In Venezuela’s Chaos, Elites Play a High-Stakes Game for Survival

“The fact that it hasn’t happened in the last two years is the biggest puzzle of all,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist. “If it happens next week, all of us will say, ‘Yeah, it was bound to happen.’”

Still, splits are beginning to emerge, as a few figures in major institutions signal opposition to Mr. Maduro, hinting at growing dissatisfaction and the government’s inability to silence it.

Recent actions by both elites and the government suggest they take the possibility of fracture seriously — maneuvering in a high-stakes contest that is potentially decisive but whose outcome remains uncertain.


Luisa Ortega, Venezuela’s attorney general, left, speaking about the recent protests in Venezuela. She condemned a ruling by the pro-Maduro Supreme Court.

Miguel Gutierrez/European Pressphoto Agency

A Collective-Action Game

Elite fracture operates as a kind of game in which each player tries to figure out what the others are about to do. Stay loyal to a failing government too long and you risk going down with it. But if you break with the government and others don’t, you’ll pay a high price for disloyalty.

This may be as old as politics itself. Plato, the 4th-century B.C. Greek philosopher, wrote that a united elite could resist popular uprisings, but that when the ruling class fractured, power could change hands.

Members of the elite, in this game, try to test one another over where they stand, as well as the government’s strength, in order to decide whether to remain loyal. If enough believe they have achieved critical mass to force a leadership change, they will all push at once.

Luisa Ortega, the attorney general, conducted such a test, whether she…

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