Photo essay: Caprilistas block traffic in Caracas suburb to protest fraud


I was in Altamira this afternoon watching the opposition protest gathering steam — it’s now apparently devolved into something much more severe, with police responding shortly after I left, complete with rubber bullets and tear gas. The metro station in Altamira was shut down shortly thereafter.Venezuela Flag Icon

For background purposes, Altamira lies in the eastern part of the city, so it’s a natural place for a pro-opposition rally. It also lies in Chacao municipality, which is technically located in Miranda state, where opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles serves as governor.

The CNE (the National Election Commission) confirmed the election of Nicolás Maduro as the winner of Sunday’s election, and a hasty inauguration has been scheduled for Friday.

Meanwhile, Capriles has called for calm while also calling for further protests. Caracas has been ablaze with the sounds of banging pots and pans — the cacerolazo — for the past 45 minutes, and a broader strike is scheduled for tomorrow. As I wrote last night and earlier today, Capriles and the opposition believe he has won, but it’s far from certain where the country goes from here.









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


A primer on the MUD, Venezuela’s broad opposition coalition


Venezuela remains in somewhat of a twilight zone following Sunday’s election — CNE (the National Election Commission) has declared Nicolás Maduro the winner by a narrow margin, but opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has refused to concede until a full audit of all of Sunday’s votes has been conducted.Venezuela Flag Icon

The following days will put a brighter spotlight on Venezuela’s opposition than at any time since the early 2000s. The last broad opposition coalition, Coordinadora Democrática, disbanded in 2004 when it lost a referendum in August 2004 to recall Hugo Chávez from office by a lopsided margin of 59.1% to 40.6%.

Capriles (pictured above with Lara governor Henri Falcón)is the standard-bearer of a new, broader coalition — the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, the Democratic Unity Roundtable). The MUD formed in January 2008, and Capriles was selected overwhelmingly to lead it into the October 2012 presidential election against Chávez. His loss to Chávez was by a margin of nearly 11%, but it was a better performance than any presidential challenger to Chávez in 14 years.

Capriles and the MUD have a lot of hard decisions ahead.

The first involves whether they have hard information that Maduro and the chavistas falsified the vote. As Maduro had the state media, the state oil company, the public bureaucracy and then some behind him, Sunday’s election was far from fair, though Maduro may have nonetheless won an essentially free vote, despite reports of all sorts of dirty tricks. But in the poker game that’s taking place today in Venezuela, we don’t know whether the MUD is holding a straight flush or a pair of 7s.

That defines the broader second decision facing the MUD — regardless of whether it thinks it can prove electoral fraud, will it do so? Capriles has two options here.

There’s the Al Gore / Richard Nixon model, whereby he can concede defeat for the unity of the nation, notwithstanding difficult questions about the election that may well never be answered, as was the case in the 1960 and 2000 U.S. presidential elections.

There’s also the Andrés Manuel López Obrador / Mikheil Saakashvili model. This is a high-risk / high-reward model. If Capriles presses his case on all courts, the result could be like what followed Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, where Saakashvili mobilized popular opinion to dispute Eduard Shevardnadze’s fraudulent victory in the 2003 presidential election. But it could also be like the 2006 Mexican presidential election, when López Obrador fought an increasingly noisome battle against what most Mexicans concluded was a narrow but legitimate victory by Felipe Calderón.

But what is the MUD? So far, it’s been relatively united in the goal of bringing Venezuela’s chavismo chapter to an end, and it seems likely that the taste of victory in Sunday’s presidential election will fuel more unity. But it’s a far from homogenous coalition.

Here’s a look at its main components: Continue reading A primer on the MUD, Venezuela’s broad opposition coalition

Chavismo is a continuity of — not a rupture from — the petrostate


I tried to plumb deeper into the role of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) before the election, and I argue in The Atlantic this morning that chavismo really marks more of a continuity with than a rupture from the petrostate clientelism that preceded Hugo Chávez — both in the 40 years of democracy in the late 20th century, as well as the era of military dictatorship that stretches back to the discovery of petroleum in Venezuela and its widespread export starting in 1918:Venezuela Flag Icon

Chavismo marked a rupture from this system in two ways. First, he diverted a larger share of Venezuela’s oil wealth to the poor than ever before — although the deployment of those funds was never incredibly efficient, nor was it without corruption. Secondly, he flattened the system through his own personality cult. PDVSA, the state oil company, has a stronger brand in Venezuela than the PSUV, the governing United Socialist Party. It was Chávez personally who doled out the gifts

It’s the second part that will make Maduro’s task especially difficult. Chávez would have been a hard act for anyone to follow, but Maduro is a bland apparatchik in contrast whose legitimacy, so long as he remains president, will forever be challenged by his narrow victory . He ran a largely defensive campaign, wrapping himself in Chávez’s legacy. Provided that his victory is upheld, it’s hardly a mandate forchavismo, let alone madurismo, but it’s not at all clear whether chavismo would ever actually work without Chávez, the personal embodiment of the latest iteration of Venezuela’s petro-state clientelism

That’s why, I argue further, Nicolás Maduro will have a very hard time maintaining the system Chávez developed, and why I think Venezuela is headed for more difficult times before it sees better times.

I argue that not only is Venezuela suffering from a sort of ‘Dutch disease’ on steroids, but that the petrostate mentality has skewed the relationship between the government and the governed:

As in oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, resource wealth skews the link between the state and its citizens… and the traditional link between government and voters is turned upside down: instead of an electorate of taxpayers holding its leaders accountable for good government, voters look support politicians who can offer the largest slice of Venezuela’s oil wealth. That’s why domestic subsidies make Venezuelan gasoline prices the world’s cheapest, at just six cents a gallon.

That was true before and during the Chávez era, and it will certainly be true after Chávez. What seemed like a relatively mature democratic system before Chávez was always institutionally weaker than it looked from the outside.

I also caution that the opposition will have to do much more than just win an election in order to break the vicious cycle of Venezuelan (mal)governance:

But if Maduro’s victory is somehow overturned and Capriles becomes Venezuela’s next president, he’ll need a lot more than a change in expectations to put Venezuela on a firmer footing. The opposition’s hopes are based on what Paul Krugman might call the “hada de confiaza” — a Venezuelan confidence fairy.

Venezuela’s economy is tumbling despite oil prices over $100/barrel


I wrote a piece for The New Republic earlier today about the state of the Venezuelan economy and the difficult issues that await the next president, which for now looks like it will be Nicolás Maduro following Sunday’s landmark presidential election.Venezuela Flag Icon

I argued that although some of the economic reforms that Maduro could implement are relatively simple, he may well lack the charisma, the political capital (both within and outside the chavista camp) and the funds to pull Venezuela back from the brink of two devaluations in 2013, the threat of even higher double-digit inflation, increasing reliance on imports for basic staples, a crumbling oil infrastructure, an atrophied private sector and difficulty accessing international — and even Chinese — finance:

It’s now up to Maduro to sort all of this out in the background of a legitimacy crisis. Economically speaking, there are several options that could help. Venezuela could claw back some of its oil revenues by reducing subsidies to Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean basin. He could reverse the trend of ad hoc expropriations under Chávez that left the public sector bloated with bureaucrats, the private sector fearful, and the non-oil industry atrophied. He could direct more capital to be re-invested into PDVSA, the state-owned oil company, to boost oil production that’s fallen by up to a third in the past 15 years, and to develop refining capacity, especially in light of the ultra heavy crude oil that’s increasingly being drilled from the interior’s Orinoco Belt. Venezuelans believe cheap gas is virtually a constitutionally protected right, and an attempt to eliminate it pursuant to an IMF loan package in 1989 is widely seen as the catalyst for the deadly Caracazo riots later that year, but Maduro could gingerly begin to reduce the domestic subsidy that keeps Venezuela’s gasoline the cheapest in the world at about six cents per gallon.

Cabello comments indicate cracks in the chavista high guard?


One key piece of data that I missed last night is the response of National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello (pictured above), who tweeted the following last night:Venezuela Flag Icon

Profunda autocrítica nos obligan estos resultados, es contradictorio que sectores del Pueblo pobre voten por sus explotadores de siempre.

Deep self-criticism obliges us to note these results, and it’s contradictory that sectors of the poorest people have voted for their exploiters.

Cabello is the behind-the-scenes pragmatic bulldog of chavismo and he’s clearly the most relevant political leader within chavismo after the newly declared president-elect Nicolás Maduro.  Given the narrow victory that Maduro won, he may well now be chavismo‘s most relevant political leader.

That makes his rather subdued statement an important touchstone for where Venezuela’s ruling part is headed, and it’s somewhat more subtle than the full-speed-ahead, at-full-volume victory speech that Maduro delivered Sunday night.

Some background: he served as the governor of Miranda state from 2004 to 2008 — opposition candidate Henrique Capriles got his start in national politics in 2008 when he ousted Cabello by a seven-point margin to become the governor of Miranda.

Cabello has since 2012 been the president of Venezuela’s Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), where the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and its allies control 96 seats to just 65 for the opposition.

If Maduro’s victory is not overturned following an audit of the election results, the next electoral test for chavismo will come in December 2015, when Venezuela holds its next scheduled parliamentary elections, and it seems fairly possible that Cabello and the PSUV could lose their majority.