Here’s a quick review of where things stand after another week that was, wherever you stand on the Venezuelan political spectrum, not a very good week for Venezuela and its political and legal institutions:
- The opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who leads the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) coalition, is taking his challenge directly to Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice that contests over 2.3 million votes in over 5,700 polling stations from the April 14 vote. A planned audit of the election will continue under the supervision of Tibisay Lucena, the head of Venezuela’s national electoral council, though Capriles and the MUD opposition have rejected the terms of the audit. Although the audit will recount the votes, it will not audit aspects of the voting process, such as voter signatures and fingerprints, that could confirm that the votes were legitimately cast, not just properly tallied. Capriles and his allies have also alleged a wider range of election-day concerns, including voter intimidation and dumped ballot boxes.
- In Venezuela’s Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), which is dominated by the chavista party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela), opposition deputies have not only been prohibited from speaking, but were attacked in a vicious assault last week on the floor of the National Assembly while its chavista president, Disodado Cabello looked on with a smile. No matter if you’re in Ukraine or in Venezuela, brawling politicians on the floor of a parliament are always unseemly:
- Meanwhile, the government of president Nicolás Maduro has taken an increasingly harsh political line against the United States, attacking U.S. president Barack Obama for ‘meddling’ in internal Venezuelan affairs. Maduro has railed against the Obama administration, which has not yet recognized Maduro’s victory on April 14, and which has aired concerns about the vote. Maduro’s new administration has added additional tension to U.S.-Venezuelan relations by imprisoning a U.S. documentary maker on charges of inciting political violence in Venezuela. Maduro, who suggested during the campaign that the United States may have caused the cancer that killed his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, has argued that the United States is fomenting post-election violence as well. For good measure, he’s also accused former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe of attempting to assassinate him and he’s even attacked Peru’s foreign minister Rafael Roncagliolo.
- Maduro’s new cabinet, appointed in late April, looks much like the previous one, with many familiar high-level chavista faces retaining much of the power in Venezuelan government. Rafael Ramírez remains the country’s energy minister and head of the national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA); Elías Jaua, a former vice president, will remain foreign minister; and Cabello remains the president of Venezuela’s national assembly. The longtime head of the finance and planning ministry, Jorge Giordani, will remain merely planning minister and Nelson Merentes, formerly the head of Venezuela’s central bank, will become finance minister, a post he held briefly in the early 2000s as well. Merentes’s promotion has caused some optimism internationally, and Merentes is seen as more of a pragmatist than Giordani and dislikes Venezuela’s currency controls, which have artificially skewed the flow of dollars to importers. It’s not clear, however, that Giordani will relent control over economic policymaking, given that he’s been the economic czar of Venezuelan government since virtually the beginning of the Chávez era.
What is the sum impact of all of this?
So far, it seems that madurismo is the same as chavismo, but with less charisma, fewer petrodollars and the possibility of a more violent government than under Chávez.
With no signs that Capriles is giving up his challenge, Maduro faces a real legitimacy problem, and he’ll continue to do so as long as Capriles challenges the election’s audit process in a court system that’s widely seen as tilted more toward politics than toward impartial interpretation of the law. In the best case scenario, chavismo somehow lost 600,000 supporters between Chávez’s reelection in October 2012 and Maduro’s own election in April. In the worst case scenario, Maduro and the chavista government simply bought, scared or muscled enough votes last month to steal the election. It’s not an enviable position, especially given Venezuela’s ongoing economic troubles.
But Maduro also faces serious challenges within the PSUV and the ruling chavista elite.
Although he may be president, there’s no doubt that he remains a weakened leader whose power will only wither as Venezuela’s economy becomes even more tangled in a web of inflation, devaluation, growing dependence on imported goods and the need for ever-higher oil prices. You need look only to the continuity of the chavista high guard to realize that Maduro lacks the power to clean house. One commentator has even wondered if Cabello allowed the National Assembly brawl to happen just to undermine Maduro’s leadership. Though his term lasts though early 2019, Maduro isn’t assured of six years of uninterrupted power — the opposition will contest parliamentary elections in December 2015 and can mount a recall referendum on Maduro as soon as 2016.
Despite initial hopes that Maduro, as a former foreign minister for Chávez from 2006 to 2012, would see the benefit in a more diplomatic approach to U.S. and regional relations, Maduro has, if anything, made relations even more tense, putting even his moderate supporters in Unasur (the Union of South American Nations) and more generally in Latin America in an even tougher position.
One of the problems with the short campaign is that few Venezuelans, let alone the rest of the world, know much about Maduro’s own background, as Juan Cristóbal Nagel wrote shortly after the election in Foreign Policy. Maduro’s longtime partner (perhaps wife) Cilia Flores appears to have reached out to assist Chávez in the wake of his 1992 coup attempt, and Maduro has been at the heart of the chavismo project in Venezuela since essentially its inception. Maduro survived so long at the top echelon of chavismo exactly because he had no discernable policy differences with Chávez, so don’t expect a radical change in policy anytime soon. Though his past as a former Caracas bus driver and union leader is well-known, Nagel pointed to persistent rumors of a longstanding Cuban connection as well:
Another interesting aspect is the yet-to-be-refuted claim that Maduro spent considerable time in the 80s living in Cuba. The nature of his alleged stay there has not been explained, but some opposition activists have little doubt that it meant he was part of an indoctrination program run by the Cuban Communist Party, under the guidance of hardline General Ramiro Valdés. It is widely believed that Chávez picked Maduro as his heir because he is trusted by the Castros. So far Maduro has done little to counter that belief. The broadcast of the Cuban National Anthem during an official act on TV a few days ago, simultaneously broadcast over all TV and radio stations in the country, raised eyebrows. It is however, not clear if Maduro actually sang it as some in the opposition claim.
Cuba obviously has an interest in retaining the subsidy of nearly 120,000 barrels of oil per day from Venezuela, and it’s believed that Cuban intelligence has wide power within internal Venezuelan intelligence and security networks as well.
Initial violence in the immediate aftermath of the election has subsided, in large part due to Capriles’s call for supporters not to take part in a planned march on the Wednesday following the vote — opposition supporters stuck to nightly, coordinated cacerolazo pot-bangning protests. For now, at least, Maduro has backed off from his initial threats to jail opposition leaders. But last week’s attacks on the floor of the National Assembly are a menacing sign that Venezuela may could entering a new chapter of more brutal instability.
For all of the questionable steps that Chávez took in 14 years of power to undermine legal and democratic institutions, he rarely resorted to brute violence because personal charisma, oil wealth and popular support were sufficient tools.
Maduro lacks each of those tools, which is why Venezuela’s ongoing crisis remains so volatile.