Can the Chavistas save Venezuela from Cuba?

Reuters

Just as upstart Venezuelan university students stepped out ahead of the opposition establishment a month ago to launch street protests against crime and food shortages, now a new type of independent-minded chavistas could meet them half way to save their country.

These groups do not agree on much, but rebellious students and loyal followers of the late Hugo Chavez -- including many in the military -- must share a profound disgust for the destructive path chosen by Nicolas Maduro and his Cuban handlers. That is not much common ground, but for a polarized country on the brink of civil war and economic meltdown, it may have to do.

Who are these new protagonists? The university student movement is the one sector that Chavez's advisers feared most, because idealistic youth do not respond to the same inducements or threats as jaded politicians. For years, politicians who have been content to compete in elections the regime would never allow them to win have restrained the students.

After Chavez's death 2013, his chosen successor Nicolas Maduro waged a derisible campaign for the presidency. Despite his profoundly unfair advantage, many believe that Maduro had to steal the election from Henrique Capriles Radonski. Rather than defend the vote, Capriles and his worldly advisers failed to mount a serious challenge at home or abroad. So the students were forced to watch as Maduro consolidated his dubious victory and control over their future.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum -- within the chavismo ranks -- many considered Maduro a poor choice to succeed the charismatic Chavez. Indeed, Maduro seemed to fit the selfish designs of the Castro brothers, who saw him as the best guarantee of the continued $6 billion in free oil required to save their bankrupt regime. Fidel Castro was Chavez's most trusted adviser, but the Venezuelan leader had the strength and intelligence to make his own decisions. That changed when Chavez died of cancer under Cuban medical care, and Maduro was put in power.

One Chavez confidante told me six months ago, "This is not a chavista government in Caracas; it is a Cuban one." For years, nationalist chavistas have had to grit their teeth as thousands of Cubans assumed new roles in their government, particularly in the internal security apparatus that spied on Venezuelans and purged the military of "disloyal" officers. Havana's heavy hand has become even more conspicuous under Maduro.

Since Chavez began to implement his authoritarian agenda 15 years ago, his conservative foes have warned that Venezuela would become "another Cuba." In recent months, with ration lines forming throughout the country, chavistas have begun to see what "another Cuba" looks like. The fact that Havana is micromanaging this collapse as it siphons away billions of free oil is as disgusting to chavista loyalists as it is to patriotic university students.

Violent gangs of armed militants, backed by National Guard units, have served as Maduro's shock troops against protesters. About 30 people have been killed in these confrontations, including around 25 anti-government demonstrators or bystanders. The fact that two military officers are among the dead has led many professionals in the armed services to contemplate the terrible consequences of escalating violence on behalf of "a Cuban" regime. Sources within the military say that a number of officers have already refused to deploy their regular army units for crowd control duties.

Maduro's grip on power is weakened further still by the desperate financial condition of the regime. According to a Central Bank source, his government does not have the cash to fill empty shelves, let alone the ability to indefinitely deploy street gangs and security forces. With shortages of basic goods worsening and public services failing, unrest is expected to spread to the poorest neighborhoods, including old chavista strongholds. Maduro cannot bludgeon his way out of this predicament, particularly when the only support he can rely on is in Havana.

Chavistas want to save their movement from incompetent leadership and foreign interference and to protect their social base. Student protesters want to roll back the authoritarian intrusions and economic mismanagement that threaten their future. These fundamental goals are far from mutually exclusive for Venezuelans of good will looking to rescue their country.

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