In Venezuela’s Chaos, Elites Play a High-Stakes Game for Survival

Even as Venezuela sinks into chaos, with clashes between protesters and the police escalating, why have its powerful political and military elites stuck by President Nicolás Maduro?

The country would seem to be a prime candidate for something scholars call an “elite fracture,” in which enough powerful officials break away to force a change in leadership.

Long-mounting rage against Mr. Maduro’s government exploded this past week when he called for a new Constitution, widely seen as the latest in a series of a power grabs. Demonstrators have overwhelmed city streets, so far undeterred by a police crackdown in which hundreds have been arrested and dozens killed.

The violence deepens a monthslong crisis marked by food shortages, economic collapse and Mr. Maduro’s fumbling attempts to consolidate authority. In quasi-democratic systems like Venezuela’s, such pressures have often led elites to force a change, and have provided them an excuse to do so.

“The fact that it hasn’t happened in the last two years is the biggest puzzle of all,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist. “If it happens next week, all of us will say, ‘Yeah, it was bound to happen.’”

Still, splits are beginning to emerge, as a few figures in major institutions signal opposition to Mr. Maduro, hinting at growing dissatisfaction and the government’s inability to silence it.

Recent actions by both elites and the government suggest they take the possibility of fracture seriously — maneuvering in a high-stakes contest that is potentially decisive but whose outcome remains uncertain.

A Collective-Action Game

Elite fracture operates as a kind of game in which each player tries to figure out what the others are about to do. Stay loyal to a failing government too long and you risk going down with it. But if you break with the government and others don’t, you’ll pay a high price for disloyalty.

This may be as old as politics itself. Plato, the 4th-century B.C. Greek philosopher, wrote that a united elite could resist popular uprisings, but that when the ruling class fractured, power could change hands.

Members of the elite, in this game, try to test one another over where they stand, as well as the government’s strength, in order to decide whether to remain loyal. If enough believe they have achieved critical mass to force a leadership change, they will all push at once.

Luisa Ortega, the attorney general, conducted such a test, whether she intended to or not, in late March. When the pro-Maduro Supreme Court moved to seize many of the legislature’s powers, Ms. Ortega condemned the ruling as a “rupture of the constitutional order.”

The government faced a dilemma. Tolerating Ms. Ortega’s dissent would signal that elites could more freely break with Mr. Maduro, making action against him easier. But punishing her would risk backlash from any elites who shared her view.

Ms. Ortega went unpunished, and the ruling was reversed.

“It’s a sign of enormous weakness inside the ruling clique that Luisa Ortega took the position that she did and kept her job,” said Francisco Toro, a Venezuelan political scientist who edits the Caracas Chronicles website. “That’s never happened before.”

Rapid policy changes can open such fissures by forcing elites to decide whether to go along. In 2015, for instance, Mr. Maduro seemed to consider halting legislative elections, but ultimately agreed to hold them.

“They tried to go too far,” Mr. Levitsky said. “That created too much conflict within the regime.”

This is why periods of crisis can heighten risks of elite fracture, as governments make rapid changes to keep up.

The Deciding Vote

The deciding vote in these situations is often cast by the military, which has the power to break a deadlock among elites and, often, the popular legitimacy to lead a transition.

In Venezuela, some are already calling on the military to step in.

Luis Ugalde, a prominent Jesuit leader, said at a forum in February that Mr. Maduro’s government had shown “dictatorial character.” He called for a transitional government modeled after the 1958 military coup that then installed democracy.

Such statements can hardly force change. But by conferring pre-emptive legitimacy, they signal to potential coup leaders that they would enjoy at least some elite support.

Still, the government has been preparing its defenses since 2002. That year, amid major protests, Hugo Chávez, Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, ordered the military to impose order. It instead removed him in a coup that was quickly reversed.

After that, Mr. Chávez packed the military with allies.

The military also gained vast patronage streams, which some local officials say include control over gold mining.

But 2002 also provided a warning that authoritarian leaders have learned repeatedly throughout history. Even a loyal military, when forced to resolve a political crisis, might decide against the leader who called it in.

The impossibility of fully predicting how the military might decide in another crisis, along with growing unrest that could again test it, has left the government nervous.

Last year, Cliver Alcalá, a retired major general, called for a referendum to unseat Mr. Maduro. Though Mr. Maduro ordered his arrest, Mr. Alcalá remains free and a vocal critic, although still under pressure. He recently claimed that rifle-wielding intelligence officers had tried to raid his home.

In March, a video spread on social media showing three lieutenants who said they no longer recognized Mr. Maduro’s authority. The next month, they turned up in Colombia, where they requested asylum.

The Venezuelan government has publicly demanded their return, which Mr. Levitsky called “pretty clear evidence that the government is worried about some sort of conspiracy” within the ranks.

Because the government cannot be sure whether these voices represent wider opposition within the military, it has to guess at how severely to silence them — a guessing game it cannot afford to get wrong.

A Shrinking Pie

But Mr. Maduro can also play this game. He has enabled loyalists to profit from corruption and patronage, giving them a financial stake in the government’s survival.

Loyalty was once purchased with oil revenue, but today, Mr. Toro said, the most valuable resource in Venezuela is access to favorable exchange rates. By leveraging official government rates, which value the bolívar considerably higher than the unofficial rate, someone with the proper connections can generate a small fortune out of thin air.