also given the top brass broad control over the extremely profitable business of importing arms, munitions and security equipment.

Venezuelan opposition leader and governor of Miranda state Henrique Capriles greets supporters as he arrives to a rally to demand a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on May 14, 2016. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

"You respond to who feeds you," said one analyst who requested anonymity. "That's the way the military is."

Meanwhile, the opposition is trying to engineer a peaceful ouster of Maduro by gathering signatures to force a recall referendum by the end of this year.

Should Maduro lose the recall, new presidential elections would be held and the opposition would likely return to the presidency for the first time since 1998 when Chavez swept to power.

However, the National Electoral Council, which is tasked with organizing a vote, is stacked with Maduro allies who have been dragging their feet.

Delaying tactics

Maduro would almost certainly lose a recall, but if the vote can be delayed until next year, he would be replaced by his hand-picked vice-president and the ruling Socialist Party would remain in power.

"That would really be a small prize for the opposition," Smilde said.

The delaying tactics have outraged government critics.

Opposition congressman Juan Requesens pointed out that authorities refused to turn over the paperwork required to gather signatures and start the recall process until he and other lawmakers chained themselves to the Electoral Council's entrance this month.

Maduro dismissed the recall effort in a recent speech. "They think they will enter on a red carpet … but their time will never come," he said.

"Enjoy your 15 minutes of fame because the revolution still has a way to go."

But blocking a recall vote could backfire on the government by closing off a peaceful escape valve and fomenting a popular uprising.

Anger over food shortages, inflation and blackouts have led to a growing number of spontaneous protests and incidents of looting across the country, according to the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict.

"We have to change the government this year," Requesens said. "This is a pressure cooker and at any time, things could explode."


John Otis is a U.S. journalist who reports from South America. He is the author of the 2010 book Law of the Jungle about Colombia's guerrilla war.