Livin’ la vida seca — the election dry law takes effect in Venezuela


CARACAS, Venezuela — Imagine that following former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s death last week, the United Kingdom implemented a week-long period banning the sale of alcohol.Venezuela Flag Icon

Or that in the weekend leading up to the 2012 U.S. presidential election, Americans would be unable to find a drink, forcing Americans to  become public teetotalers.

But Friday night at 6 p.m., that’s exactly what happened in Venezuela in advance of the presidential election on Sunday — the ley seca takes effect, which means that no alcohol can be sold publicly in the country, through at least next Monday.  It’s the third time in five weeks that the ley seca has been in effect — thirsty Venezuelans were out of luck for a week following the death of former president Hugo Chávez, and they were out of luck again during semana santa, the Holy Week.

In Venezuela, though, it’s just another obstacle to be overcome.  In a country where the official exchange rate between dollars and bolívares and the black market rate can be up to 400% different, there will certainly be a way around

So around 6 p.m. tonight, if you were grabbing beers at a corner bar, for instance, your bartender might have switched out your bottle of beer into a more discrete, opaque cup.  Venezuelans, especially, have practice getting around laws where economic incentives make breaking the law more efficient than upholding it.  Prohibition in the United States in the 1920s, and really, the ‘war on drugs’ in the past 40 years in Latin America and the United States are illustrative.

Though in a country of perfectly fine aged dark rum, Venezuela is one of the world’s top whisky importers and imbibers, I withhold any judgment as to Venezuelan taste.

So bottoms up — and happy election weekend!

Photo credit to Kevin Lees — Caracas, Venezuela, April 2013.

Capriles campaign optimistic with 48 hours to go — but can it win?


CARACAS, Venezuela — The national headquarters of Henrique Capriles on Friday morning buzzed with optimism, with less than 48 hours to go before polls open in a race that many have judged hopeless for the opposition.Venezuela Flag Icon

In the wake of a rally in downtown Caracas last Sunday that brought hundreds of thousands of supporters to rally behind Capriles (without having to bus in massive numbers of supporters from across the country, as the chavista candidate Nicolás Maduro did in a similar rally on Thursday), and in the wake of a widely ridiculed comment by Maduro that a little bird told him that the spirit of Hugo Chávez blessed his campaign, Capriles campaign advisers are optimistic that their candidate has the momentum going into Sunday’s election, especially as voters realize the extent of Venezuela’s rapidly tumbling economy in recent months.

But Maduro, who is hoping to win a full term in his own right after the 14-year rule of his predecessor, Chávez, has everything else — the implicit support of the structure of the entire government, the armed forces, the state-owned oil company, plenty of resources, and significantly stronger media presence.

Though election law prohibits the publication of polls in the week prior to the election, polls are rumored to show Capriles closing a gap with Maduro — one such poll allegedly shows Maduro with a narrowing 55% to 45% lead, and Capriles’s internal polls show a massive swing as well. But whittling down Maduro’s lead and winning the election are two different things.

Leopoldo López, the former mayor of Chacao (one of five municipalities, and generally the ritziest, within Caracas) from 2000 to 2008, is one of the rising stars of the opposition. Chávez’s government barred López from running for office until 2014, a move that brought the censure of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In 2009, he founded Voluntad Popular, a centrist party that’s a member of the broad opposition coalition, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable).

‘I’m excited about change, I’m excited about the real possibility of winning, I’m excited about Venezuela opening a new cycle,’ Lopez said on Friday morning at Capriles headquarters. ‘The worries? What the government could do to put a stain on what will happen. This is not a regular election. This is not Bush-Clinton, this is not Candidate A versus Candidate B. This is a race against a state. I doubt there are other democracies where there are [such] clear differences in terms of the abuse of power. In this case, this is PDVSA, the state oil company, and the other powers of the state, against the people. But we have great faith the people will make the difference.’

The executive director of the MUD, Ramón Guillermo Aveledo (pictured above, with Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma and other top MUD officials at his right, rejected outlandish charges made in recent days at a press conference earlier today at Capriles headquarters as well.

Here’s the arithmetic. Continue reading Capriles campaign optimistic with 48 hours to go — but can it win?

A conversation with Ambassador Patrick Duddy


CARACAS, Venezuela — For what it’s worth, here’s some more of the conversation from last Friday with Patrick Duddy, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 until 2010 and who kindly gave me nearly a half-hour of time to discuss current U.S.-Venezuelan relations.

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The late president Hugo Chávez ejected Duddy from the country on September 11, 2008, though Duddy returned a few months later, and I was curious as to his view of U.S.-Venezuelan relations especially because he served under both U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Obama’s appointee to succeed Duddy, Larry Palmer, was rejected out of hand by Chávez in 2011, and the post continues to remain vacant.  Palmer now serves as ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.

Duddy, a veteran U.S. diplomat, has served throughout Latin America, including Brazil, Paraguay, Chile and Bolivia.

* * * * *

On the policy differences between the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama on Venezuela:

It would be easier to underscore the commonalities between the Bush and Obama administrations. I served as ambassador from 2007 to September of 2008 for President Bush, and then as you know, I was expelled on Sept. 11, 2008, spent some months out of the country, [and] returned the next summer as President Obama’s ambassador…

Both administrations, while I was ambassador had a pretty clear message which was we thought… both sides would benefit from a more productive relationship.

On Maduro and potential U.S. relations in a Maduro administration: Continue reading A conversation with Ambassador Patrick Duddy

Growing U.S.-Venezuelan commercial ties won’t lead to diplomatic thaw if Maduro wins


CARACAS, Venezuela — I reported earlier today in Deutsche Welle on the state of U.S.-Venezuelan bilateral relations, which aren’t exactly gangbusters, if you’ve been paying attention for the past 14 years.

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The bottom line is: don’t expect acting president Nicolás Maduro, if he wins, to transform the chilly relationship between the United States and Venezuela.

To me, however, the more interesting factor is the commercial ties between the two countries, already strong throughout the reign of the late president Hugo Chávez, but now growing ever faster as Venezuela’s economy sputters and becomes increasingly import-dependent:

Venezuela’s obvious top export is oil – and the United States is its top customer, and that’s been true during both the Bush and Obama administrations, even when relations were at their worst. The United States purchases up to 900,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela – it officially funds around 40 percent of Venezuela’s export receipts. Given the complex financial arrangements between China and Venezuela and Venezuela’s subsidies to Cuba and to the rest of Central America and the Caribbean, US demand for oil has directly funded Chávez’s government, despite the rhetoric against the supposedly evil, imperialist gringo empire.

But precisely because of Venezuela’s dependence on the oil industry, the other sectors of its economy have atrophied, especially under the business climate during the Chávez era, when domestic and foreign businesses alike were subjected to ad hoc expropriation. That’s made Venezuela increasingly reliant on imports of staples, such as food and even fresh produce. Venezuela is even starting to import refined oil products, in part due to a gasoline subsidy that keeps gas prices at the lowest level worldwide.

Obviously, U.S. policymakers would prefer that Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate, wins the election. But given the incumbent advantages of the Maduro campaign, who has inherited the political infrastructure of his predecessor, Maduro’s election seems much likelier. If the Venezuelan economy does continue its downward spiral in the months and years to come, Maduro could well use anti-American rhetoric to deflect criticism from the failures of economic policy.

That means bilateral relations might get worse before they get better.

It’s uncertain whether that growing dependence would improve ties with the US – it’s easy to envision a fall in gas prices or a financial crisis result in even more brinksmanship in a Maduro administration as a distraction from harder budget choices.

Photo credit to Kevin Lees — Caracas, Venezuela, April 2013.

Capriles could be the better guarantor of chavismo in Venezuela


I have an op-ed in The National Interest this morning arguing that it’s Henrique Capriles, and not chavista Nicolás Maduro, who could become the better long-term guarantor of the gains of chavismo — notably by making permanent the social welfare programs that the late president Hugo Chávez tried to implement on behalf of Venezuela’s poor:Venezuela Flag Icon

Chavistas certainly have a strong claim that for the first time since the discovery of the Mene Grande oil field in 1914 and oil production began in earnest in 1918, a significant share of the country’s oil wealth finally fell into the hands of the poorest Venezuelans. And the two-party duopoly of the center-right COPEI and the center-left Democratic Action crumbled in 1998 after years of petrodollar-fueled corruption. So Capriles’s campaign strategy, to a degree, is to admit that we’re all chavistas now. This time around he’s waged a more populist, more aggressive campaign that’s even reminiscent of Chávez’s tone, while Maduro is running a more defensive effort.

I’ve made this argument, though not as forcefully, previously before.

One way to look at this, though, is that Capriles has become dangerously populist — for example, he’s just as keen as Maduro to hike the minimum wage by 40%, and Capriles would do so immediately, not in a staggered way throughout 2013 — both would feed a worrisome inflation problem.  But campaign promises in the closing days of a campaign sometimes fail to find their way into policy.

Part of the argument in favor of Capriles simply must be a ‘throw-the-bums-out’ sentiment — the more nuanced version is to say that Capriles will not be constrained on day one to review and chuck out poor policies because he and his supporters have no vested interest in perpetuating the existing policy landscape.

It’s hard to believe that Maduro, ever the loyal soldier to Chávez, would have the institutional credibility within the governing PSUV, even after winning his own mandate, to stand up to the rampant corruption that now lies at the heart of Venezuela’s government. After a decade and a half in power, even governments in countries with more deeply entrenched respect for state institutions, separation of powers and checks and balances have a tendency toward corruption. British Columbia’s Liberal-run government faces ejection in May elections after just 12 years in power amid daily scandal headlines, for example.

It seems even less likely that Maduro could dislodge the other key policymakers that have directed the Venezuelan economy for over a decade, such as National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, finance minister Jorge Giordani and energy minister Rafael Ramírez. So even if some inner-guard chavistas realize that Venezuela needs a new policy direction, Maduro will be hard-pressed to do so.