Bloomberg View

Venezuela’s med­dling mil­i­tary • Time for e-cig­a­rette ads to butt out

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS -

In 1993, Venezuela had fewer than 50 gen­er­als; to­day it has more than 4,000. This kind of run­away in­fla­tion is ev­ery bit as per­ni­cious as the eco­nomic va­ri­ety that also af­flicts the coun­try. And the mil­i­tary is in­creas­ingly in­volved and in­vested in that econ­omy.

In Fe­bru­ary, Pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro put the gen­er­als in charge of a new state oil-and-min­ing-ser­vices com­pany, one of al­most a dozen mil­i­tary en­ter­prises started un­der his ad­min­is­tra­tion. Ac­tive or for­mer of­fi­cers head some one-third of Venezuela’s min­istries and gov­ern about half its 23 states. Ser­vice mem­bers have got­ten big raises; pref­er­en­tial ac­cess to hous­ing, cars, and food; and pro­mo­tions. Of­fi­cers have won lu­cra­tive con­tracts, ex­ploit­ing cur­rency con­trols and sub­si­dies—sell­ing cheap ga­so­line to Venezuela’s neigh­bors at enor­mous profit, for in­stance.

Maduro’s op­po­nents should be unit­ing around a co­her­ent plan to fix Venezuela’s im­plod­ing, mil­i­tary-con­trolled econ­omy. In­stead, the op­po­si­tion is hell­bent on re­mov­ing the pres­i­dent from power, col­lect­ing some 2 mil­lion sig­na­tures on a re­call pe­ti­tion. Maduro still has sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal sup­port, and he’ll use his con­trol of the ex­ec­u­tive and ju­di­cial branches to frus­trate and de­lay that ef­fort, which is un­likely to suc­ceed this year. The op­po­si­tion’s cred­i­bil­ity has al­ready been hurt by its rash boast that it would throw out Maduro within six months af­ter tak­ing over the leg­is­la­ture in Jan­uary. It would be far bet­ter for the op­po­si­tion to fo­cus on win­ning votes for the elec­tion in 2019, when Maduro’s term ends.

One way to put the mil­i­tary back in the box is to make clear that mis­deeds will face con­se­quences. The U.S. is build­ing cases against of­fi­cers im­pli­cated in Venezuela’s bur­geon­ing drug trade. It’s also tar­geted a hand­ful of of­fi­cials with as­set freezes and visa bans for en­gag­ing in po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence and acts of pub­lic cor­rup­tion. How­ever, if the U.S. leads the charge, it would only val­i­date Maduro’s anti-Yan­qui nar­ra­tive. So the U.S.

should qui­etly make clear that there’s plenty of room left on the tar­geted sanc­tions list and it will pub­li­cize cred­i­ble in­for­ma­tion of cor­rup­tion, crim­i­nal­ity, and abuse.

The good news is that sup­port for Chav­ismo is crum­bling both from with­out and within. The U.S. open­ing to Cuba has erased a once-pop­u­lar left­ist talk­ing point. Argentina’s changed lead­er­ship has stepped up crit­i­cism of Venezuela. And Maduro may have one less ally if Brazil’s Work­ers’ Party loses power.

Venezue­lans are right to hold Maduro re­spon­si­ble for his eco­nomic mis­man­age­ment, which has re­sulted in black­outs, two-day govern­ment work­weeks, and life-threat­en­ing short­ages of medicines. But kick­ing the pres­i­dent out of of­fice will not by it­self end eco­nomic hard­ship and po­lit­i­cal dys­func­tion. That will also re­quire get­ting the mil­i­tary out of busi­ness.

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