Food fight this way.

Photographer: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

Frozen Chickens Threaten Venezuela's Regime

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro warned, in a televised interview Jan. 13, that an "economic coup d'etat" was afoot. He blamed "saboteurs" for hoarding goods and scalping prices in an alleged plot to "destabilize" the national economy.

Speaking from Algiers while on an extended global excursion to China, Russia and several Middle East oil-producing states, Maduro exhorted his companeros to keep the faith and ordered his ministers to probe "which economic groups are behind the ambush."

The companeros already know.

With the economy in deadfall, inflation heading to three digits and supermarkets stripped of goods from poultry to diapers, Venezuelans are steaming. Instead of groceries, the authorities sent the National Guard.

That's unlikely to lift spirits in the Bolivarian Republic, where consumers not only must queue for up to six hours for food, but now may do so only twice a week. One dramatic scene shared widely on the Internet showed shoppers lunging for frozen chickens even as the rattled food minister sought to assure them that larders were flush.

"You expect this from Somalia or Uganda, not in Venezuela," said Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador and opposition leader. The tumult helped fuel Venezuela's most hyperactive industry: Talk of an imminent coup d'etat is rippling the web and think tanks.  The coup may not happen. But it's little wonder that Maduro's approval ratings have tumbled to a record low: 22 percent.

That unfavorable public opinion may be exactly what Henrique Capriles Radonski had in mind this week when he rallied challengers to the Maduro government to "raise our voices" and protest, as he told reporters in Caracas on Wednesday. "It's not the country that's in a terminal state, but the government and its project," he said. "The so-called revolution is finished."

What happens next is unclear. Capriles may have called enigmatically for a national "mobilization," but he offered no details. Opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez, from his jail cell, Maria Corina Machado and Antonio Ledezma issued their own joint call to action this week and demanded Maduro's resignation.

To stand together, however, first the fractious opposition leaders will have to drop their elbows. Bound mainly by their rejection of the compassless Maduro government, Venezuela's rebels have never agreed on how to be rid of him, never mind who should lead the way.

When giant student protests swept the streets early last year, Lopez and Machado headed to the barricades. Lopez was arrested and remains behind bars. Machado, who was beaten up by Chavista thugs in 2013, was later stripped of her legislative seat and indicted for supposedly plotting Maduro's murder.

Capriles avoided the streets and drew flak for it, but survived.  His mantra: "I am not going to lead the Venezuelans in war of the people against the people," he told El Pais in September.

This fractured effort  is not surprising for Latin America, with its accident-prone transition to democracy. Brazil has 32 registered parties in congress while Venezuela's opposition alone boasts 27. Even after eliminating 31 parties in a political mop-up last decade, Peru still has 20 accredited parties. "It's actually a miracle when any opposition in Latin America comes together," said Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales.

Capriles played an important role as a "moderating voice" during the protests last year, Corrales said. "Now suddenly, he wants to protest," he said. "I didn't see this coming."

Nor, apparently, did the Venezuelans. A recent poll showed that while 40 percent of Venezuelans said they were drawn to the opposition cause, only 19 percent identified with any of the parties in the main opposition bloc, the Democratic Unity Roundtable.

This is squandered political capital. Part of Hugo Chavez's genius was his ability to keep his enemies weak and divided, by capturing the courts and congress, buying off the armed forces and gerrymandering every election.

With his successor flailing, Chavismo has never looked more vulnerable. Venezuela's democratic rebels get another chance to test that in the October elections. First, they'll need to cease the friendly fire.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net