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For Tumultous Venezuela, An Easy 2018 Political Transition Looks Unlikely


Over the past year, we've reported on the political, economic and social turmoil inside Venezuela. The inflation rate is through the roof, by some measures above 800 percent, and it's expected to rise in 2018. As a result, basic necessities like food, medicine, baby formula are all in short supply. Venezuelans are fleeing the country, threatening a regional migration crisis. Politically, the country is in disarray.

President Nicolas Maduro faces almost daily protests from an opposition party that says he's trying to maximize power through brute force. Meanwhile, Maduro says his opponents are trying to illegally overthrow his government. So before we say goodbye to 2017, we want to check in with where things stand at the moment and what change could be underway in Venezuela in the next year.

We reached out to Phil Gunson. He's a senior analyst for the international Crisis Group based in Caracas, Venezuela. Welcome to the program.

PHIL GUNSON: Thank you very much.

SUAREZ: Now, back when oil money was plentiful, the country gorged on imports and stopped making a lot of things for itself and, of course, bought more and more of its food from outside while producing less and less of its own. With the collapsing currency and foreign exchange scarce, how come the opposite hasn't happened? How come the farming sector hasn't returned to try to replace the imports Venezuelans had gotten used to buying?

GUNSON: Well, that's the extraordinary thing. I mean, even in the last few days - I'm right now in the east of Venezuela in a state called Monagas which is mainly known for its oil production, but it's also a farming state as well. And in the south of Monagas, in the last few days, we've seen protests by farmers because the government is still trying to expropriate land. The government has taken over millions of hectares of land in Venezuela which used to be productive, which now produces nothing.

It's almost impossible for a farmer, even if he has land, to produce because the cost of things like fertilizer, the cost of animal food, the cost of even the things like barbed wire - if you can get hold of them - is completely prohibitive. And the government has slapped on draconian price controls, which means that your costs way exceed any potential benefit you can get from selling your produce. A lot of the produce, of course, that is produced in Venezuela is leaving the country across the border into Colombia particularly, also some of it to Brazil or to the islands of the Caribbean.

SUAREZ: There have been a number of local and nationwide elections in Venezuela over the past year. Nicolas Maduro-backed parties won a majority. Is there any sign that the opposition can gain ground, regain the initiative?

GUNSON: Well, there are two basic problems, I think. One is that the government controls the electoral authority, the CNE, and controls the Supreme Court. And, of course, it controls the army and most sources of hard cash in the country. So it has a stranglehold on the political process. In the last couple of elections, the ones you mentioned which were for regional - for state governors and for mayors, a lot of the opposition stayed at home.

A lot of potential opposition voters stayed at home because they simply didn't believe that there was any chance of the opposition winning. They figured that the result was pre-cooked, if you like. And the other problem is that the opposition itself is deeply divided. It has rival leaders, several of whom would like to be candidates in the presidential elections that should take place in 2018, but none of them has the strength individually to do that. And they don't seem either to have the political ability, or will, perhaps, to come together in an agreement that would allow them to challenge the government.

SUAREZ: The situation you describe is all leading up to a presidential election in 2018. What does the International Crisis Group expect from those?

GUNSON: Well, if nothing changes, then what I think we would expect from a presidential election if it does take place in 2018 - and it may be that if the government feels that it won't win that, then it might even suspend that election - it's developed a habit lately of suspending elections it feels it doesn't - it can't win. But if it does take place and nothing changes, then we certainly don't anticipate President Maduro or whoever happens to be the government candidate - looks most likely at the moment that it will be him - would simply hand over power in response to losing an election were that to happen.

And the only way I think that can happen is if there is a prior agreement - this would be one scenario - whereby the government or leading members of the government are guaranteed a safe exit or no persecution after handing over power. The other one would be a situation in which there might be, for example, an opposition win which led to chaos on the streets, an army intervention, some kind of transitional regime. But at the moment, things certainly don't look too good. The idea that there's going to be a presidential election which will lead, in itself, to a peaceful transfer of power, I think, is an illusion.

SUAREZ: That's Phil Gunson from the International Crisis Group. He's based in Caracas, Venezuela. Good to talk to you, sir. Happy New Year.

GUNSON: Thank you very much and the same to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.