Is Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, once a mild-mannered bus driver, steering the world’s 13th-largest oil producer straight off a cliff?
Within the last few weeks he’s come to the brink of war with not one but two neighboring countries. A dispute last month with Colombia resulted in tens of thousands of refugees scrambling from a border region and caused one local politician to label him “The South American Hitler.” Last week saw Maduro accused of plotting to invade Guyana, his neighbor to the east.
While experts warn that such risky behavior could destabilize the entire region, Maduro himself accuses Bogotá and Washington of being in league to overthrow him—and also boasts of having spies in the White House.
So just what is Maduro hoping to gain from all of this?
Hand-picked by the late socialist strongman Hugo Chavez as his replacement in 2013, Maduro has overseen the swift and profound decline of Venezuela—from an oil-rich, leftist powerhouse under Chavez to an Orwellian dystopia, complete with the highest inflation rate in the world. When oil prices were high and revenues extravagant, that cushioned the people to some extent from the incompetence of the government. But that buffer is long gone.
Violent crime and kidnappings are so rampant that the State Department just issued a travel alert warning away U.S. citizens. And commodity shortages have become so severe that it’s sometimes impossible to buy a roll of toilet paper in Caracas.
Like many autocrats, Maduro appears to suffer from an acute case of political paranoia. He has cracked down on opposition leadership—handing out a 14-year-prison sentence to popular opposition leader Leopold Lopez this month over trumped up charges. And he’s repeatedly authorized the use of deadly force against demonstrators he sees as a threat to his regime.
Not is Maduro’s persecution complex limited to domestic affairs. He recently claimed neighboring Colombia and Guyana are waging “economic war” against Venezuela—charges which conveniently justify violating the sovereignty of both nations.
“If he believes a lot of what he’s saying about the conspiracy theories against him, then he’s not the sanest man in the world,” says Adam Isaacson, a senior associate with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“Internationally there’s no trust of Maduro at all,” Isaacson says. “He says things that aren’t true, and he’s quite erratic.”
Among his strange declarations to the press: claiming to receive advice from the deceased Chavez via a talking bird.
Such is the state of things at the moment, that “one of the main interests of the international community now is to prevent a catastrophic implosion,” says Isaacson, because that could have disastrous implications for the entire region. “Something very ugly could happen in the next few months,” he warns.
“President Maduro has a lot to distract people from.”
Something very ugly has already happened along Venezuela’s 1,500-mile border with Colombia, where Maduro’s forces have been involved in attacks on migrants for the last five weeks.
Because Maduro’s far-left government subsidizes gas and fixes the cost of food and other basic consumer goods, the rugged frontier region is home to a thriving black market smuggling commodities into Colombia, where they can be sold for great profit.
Despite the relatively small flow of goods across the border, Maduro has chosen to blame these smuggling operations for Venezuela’s chronic shortages. Furthermore, he casts the black market traffickers as the work of right-wing U.S.- and Colombian-backed operatives bent on regime change. In an effort to clamp down on illicit activity, Maduro closed the frontier last month and began targeting any and all Colombian citizens caught on the wrong side of borderline.
Experts say Maduro is again tilting at windmills.
“It is true that the low value of the Venezuelan currency causes a flow of products from Venezuela to Colombia. However, that does not explain the problem of scarcity,” writes José Vicente Carrasquero, a political science professor at Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, in an email to The Daily Beast.
According to Carrasquero, the combination of inflation, reckless currency printing, and black market activity inside Venezuela is actually to blame for the chronic shortages rocking the nation.
“One might think that the closure of the border is the solution, but rather, [that] creates problems for innocent human traffic ... and affects the normal trade in goods with other countries,” writes Carrasquero.
Despite such criticism, when Maduro launched a brutal, anti-migrant campaign along the border in mid-August, Venezuelan troops rounded up hundreds of Colombian peasant farmers, many of whom were indigenous people whose ancestral lands traditionally span the frontier.
The sight of their compatriots’ houses being bulldozed touched off a wave of panic among the locals, resulting in about 20,000 terrified refugees fleeing across the border, according to the UN.
Maduro was just warming up.
In the following weeks both countries would recall their ambassadors. Venezuelan warplanes violated Colombian airspace at least twice and ground troops began making incursions over the border to harass locals and burn vehicles. A poll in mid-September showed that almost half of all Colombians believed full-scale war to be imminent.
Then, on September 19, Maduro’s soldiers opened fire on a caravan of Wayuu indigenous people as they were returning from a funeral ceremony on Venezuelan turf—killing two unarmed members of the tribe just 500 meters from the border.
The aunt of one of the slain men, Genoveba de Piayú, told Colombia’s RCN radio that she was riding in the caravan at the time of the incident, but that her vehicle had become stuck in a roadside ditch. Her nephew and a friend were coming to help on a motorcycle when the soldiers opened fire on them.
“We were pleading with [the soldiers] not to shoot, because there were women and children aboard the truck—but they paid no attention and gunned [our men] down without a word,” de Piayú said.
This reporter visited the border region between Venezuela and Colombia earlier this year to meet with endangered indigenous groups who are often caught up in the long-simmering political conflict. Not surprisingly, their version of violence on the frontier differs considerably from Maduro’s.
Locals say the porous border is home to a variety of armed groups, including leftist guerrillas like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who move easily back and forth between the two nations—and allegedly receive arms and ammunition from the Venezuelan military.
“The guerrillas make their attacks over here [in Colombia], and then retreat across the river into Venezuela, where the Colombian army can’t go after them,” Roberto Cobaria, leader of the U’wa people (who live just south of Wayuus), told me when we met in the ethnic group’s traditional homeland—which also happens to be insurgent-held territory.
“We are hunters, but not fighters—and we try to stay neutral,” said Cobaria, who has seen the cross-border struggle firsthand. The U’wa shaman was working with three prominent U.S. activists when the FARC abducted them near the Arauca River in 1999; the Americans were later found executed on the Venezuelan side.
“All we ask is to be left alone by both the guerillas and soldiers and everyone else, too,” Cobaria told me. “All we want is to live in peace.”
On the eve of a meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, last week—a summit that was intended to discuss, among other topics, the recent violations of Colombia’s airspace—Maduro defiantly declared his plan to purchase a dozen new fighter jets from Moscow.
And although the meeting between the two leaders seems to have resulted in a temporary agreement to combat smuggling on the border, no specific mention was made of the tens of thousands of displaced people. Immediately following the summit Maduro ordered the border with Colombia closed in yet another Venezuelan state.
Then things took another turn to the surreal.
Less than 24 hours after at least tentatively resolving a conflict with Colombia, reports began to emerge that Maduro was massing marine and ground forces along Venezuela’s eastern border with English-speaking Guyana.
Guyana’s President David Granger decried “extraordinary military deployments” along the country’s resource-rich Essequibo region, and described the buildup to the AP as “hostile and aggressive.”
Granger also retaliated by deploying Guyanese troops along the frontier, although it’s doubtful if the nation’s small army could withstand an all-out assault from its much larger neighbor.
For more than a century, Venezuela has sought to annex Essequibo (which accounts for about 40 percent of Guyana’s national territory), even going so far as to recently persuade Google Maps to give new, Spanish-language names to major streets and boulevards in the former British colony.
Tensions have increased since Exxon-Mobil’s discovery this year of major off-shore oil deposits in Essequibo. Since the Exxon-Mobil report was made public, Maduro’s blame-the-victim rhetoric against Guyana has been strikingly similar to the excuses he gave for the fracas with Colombia. He even accuses his tiny and impoverished neighbor of seeking to “attack” and “destroy” Venezuela, according to the Miami Herald.
Laying claim to Guyana’s newfound oil wealth would surely be a great boon for Maduro’s cash-strapped administration—but WOLA’s Isaacson believes the black gold is “just a pretext” for the sudden troop buildup on the border.
Isaacson says Maduro is scared witless about upcoming mid-term elections, scheduled for December 6, because Maduro's Chavista party is likely to take a shellacking at the polls—and his fear is the key to understanding the method behind his recent madness.
“You’ve got leaders of the opposition being locked up. You have almost no independent media anymore. You have a deeply unpopular president, but people generally are too afraid to protest—and everybody with their eye on these December 6 legislative elections,” Isaacson explains.
“So [Maduro] has been playing the nationalist card more, in order to rally the armed forces as well as the people behind him. And he’s been picking fights and spats with both neighbors,” explains Isaacson. “President Maduro has a lot to distract people from.”
Professor Carrasquero agrees with Isaacson’s assessment.
“Maduro’s government [is trying] to divert attention from those issues that really affect the quality of life for Venezuelans,” Carrasquero writes.
“There has been no democracy in Venezuela for the last several years,” the professor adds. “The ruling party makes decisions and other public authorities are called to do what is necessary to obey those decisions. In this context it is easy to hide violations of human rights.”
Isaacson also worries about additional rights violations in the run-up to the election, including “gerrymandering and using public money to buy votes,” as well as continued violence against the opposition.
When asked to imagine the future of Venezuela, Isaacson says he envisions “generalized poverty and a government that still—even though it has very few resources—is able to control everything.”
It seems clear that Maduro, the onetime bus driver, is willing to do whatever it takes to stay at the wheel, even if that means wrecking the state—and perhaps taking the rest of the region down with him.