With Venezuela in crisis, why some still support Nicolás Maduro

Venezuela has foundered under president Nicolás Maduro. Who still supports him?

Ariana Cubillos/AP
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro waves to supporters before a parade marking Venezuela's Independence Day in Caracas on July 5th.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is facing a series of crises. One of them is a crisis of confidence.

In a survey of voter opinion carried out in May, 23 percent of Venezuelans said that they approved of Mr. Maduro's performance, amid ongoing dysfunction ranging from food shortages to hours-long blackouts. That number may not seem like much – and certainly not compared to the clear majority who say they want to see Maduro leave office by the end of this year.

But given the profundity of the current economic crisis, as well as violent crime rates among the highest in the hemisphere, Maduro’s continued support among a small but not inconsiderable block of the public may shine a light onto those voters' pragmatic concerns.

For several months now, Maduro's approval ratings have hovered around 25 percent, a mark that some experts say reflects the core supporters of Chavismo – a movement led by Maduro's late predecessor Hugo Chávez.

"They have seen their life changed during the Chávez period and they are still grateful to the movement that he created," said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based electoral expert, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.

Under Chávez, the ranks of government employees swelled, and many of those who remain feel they owe their livelihoods to Maduro's leftist coalition. And with the economy contracting, some may fear that austerity measures under the opposition's leadership would bring mass layoffs.

Part of Maduro's core support, said Mr. Pantoulas, is about distrust of the political opposition, which swept into control of the Venezuelan National Assembly in December.

The opposition has been able to achieve little since then, other than removing portraits of Hugo Chávez from the chamber, as the Associated Press reports. The Venezuelan Supreme Court has issued 16 decisions blocking lawmakers from enacting pieces of legislation that range from the partisan – like freeing opposition activists from jail – to what might otherwise seem politically unobjectionable, such as a bill giving the elderly more access to food stamps. Some Chavista lawmakers have suggested that the legislature should be dissolved altogether.

Meanwhile, Maduro's claim that the country’s economic woes are due to an "economic war" waged by the opposition and the private sector – an explanation rejected by most orthodox economists – may ring true to much of his base, says Alejandro Velasco, a historian on Latin America at New York University.

"They see their experiences in a historical light – hoarding, contrived shortages in Venezuela in the late '80s, early '90s," he said in an interview with the Monitor. "Maduro is tapping into this larger regional conspiracy theory, but I think for people on the ground, they attach their notions to something far more local and concrete."

If supermarket shelves go bare until the government raises the price, that might lead a shopper to believe that producers were hoarding those goods, he said.

The key to Venezuela's future, Dr. Velasco added, might lie in the hands of "transactional Chavistas," who base their support more on results than ideals. The so-called transactional supporters are largely working-class and non-ideological, he says; combined with the Chavista core, they account for a majority of Venezuelans. 

The opposition is staking its hopes on a referendum that would push Maduro out of office before his term ends in 2019. But  while much of the "transactional" group says they're dissatisfied with the president, they might end up voting to keep him in office if they think that the opposition will not be able to execute sweeping reforms.

"What they imagine would come from an un-negotiated resolution is a very difficult couple of years, with severe economic policies that would really hurt them," said Dr. Velasco. "They want to see stability."

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