The policy case for Maduro in Venezuela

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In my earlier companion piece today, I discussed the policy case for electing Henrique Capriles as the next president of Venezuela in an attempt (however vain) to separate the emotional divide in Venezuela from the policy rationales that underline each candidacy.Venezuela Flag Icon

Separating the policy from the personal is even more difficult in the case of Nicolás Maduro, however, whose campaign at every turn has been one massive embrace of Chávez, not only as a predecessor, but as nearly a deity in his own right.  So far, the Maduro campaign begins and ends with ‘Chávez,’ and there’s no guarantee that once elected, Maduro would wield a sufficient personal mandate even to take sufficient control of Chávez’s Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela).

There’s frustratingly little substance as to what Maduro (pictured above) would do with a six-year presidency, let alone whether he could come to dominate a governing regime with a handful of key powerbrokers, such as energy minister Rafael Ramírez, finance minister Jorge Giordani, and national assembly president Diosdado Cabello, none of whom will easily step aside from their relative and significant fiefdoms in government.

But, as I asked with respect to Capriles earlier today, what policy arguments should motivate a moderate voter who enthusiastically supported Chávez in 1998 but who’s become increasingly disenchanted about the reality of Venezuelan governance and who may be flirting with supporting Capriles — is there a rational case for supporting Maduro over Capriles? Maduro is certainly not Chávez, and he’ll never be Chávez.  That, in some ways, should be reassuring from a policy stance, because Maduro will be forced to institutionalize the policymaking apparatus that Chávez, by benefit of his popularity and personality, could circumvent.  It’s hard, for example, to see Maduro so suddenly secure in his role as president that he would suddenly start ruling in the manic, ad hoc manner that Chávez embodied.

As a Chávez intimate in the heart of government for over a decade, including as his foreign minister for six years, Maduro should well know better than anyone else in Venezuela the problems that chavismo has engendered.  Given that he would take office as Chávez’s hand-picked successor, Maduro would have as much revolutionary capital as anyone short of the resurrected Chávez, and he could well use that credibility to make the kind of fiscal adjustments that Capriles would have a hard time enacting.  In that regard, it would be in some ways easier for Maduro to roll back the worst extremes of the past 14 years — it’s not hard to see him quietly privatize a handful of industries, bring additional foreign development to the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., bring Venezuela ever so gently closer to a more mainstream foreign policy, or even begin to phase out some of the country’s massively wasteful gasoline subsidies.

On the other hand, there’s a danger that Maduro could be so weak, especially vis-a-vis Cabello, Ramírez, Giordani and other PSUV dinosaurs, that he won’t be able to effect the kind of economic corrections that will almost certainly be necessary over the next presidential term to put Venezuela on a more stable financial footing — the risk is that corruption overwhelms the need for the reforms that could institutionalize the safety net that Chávez tried to create for Venezuela’s poorest.  That task will become even more difficult if global oil prices decline in the coming years.

Even in October 2012, Chávez won reelection by just 11 points among an electorate weary of horrendous street crime, power blackouts, and in the background of the current election, Maduro has already been forced to devalue Venezuela’s currency, the bolívar, in order to boost exports and effectively reduce public debt, and attempt to develop a hastily constructed foreign exchange scheme to address the country’s crippling dollar shortage.  A chavista government under Maduro that’s really just on auto-pilot for the next six years seems unlikely to find the political will to address Venezuela’s most pressing problems.

On the other hand, if you’re in the bottom half of Venezuelan income-earners, for all the problems of chavismo, the past 14 years are likely to have been very good — income inequality has been reduced, your real income is higher than it was in 1998, you have better access to health care and more nutritious food options, and your children are likelier to have better educational options.  For the first time in your life, Chávez led a Venezuelan government that, despite its unorthodox approach, prioritized the needs of the poorest Venezuelans.

So your policy preference may be to perpetuate those short-term gains under Maduro rather than risk those gains under Capriles, even at the expense of making Venezuela’s economy more stable in the long-term.  After all, for over half a century before Chávez, oil wealth in Venezuela trickled down to just a small layer of wealthy oligarchs — even if you’re partial to Capriles as a potential candidate, you might be rightly skeptical that many of the forces backing Capriles will upend the stream of Venezuelan oil revenue back to the wealthy elite, notwithstanding his promises to create a business-friendly Brazilian-type social welfare state.

That’s not an irrational perspective at all, if you’re part of the coalition that Chávez assembled, and ultimately, I suspect, behind the  veneer of Chávez worship, many of Chávez’s less strident supporters who are at least somewhat open to Capriles, are quietly weighing those benefits and drawbacks.

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