Political uncertainty in Latin America’s biggest oil producer could lead to a change in its political leadership, which would have implications for Russia.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin meet in Beijing, China, on September 3, 2015. Photo: Reuters

Russia is keeping a close eye on the volatile political situation in Venezuela, where momentum is building for a national referendum on the future of its unpopular president, Nicolas Maduro. After lengthy deliberation, the government-controlled National Electoral Council has validated 200,000 signatures endorsing a petition calling for Maduro to step down. Under the Venezuelan constitution, the opposition now needs to gather almost 4 million signatures (20 percent of the electorate) for the referendum to take place. Russia is a key ally and major trading partner of the Latin American oil producer, and Moscow has used this close relationship as an anchor for its foreign policy in the region.

What happens next?

Should Maduro be voted out in the referendum, the law on referendums passed under the government of Hugo Chavez in 2002 establishes two scenarios for what would happen next. If the referendum takes place this year, as the opposition-controlled National Assembly wants, the country will hold early elections. If it takes place after Jan. 10, 2017, when Maduro will have exactly two years left on his term, he will be replaced by the current vice president, Aristobulo Isturiz, who would lead the country until the elections already scheduled for 2019.

This system poses a serious dilemma for both the opposition and the government. If the government draws out the referendum preparations, Chavismo will continue to dominate Venezuela. However, if Isturiz — who is considered just as incompetent and unpopular as Maduro — comes to power, this could provoke further social unrest in the country, where the population has been driven to desperation by chronic food shortages, poor health services and inflation projected to reach 480 percent by the end of the year.

Also read: "What lessons can Russia learn from Venezuela's crisis?"

A new type of coup d’état?

In response to this difficult situation, the government has come up with a clever solution: it has granted extraordinary powers to the country's current Defense Minister, General Vladimir Padrino Lopez. The government has named Padrino “food tsar,” giving him total control over food sourcing and distribution — currently the most critical challenge facing Venezuela, both politically and economically. Additionally, all ministers must now submit reports to Padrino on various aspects of their activities. In effect, Padrino is playing the role of both prime minister and co-president.

"The appointment of Padrino, who has been tasked with solving the problem of feeding the population, is clear evidence that a political path is being prepared for [him]," writes Venezuelan web portal La Padilla. "And the regime is thus getting a candidate to replace Maduro, should the latter lose the referendum in 2017."       

The choice of Padrino for this role was no accident. For one thing, he has a reputation as a relatively moderate leader. For example, at the height of the country’s social protests, he declared that the army would respect the constitution (i.e., would not open fire on demonstrators), and that those urging otherwise were provocateurs. Furthermore, unlike other high-ranking Venezuelan military officials, Padrino has never been accused of being involved in drug trafficking or belonging to the Cartel de los Soles (Cartel of the Suns), a Mafia-like organization made up of members of the Armed Forces. Given this background, the government hopes that Padrino will be able to cope with the population without resorting to force, in the event further chaos breaks out.

Many analysts, both in and outside Venezuela, see this development as a kind of bloodless revolution.

"It is a revolution in pure form, a revolution without the use of weapons, but still a national revolution," said Esteban Gerbasi, a Venezuelan political consultant based in Miami, noting that the country's constitution says nothing as to whether Maduro is actually allowed to delegate power to Padrino as he pleases.

Latin America Goes Global, a U.S.-based publication on the region, echoes Gerbasi’s assessment. "Coup nouvelle: Did we just witness a new type of coup in Venezuela?" read the headline of an extensive article about the events.

The Cuban model

Behind the Venezuelan government's current maneuvers lies a strategy that Cuba has been encouraging its allies to take. Ramiro Valdes, a veteran of the Cuban Revolution and for years Cuba's Minister of the Interior, is a regular visitor to Caracas. Maduro himself is a frequent guest in Havana. The Cubans have an extensive intelligence network both in Venezuela's security agencies and in its army, although in recent times, few have been happy with such blatant interference by the Castro brothers in the country's domestic affairs.

Cuba is pushing Venezuela towards the path that it has been following, but it is far from clear that this path will work in Venezuela. Unlike in Cuba, where power is consolidated in the military (represented by the allies of Raul Castro), democracy still exists in Venezuela. The presidential elections and elections of state governors and parliamentary deputies are relatively free.

As far as Russia is concerned, the informal transfer of power to moderate Venezuelan military officers could be in Moscow's interests. Vladimir Padrino has built a warm relationship with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. In February 2015, Shoigu visited Caracas, where he held wide-ranging talks with Padrino. "Our countries unanimously condemn the attempt by certain states at diktat by force," Shoigu said. "We note the readiness of our Venezuelan partners to form a united front with us in tackling the most serious challenges facing the global community."

According to Russian experts, Shoigu’s comments are an effort to present Russia and Venezuela as a united front against those countries ostracizing them. Russia is, of course, under economic sanctions following its intervention in Ukraine while Venezuela has been threatened with expulsion from the Organization of American States for failing to meet standards of democracy, in particular for prosecuting social activists.

Moscow, it goes without saying, does not want to see any radical changes in Caracas’s corridors of power, and has no interest at all in the opposition taking over. Recently, the National Assembly questioned the legality of a deal between Russia's Rosneft and a subsidiary of Venezuelan energy giant Petroleos de Venezuela. The Venezuelan deputies argued that the deal, valued at $500 million, was insufficiently transparent and did not meet their country's interests.

Additionally, should the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela be ousted, long-term defense contracts between Venezuela and Russia would also be under threat. The total value of these contracts, signed between 2001 and 2013, amounts to $11 billion. Almost all of Venezuela's military equipment, with the exception of its transport aircraft and naval equipment, is Russian-made.

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Risks in the army and the oilfields

It is doubtful whether even the reputable and respected Defense Minister will be able to put the country back on track. Padrino faces the risk that the discontent in the country over food shortages, low pay, poor health services and a total lack of confidence in the future will spill over into the barracks. Many members of Venezuela's Armed Forces face the same financial strains as their civilian fellow countrymen.

"The officers earn pennies thanks to the hyperinflation suffered by the country," said National Guard Lieutenant Jose Colina, noting that a colonel earns just $60 a month at the black market rate, and a lieutenant, $28.

Retired general Antonio Rivero confirmed that the military is not immune from the country’s economic crisis. “It is quite possible that in the event of social unrest, many soldiers and officers would take the side of the rebels."

Further evidence of how bad things are in Venezuela comes from its production figures for oil. Venezuela makes 95 percent of its total export earnings from sales of oil and, according to Bloomberg, oil production in the country has fallen to 2.18 million barrels per day — 240,000 barrels less than last year and the lowest level since 2003, when Petroleos de Venezuela was paralyzed by the biggest strike in its history.

Russian analysts agree that in Venezuela, as in the rest of Latin America, Moscow must take a wait-and-see approach. Boris Martynov, Deputy Head of the Latin America Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, notes that the left has lost its monopoly on power in the biggest countries in South America, including Brazil, Peru and Argentina, but this does not mean that relations between these countries and Russia necessarily will change for the worse. "In Argentina, a right-wing president has replaced a left-wing one, but so far this has had no effect on our relations," Martynov said. "We have still managed to avoid left-wing/right-wing rhetoric — that went out of fashion long ago." Martynov believes that the countries of Latin America, like Russia itself, are looking for "their own national model that is specifically appropriate to their national interests.”