Lunes 2 de Octubre 2023
In In
Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro's anti-corruption campaign is probably aimed at reorganizing corruption schemes and maintaining the support of key political and military groups, the author argues. (Photo: Venezuela's Foreign Ministry)
Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Venezuela: Bogus Anti-Corruption Fight

Don’t fall for Maduro’s phony anti-corruption campaigns.

Global Americans

On March 19, 2023, Venezuela’s President, Nicolás Maduro, initiated an unprecedented and unexpected anti-corruption campaign on Venezuela’s battered oil industry. The action provoked the resignation of oil minister Tareck El Aissami, a high-profile Chavista sanctioned by the United States. It also spurred dozens of arrests executed by Maduro’s “National Police Against Corruption”—including Joselit Ramírez (head of Venezuela’s crypto control agency), a legislator to the National Assembly, a mayor, judges, and junior military officials. The operation occurred upon uncovering that at least three billion dollars had gone “missing” from the state-owned petroleum company, PDVSA, from oil exported via sanction-circumventing channels. Many Latin American watchers were surprised by these anti-corruption actions given the Venezuelan regime has ranked among the most corrupt in the world in the recent years—even higher than countries like North Korea and Yemen.

Following the detentions, Maduro doubled down in an attempt to earn much-needed domestic credibility and international legitimacy by stating at a meeting with key officials of his party—the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV)—that this is just the “first blow” against corruption in his government and assured his determination to get to the “very root to dismantle all these mafias.” These investigations against inner-circle officials were endorsed by other Maduro allies and potential challengers. These include PSUV Deputy Leader Diosdado Cabello, National Assembly President and Chief Negotiator Jorge Rodríguez, and Venezuela’s top military official, Vladimir Padrino López. The wide spread support for these measures demonstrates Maduro’s broader approval and support among key figures within his government.

This anti-corruption campaign could be considered the most significant regime-led effort to “combat” corruption against Maduro’s own government supporters since he took office in 2013. As such, it is possible that more regime officials fall prey to this corruption probe. In fact there are sound motives for Maduro to address corruption in earnest. After all, the Venezuelan regime has not been the only autocratic regime to target officials and former friends for embezzlement, fraud, and incompetence. Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Khalifa al-Thani in Qatar, and Paul Kagame in Rwanda are popularly acclaimed examples of nondemocratic leaders who similarly initiated top-down, intra-regime campaigns that curbed corruption. These efforts have produced favorable results for these autocrats, allowing them to further centralize power, improve economic performance, and, above all, gain greater legitimacy and popular support. Beyond his standing as the region’s most disliked president, Maduro also faces challenging presidential elections in 2024, the lowest minimum wage in Latin America, and a comparatively awful record in curbing corruption. Given the myriad of issues in Venezuela today, Maduro may employ authoritarian practices to tackle regime corruption and maintain political power.

Beyond domestic motivations, the Maduro regime may follow this corruption-control strategy to send signals of political liberalization to international audiences—especially the United States. In the face of American sanctions motivated against corrupt individuals responsible for Venezuela’s economic and political catastrophe, targeting listed officials—such as El Aissami—or arresting indicted individuals—such as Joselit Ramírez—could earn Maduro points with Washington. Indeed, President Biden’s Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council (NSC), John Kirby, stated that the administration supports corruption investigations in Venezuela and “expects Venezuelan authorities” to investigate intra-elite corruption schemes “in a very accountable, transparent, and credible way.” This is especially relevant in an international context that is much more favorable to Maduro given his decision to return to the negotiation process in Mexico as well as eased U.S. sanctions in oil trading and a softer diplomatic approach from the Biden administration.

While experiences from other autocracies and current political conditions may suggest that Maduro is tackling corruption in good faith, the reality is that anti-corruption efforts likely reflect an authoritarian measure to consolidate power and reshuffle corruption networks. Maduro has often relied strategically on “good governance” practices and democratic facades that serve to purge current or would-be rivals, expand graft networks and opportunities, and consolidate intra-regime discipline. For instance, in 2021, Maduro caught everyone by surprise when he announced that his PSUV party would undergo primary elections to choose candidates for that year’s regional elections rather than using the traditional method of hand-picking candidates. However,, the primaries served to reward close allies and punish unreliable officials. Maduro’s participation in negotiations is also a well-known tactic aimed at buying time and splitting the opposition. While the anti-corruption campaign may appear in line with good governance and democratic practices, the outcome will likely result in a more united and powerful autocracy in Venezuela.

Maduro’s recent anti-corruption efforts complement a long pedigree of “good governance” practices that are unlikely to curb the regime’s main source of income: extensive graft networks. Since U.S. sanctions hit Venezuela’s oil industry in 2017, the regime has relied on other—often shady or illicit—sources of income. Gold smuggling and drug trafficking have become recurrent sources of desperately needed hard currency. At the same time, party members, state officials, judges, and military personnel now dominate the Venezuelan economy—aided with financial and logistical support from the regime—by setting up new or taking over existing large and lucrative businesses.

The recent anti-corruption investigations may strike one as a feud between factions in an internally fractured regime. However, the exclusive inquiries on PDVSA and selective targeting of some regime loyalists suggests that this is a phony anti-corruption campaign by Maduro—probably aimed at reorganizing corruption schemes and maintaining the support of key political and military groups. The fact that relatively unknown individuals were arrested, but not former oil minister Tareck El Aissami—who is unlikely to face prison and has put himself at the disposal of the PSUV to collaborate with the investigation—signals that this is neither a serious attempt to tackle corruption, nor is the regime weak and fractured.

There is hope that recent anti-corruption efforts by Maduro and allies will lead to reduced corruption, the application of justice against wrongdoers, and better economic conditions. However, the true picture is less optimistic. The Venezuelan regime continues to hold on to power without credible challengers. The United States and other international partners would do well to not buy into Maduro’s tactics and call his recent attempt at curbing corruption what it really is: another authoritarian attempt to consolidate power.

Leonardo Di Bonaventura-Altuve is a graduate student at the University of Oxford and incoming Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Di Bonaventura-Altuve is a Venezuelan from Guanare, Portuguesa State.

This article was originally published by Global Americans. Republished with permission. 




More Corruption Coverage

More Venezuela Coverage  

More Perspectives 



  Other articles in : Perspectives
Back to Perspectives