Venezuela – Do the Current Protests Represent a Threat to Maduro’s Presidency?

Since early last week, protests across Venezuela have seen the death of four people; near nightly clashes between students and riot police; and the expulsion of three senior US consular officials, who the government accused of attempting to infiltrate the disaffected student groups. Yesterday, police arrested the main protest leader, Leopoldo López. These protests have caught the attention of media outlets across the world, which have wasted no time in engaging in hyperbole about the instability of the Maduro government. But what does all this mean for Nicolás Maduro, the embattled President of Venezuela? Do these protests really represent a threat to his presidency?

The short answer is (a qualified) no. Of course, this is not to say that the more radical elements of the opposition hope these protests will provide the catalyst for Maduro’s removal. However, in general, the protests can largely be understood within the context of student and middle class discontent with steadily rising prices (a standard theme at this blog) and increasing goods shortages. These protests may represent unhappiness with the Maduro government, flames, which are being energetically fanned by the organized opposition, but Maduro still retains a loyal base of support, and perhaps more importantly, is relatively institutionally secure.

This is not a moot point. Since the return to democracy, large sustained street protests have acted as the trigger for a number of presidential impeachments and forced resignations. Consider the early resignations of Raúl Alfonsín and Eduardo Duhalde in Argentina in the face of popular mobilization. Or the collapse of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s presidency in Bolivia amidst persistent unrest and clashes between the police and protesters. Or the removal of Abdalá Bucaram in Ecuador. Or Collor in Brazil. Even more apposite for the case in point, consider the impeachment of Carlos Andrés Pérez and his removal from office in the wake of  protests across Venezuela in 1992-93, known as the Caracazo. The number of presidents in Latin America who have finished their terms ahead of schedule in the last twenty years, is now well into double digits.

However, although these protests played a role in the downfall of many of these presidents, they were not sufficient for their removal. In most cases, this boiled down to the institutional position of the president. An excellent literature has now clearly demonstrated that presidential instability in Latin America lies at the intersection of popular protest and vanishing partisan support in the legislature (obviously two things that are not mutually exclusive).[1] But even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast secure support in the assembly, a ‘legislative shield,’ become very difficult to remove from office. For example, the challenge to Ernesto Samper’s presidency in 1995-96 faltered due to his cohesive majority in congress.[2]

Given Maduro can still count on a majority in the assembly and still has recourse to significant presidential powers, unless these protests (which appear to be waning) grow in size and intensity, and induce government legislators to ally with the opposition to mount a legislative challenge, Maduro’s presidency appears safe. This is not to say that the protests have not been without cost. In fact, what these recent events have served to do, particularly given the heavy-handed response of the government, is to erode the legitimacy of the Maduro administration in the eyes of the international media, and to hand the Venezuelan opposition something of a PR coup.

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101; Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.

[2] Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.


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