Category Archives: Venezuela

Overshadowed by scandal, Trump calls for López’s release in Venezuela


Before Thursday’s jaw-dropping 77-minute free-form press conference, US president Donald Trump made a rare foray into Latin American politics on Wednesday night, publicly calling for the release of Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan opposition leader imprisoned by the chavista government since 2014. Venezuela Flag Icon

It was a surprising move by Trump, who was having dinner Wednesday night with López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, and Florida senator Marco Rubio. Trump joins many figures from across the political spectrum over the last three years, including former US president Barack Obama and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who renewed calls to release López on Thursday.

López, on the third anniversary of his arrest, is now at the heart of the Venezuelan opposition struggle in its daunting task of removing an increasingly undemocratic chavista regime through democratic means. Despite Trump’s call on Twitter to free López, a Venezuelan appeals court upheld the opposition leader’s sentence Thursday morning, and foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez chided Trump in response.

In February 2014, when protestors were already taking to the streets against Maduro’s government (and when the economic situation, though dire, was far better than today), López was leading the way calling for peaceful protests in hopes of toppling the government through show of popular disapproval. Those protests, however, turned deadly when police deployed lethal force against the protesters and 43 people died. López was promptly arrested and, months later in September 2015, found guilty of public incitement of violence.  His imprisonment is widely considered to be politically motivated by international groups and figures ranging from the United Nations to the Dalai Lama, and his arrest was one of the reasons why the South American trading bloc, MERCOSUR, suspended Venezuela’s membership in December 2016, citing problems with human rights and the rule of law.  Continue reading Overshadowed by scandal, Trump calls for López’s release in Venezuela

The comparison between Sanders and Venezuela is misguided and facile

'Socialism' may be at the heart of chavismo and the Sanders campaign, but they come from two very different political traditions.
‘Socialism’ may be at the heart of chavismo and the Sanders campaign, but they come from two very different political traditions.

One of the more popular comparisons of critics of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is between the brand of ‘democratic socialism’ that Sanders has espoused in his Democratic presidential campaign and Venezuelan-style socialism.Venezuela Flag IconUSflag

But for reasons I’ll describe below, it’s a facile and wrong-headed comparison, and it’s an insult both to Sanders and to the Venezuelan opposition that’s struggling so hard against something much more insidious than just ‘democratic socialism.’

* * * * *

RELATED: Eight things Americans should know about the Danish (and Nordic) welfare state

* * * * *

Sanders has looked to countries like Sweden and Denmark, arguing that the US social welfare net should look more like the Nordic social welfare net. Those are countries that, by and large, conduct free and fair elections with a firm dividing line between government and party, squeaky-clean transparency, a tradition both of consensus-building  and more recently, a reformist nudge that’s tried to retool creaking social welfare system toward more competition and liberalism.

No one disputes Venezuela’s problems, which faces today probably the globe’s most painful economic crisis. They are immense.

But it didn’t get there through Scandinavian-style socialism. Or social democracy. Or democratic socialism.  Continue reading The comparison between Sanders and Venezuela is misguided and facile

Venezuela’s disappointing new legislative leader is only slightly better than chavismo

Henry Ramos Allup is set to become the next president of Venezuela’s National Assembly today.

Without a doubt, the victory of the anti-chavista opposition in the December 6 elections was one of the most improbable and most impressive wins in world politics in 2015.Venezuela Flag Icon

With a two-thirds majority that the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) is still trying to defend from attacks from the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the opposition today took control of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), the legislative branch of Venezuela’s government. That will continue to be true, no matter if the PSUV tries to invalidate a handful of MUD deputies or if president Nicolas Maduro tries to create an alternative chavista-dominated popular assembly.

For the first time since 1999, the chavistas haven’t controlled the National Assembly. Naturally, it was a momentous occasion. For now, the Venezuelan people seem firmly behind the opposition, in the hopes that they can push Maduro toward reforms to provide economic relief after years of socialist policies and, perhaps more damningly, widespread corruption, handouts to socialist allies like Cuba and Nicaragua and mismanagement of PdVSA, the state petroleum company, which has only accelerated losses stemming from the global decline in oil prices.

* * * * *

RELATED: Venezuela’s opposition supermajority must prioritize recalling Maduro

RELATED: No matter who wins, the December 6 elections will not be chavismo‘s last stand

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

* * * * *

But that’s also why it’s so disappointing that the MUD coalition chose as the president of the National Assembly the 72-year-old Henry Ramos Allup, a longtime fixture on the Venezuelan opposition and a throwback to the ancien régime that proved so corrupt and incapable that it opened the path to Hugo Chávez’s perfectly democratic election to the Venezuelan presidency in 1998.

Let’s start with the good news. Ramos Allup, it’s true, was chosen through a democratic process, an internal vote among the 112 MUD deputies. He easily defeated Julio Borges, another opposition figure close to former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, by a vote of 63 to 49 over the weekend. He’s one of the few figures within the opposition to have some experience of Venezuelan governance before chavismo and, truth be told, he’s a tough and wily character who will not easily be rolled. (Though, almost immediately after the new majority took power in the National Assembly, the chavista deputies, including the former Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, promptly walked out).

Then again, for an opposition that hopes to present itself as a fresh movement of good government and reform capable to bringing change to Venezuela, it’s a curious choice. Continue reading Venezuela’s disappointing new legislative leader is only slightly better than chavismo

Venezuela’s opposition supermajority must prioritize recalling Maduro

Henrique Capriles (right) and Leopoldo López (left) campaigned together in the 2013 presidential election.
Henrique Capriles (right) and Leopoldo López (left) campaigned together in the 2013 presidential election.

I write Friday for The National Interest a follow-up post on Venezuela’s legislative elections. Venezuela Flag Icon

With the unexpected results, which not only gave the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) a victory, but a two-thirds supermajority in Venezuela’s National Assembly, a critical blow to the ruling chavista government of Nicolás Maduro.


I make the case that the MUD must prioritize a recall referendum that could remove Maduro from office early in 2016:

In a “normal” democracy, it would not be atypical for a divided government to emerge, in the same way that Republicans today control the legislative branch and Democrats control the executive branch in the United States. Gridlock might come to dominate Venezuelan governance, it’s true. But Maduro, who lacks a powerful presidential veto, would be forced to accept the MUD coalition’s policy prescriptions to get the economy back on track, however painful the compromises for both sides.

Yet neither Maduro nor the chavista high guard has shown the slightest bit of respect for the democratic process. Though Chávez came to power — and stayed in power — on the strength of a bona fide popular and democratic mandate, his government and Maduro’s government have gone out of their way to make a mockery of democratic norms. They have diverted government funds, including the country’s dwindling oil revenues, to nakedly political purposes for so long that it’s difficult to know where chavismo ends and Venezuela’s government begins. They’ve imprisoned opposition leaders like Leopoldo López and former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma without due process on charges that even López’s prosecutor (speaking safely from exile in Miami) admits were politically motivated. Chavistas have dominated the Venezuelan media so thoroughly that it’s hard to speak of any real press freedom; in 2015, it had the worst record in South America, according to Reporters Without Borders. The outgoing head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, has bullied and harassed the opposition at every step, is reported to have ties to drug traffickers and other criminal elements, and shows no sign of accepting the docile role of loyal opposition leader. The list goes on and on (and Rory Carroll’s excellent 2013 book, Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, exhaustively catalogs the abuses, both petty and serious). Though there was once a democratic basis for chavismo’s legitimacy, its unique record since 1998 demonstrates that it simply cannot be trusted to execute the new National Assembly’s laws in good faith. In crisis mode, with the worst performing economy in the world, Venezuela simply cannot wait until the scheduled 2018 presidential election to turn the page on chavismo.

Though there is some risk of ‘overreach’ in calling a recall referendum, and though a snap presidential election could create real tensions within the MUD coalition, I also argue that the far greater risk is failing to learn the lessons of chavismo and the risk of a divided government wholly unable to meet the critical task of rebuilding Venezuela’s economy in the next three years.

No matter who wins, Sunday’s elections will not be chavismo’s last stand

Despite a late surge in the election campaign, socialist president Nicolás Maduro still faces a major defeat in this weekend’s elections for Venezuela’s National Assembly.

In a set of free and fair elections, it would not be difficult to predict that Venezuela’s long-suffering opposition would win a wide majority in December 6’s legislative elections; for many Venezuelans, despite marked disadvantages, the question is not whether the opposition will win, but by how much.Venezuela Flag Icon

That doesn’t mean the anti-chavista coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) is anywhere near taking real power in Venezuela. No matter what happens, on December 7, Venezuelans will still wake up to president Nicolás Maduro, the oft-ridiculed successor to the late Hugo Chávez. Maduro only narrowly won the presidency in April 2013, following Chávez’s death, and Venezuela’s economy, already in dire trouble two years ago, has failed dramatically ever since.

What’s more, short of a massive supermajority, Venezuela will be gridlocked for the next three years when the next presidential election will held, at a time when its economy has reached crisis-level proportions of failure.

Dependence on oil revenues meant that even before global oil prices plummeted, Venezuelans were facing shortages of basic products, from food to medical supplies to toilet paper, and inevitable scenes of government-mandated rationing. Massive inflation, in tandem with an unofficially depreciating currency, has inflicted even greater economic pain for a country dependent on foreign imports, at least for those without access to US dollars. The economy is expected to contract by as much as 10% in a single year, making Venezuela’s the worst-performing in the world in 2015. Earlier this spring, conditions were so bad that chavista supporters took to throwing mangoes at Maduro at political events in desperate search of basic necessities. Maduro, meanwhile, has campaigned hard on Chávez’s memory and fear tactics that the opposition will reverse the government’s many social welfare programs.

Voters will be choosing all 167 members of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), where the chavistas currently hold 99 seats, while the opposition coalition holds just 64.  Yet few observers believe that the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the chavista party that for 16 years has governed the country in a way that’s blurred the line between political and governance activity, can win a majority in the elections. Datanálisis, one of Venezuela’s most respected polls, pitted the opposition coalition’s support at over 63%, with just 28% support for the chavistas in an October poll. Over at Caracas Chronicles, Francisco Toro argues that, for the first time in years, the December 6 elections represent the re-introduction of ‘politics’ to Venezuelan life.

But for a country where chavismo has now become so entrenched in its government and commerce, no one knows for sure exactly what the MUD’s margin of victory might be and how many seats it will ultimately procure. Under the dual voting system, most members are elected in single-seat districts, while 30% are elected by closed-list proportional representation. Rural areas, where the poorest voters support Maduro and chavismo more strongly for the generous social welfare programs introduced since 1999, are over-represented, as compared to urban areas, where the opposition’s support is strongest. A simply majority will give the opposition less power than a three-fifths majority or a two-thirds majority, with which the MUD could even forced a recall referendum against Maduro.  Continue reading No matter who wins, Sunday’s elections will not be chavismo’s last stand

15 in 2015: Fifteen world elections to watch in 2015

2015Photo credit to letyg84 / 123RF.

Over the past 12 months, the world witnessed a pivotal general election in India, presidential elections in Indonesia, congressional midterm elections in the United States, European parliamentary elections and elections (of varying competitiveness) in over a dozen of additional countries in the world, all pivotal in their own ways — Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, South Africa, Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Serbia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Belgium, Sweden and independence referenda in Scotland and Catalunya.

After such a crowded 2014 calendar, it’s not surprising that 2015 will not bring the same volume of electoral activity. But there’s still plenty at stake, especially as volatile oil prices, Chinese economic slowdown and the return of recession in Europe and Japan could stifle global economic potential. The most important of those elections that will determine policy that affects the lives of billions of people worldwide.

Without further ado, here is Suffragio‘s guide to the top 15 elections to watch as 2015 unfolds — beginning in Greece, where the government fell earlier this week.  Continue reading 15 in 2015: Fifteen world elections to watch in 2015

Ramírez demotion headlines Venezuela’s cabinet reshuffle


Since 2004, Rafael Ramírez has served as the president of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PdVSA), the country’s state-owned oil company, and since 2002, Ramírez has served as Venezuela’s energy/oil minister. Venezuela Flag Icon

That all changed on Tuesday, when president Nicolás Maduro announced a reshuffle of his government, the most significant since his controversial and narrow election in April 2013.

Ramírez, after Maduro and after Diosdado Cabello, the president of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), was the most powerful of the chavistas remaining in government in the aftermath of Hugo Chávez’s death almost exactly 18 months ago. Since that time, Ramírez became, in addition to PdVSA head and oil minister, vice president in charge of economic affairs.

A longtime old hand within chavismo, he was among the most pragmatic and moderate of the chavistas. Ramírez may have run Venezuela’s oil industry into the ground, and he may have been as corrupt as anyone in Venezuela’s government. But he didn’t radiate the kind of socialist, true-believer aura of other leading chavistas, such as former planning minister Jorge Giordani and former foreign minister Elías Jaua.

In the Maduro era, Ramírez endorsed reforms, such as reducing the gasoline subsidy that keeps the price of fueling Venezuelan cars lower than anywhere else in the world and otherwise liberalizing the economy, including with respect to the massively overvalued bolívar

Asdrúbal Chávez, the cousin of the late former president, will become the next oil minister, while PdVSA engineer and executive Eulegio Del Pino, a close Ramírez ally, will be the oil company’s next president.

Though he was simultaneously named foreign minister, it’s hard to see how Ramírez hasn’t suffered a demotion for a country where 97% of foreign earnings derive from oil. As PdVSA head, in particular, Ramírez controlled the most enviable element of Venezuelan economic policymaking — he controlled the profits.  So while the move to foreign minister would be a promotion for many ambitious politicians, in Venezuela, it’s a way of sidelining Ramírez.  Continue reading Ramírez demotion headlines Venezuela’s cabinet reshuffle

ESSAY: How Gabriel García Márquez introduced me to Latin America


Whenever I go to México City, I marvel at the way its indigenous history integrates into the fabric of the city. Nahuatl words, like ‘Chapultepec,’ meaning grasshopper, and ‘Xochimilco,’ a neighborhood featuring a series of Aztec-created canals, pepper the geography of the city. Those are just two of hundreds of daily reminders rooting Latin America’s largest modern megapolis of 8.9 million in the language and traditions of its pre-Columbian past. It’s where the Virgin of Guadalupe, a young Nahuatl-speaking girl, apparently revealed herself to Juan Diego in 1531 as the Virgin Mary, instructing him to build a church, launching one of the most compelling hybrid religious followings in the New World. Even the inhabitants of the notorious Tepito barrio worship Santa Muerte on the first of November with bright flowers, cacophanous marimba and not a small amount of marijuana, in celebration of the magical chasm between what is, for many Tepito residents, a gritty life and an often grittier death.

It’s the way that México City blends the mysterious and the mundane, matches the sacred with the profane and so blends the line between the indigenous and conquistador that it’s hard to know who conquered what. For all of those reasons, I often think of it as the unofficial capital of realismo magico.

So it’s natural to me that the literary master of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez, made his home in México City for much of the last six decades of his life. It’s also where García Márquez died on April 17 at age 87.

It was his uncanny ability to blend the realistic with the magical that largely won him such adoration worldwide. But what makes the writing of García Márquez and the other authors of the 1960s Latin American Boom so electrifying to me is the way that it blended the literary with the political. Certainly, García Márquez’s writing was about family, about love, about solitude, about power, about loss, about fragility, about all of these universal themes. But his writing also explicated many of the themes that we today associate with Latin America’s culture, identity, history and politics.

His death wasn’t entirely unexpected. García Márquez was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer all the way back in 1999 and by the beginning of the 2010s, he rarely made public appearances anymore due to the grim advance of Alzheimer’s disease. By the time I made it to Latin America for the first time, he was already approaching 80, and I knew I’d have little chance of meeting him.

That’s fine by me, because I always considered him, through his work, my own personal ambassador to Latin America. Over the course of several treks through Latin America, Gabo still accompanied me through his writing — and along the way, he shaped my own framework for how I think about Latin American life.

* * * * *

(8) Going up the Argentine Andes 2

When I was planning my first trip to Latin America, I brought with me a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I saved the novel for this very occasion, a trek from Buenos Aires to Mendoza and then by bus over the Andes to Santiago. Technically speaking, I was on the wrong end of the continent for García Márquez. I packed some Neruda, some Allende and some Borges — and some Cortázar, too (mea culpa, I still haven’t clawed enough time to read Hopscotch).


Nevertheless, García Márquez’s words transcended the setting of his native Colombia. Hundred Years, published in 1967, just six years after the Cuban revolution that undeniably marked a turning point in its relationship with the behemoth world power to the north, it came at a time when Latin American identity seemed limitless, and García Márquez mined a new consciousness that wasn’t necessarily Colombian or even South American. So much of the story of Colombia’s development from the colonial era through the present day is also cognizably Bolivian, Chilean, Mexican or Argentinian. After all, García Márquez, already a well-known figure, went on a writing strike when Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973, ousting the democratically elected Socialist president Salvador Allende, who either committed suicide or was shot on September 11, the day of the coup.

It was an intoxicating read. The sleek brown corduroy blazer I picked up in Buenos Aires with the affected hint of epaulets on the shoulders soon became what I called my ‘Colonel Aureliano’ jacket. Besides, where better to buy a Spanish language copy of his work than El Ateneo, perhaps the most amazing bookstore in the world?


* * * * *

Hundred Years, of course, came highly recommended from the world that had discovered García Márquez decades before I was even born. It became an instant hit upon publication, catapulting García Márquez’s popularity beyond his more established peers, including México’s Carlos Fuentes and Perú’s Mario Vargas Llosa.

Bill Clinton, in his autobiography My Life, confesses to zoning out of class one day in law school to finish it:  Continue reading ESSAY: How Gabriel García Márquez introduced me to Latin America

Politics turns violent in Venezuela


Though critics can dump a lot of problems on the doorstep of Hugo Chávez’s 14-year reign as president of Venezuela, the one thing that you can’t say about Chávez is that he used state violence (as opposed to expropriation, media censorship or other tactics) to undermine Venezuela’s rule of law, excepting perhaps the aborted April 2002 coup, a complex incident in Venezuelan politics in which neither the Venezuelan military, the Chávez administration nor the Venezuelan opposition was entirely blameless.Venezuela Flag Icon

It’s hard to extend the same credit to Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, in light of the violence against protestors in Caracas, Valencia and elsewhere across Venezuela last night.

A 22-year-old beauty queen, Génesis Carmona, was shot in the head in central Valencia Tuesday night, the fifth fatality in a series of escalating student protests against the Maduro government — the photo above shows Altamira, a relatively wealthy neighborhood in Caracas that’s seen some of the most tense confrontations of the past 48 hours.

Venezuela’s oil production allowed Chávez to circumvent violent repression by using money to buy and consolidate his support among his natural base — Venezuela’s poorest citizens who hadn’t benefitted from the petrostate’s largesse (and, increasingly, a corrupt ‘boligarchy’ whose continued prosperity depends on the continuity of the chavista regime).

Though the February 2014 protests aren’t as widespread as the ones that led to the 2002 coup against Chávez, economic conditions are much poorer today in Venezuela than they were 12 years ago, when Chávez was just three years into his presidency and the country exported more oil — and other products — than it does today.  The fact that five people are dead, with many more injured, is a serious escalation in a country where, though political polarization has been common for the past decade and a half, political killing has not.  Maduro’s government is censoring the media even more than usual, putting much of Caracas on lockdown and arresting protestors by the truckload.  Most fundamentally, governments in truly liberal democracies do not respond to political protest with lethal violence.  Chávez could point to legitimate majoritarian support throughout the entirety of his presidency, even if it obscured the deterioration of the rule of law and public institutions.  By contrast, Maduro’s increasingly violent response to protest underlines the fragility (or, perhaps, the illegitimacy) of his political support.  Continue reading Politics turns violent in Venezuela

More thoughts on Venezuela and Argentina

I discussed the dual economic crises in Venezuela and Argentina today on SiriusXM’s Cristina channel on ‘From Washington Al Mundo’ with Mauricio Claver-Caroné.argentinaVenezuela Flag Icon

It was an absolute pleasure — and Suffragio readers should check out the entire program on SiriusXM.  But in the meanwhile, here’s the audio from my segment.

The segment picks up from my piece last week in The National Interest, which tracks the similarities between the economic crises in both countries, but also the other similarities in their politics, their history, and the way that past governments handled neoliberal economic reform in the past.  So there are a lot of common threads that go beyond basic macroeconomic coincidences to the cultural, political and historical.

I also noted today that it seems like Argentina is a half-step or so behind Venezuela in terms of its economic crisis.  It’s only just now starting to feel the real crunch of a dollar shortage.  The headline this week is about a ketchup shortage, and that’s the kind of headline that featured in Venezuela last year — shortages of everything from toilet paper to holy water.

Anyway, please do check out the audio if you’re interested — I’ve only started to do television and radio interviews, so I’m learning as I go.

Will Venezuela or Argentina be the first to crumble into economic crisis?


I write tomorrow for The National Interest about the dual economic crises in Venezuela and Argentina.argentinaVenezuela Flag Icon

The similarities between the two economic crises are uncanny — inflation, capital controls, dollar shortages, overvalued currencies, shortages, etc.

But the similarities don’t stop there.  Both countries currently fee political limitations to force policy changes to avert crisis — and that limit the political capital of the leaders of both countries, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to enact reforms:

Accordingly, normal political channels seem blocked through at least the end of 2015, despite the fact that both countries should be considering massive economic policy u-turns that will require significant amounts of political goodwill neither Maduro nor Fernández de Kirchner possess. But there’s an even greater inertia lurking beyond even the routine political impasse—a kind of political dead-hand control in both countries, on both a short-term and long-term basis.

First, both Venezuela and Argentina remain tethered to the political ideologies of chavismoand kirchnerismo, even though their proponents, Chávez and Néstor Kirchner, are now dead. Those policies may have worked over the last decade to achieve certain goals, including greater social welfare and poverty reduction in Venezuela and a rapid return to economic growth and competitive exports for Argentina. But it should be clear by now that chavismoand kirchnerismo are unable to provide answers to their respective countries’ economic woes today.

Even more broadly, I argue that beyond the shortcomings of chavismo and kirchnerismo, Venezuela faces a long-term resources curse and Argentina faces the long-term legacy of protectionism and statism of peronismo, which in each case underlie the current economic crises.  What’s more, the IMF-sponsored reforms in 1989 that led to the massive Caracazo riots in Venezuela and the IMF-approved lending tied to Argentina’s 1990s ‘convertibility’ crisis that led to the 1999-2001 peso crisis have undermined orthodox economic policymaking:

What’s more, ill-conceived attempts to rupture those dominant paradigms through orthodox ‘Washington consensus’ reform processes led to economic and political disaster. In both countries, leaders experimented with neoliberalism, facilitated by the misguided zeal of the International Monetary Fund, without enacting any corresponding safety nets or shock absorbers. The resulting crises led both countries to double down on their prevailing ideologies, thereby, ironically, making economic reform today even more difficult.

In both cases, the political, historical and economic legacies have prevented the broadly moderate, business-friendly, social democratic middle courses that much of the rest of South America has embraced to wide success, including Colombia, Peru, Chile, Brazil.

Chavismo offers no solutions for Venezuela’s violent crime


Though Venezuela’s crumbling economy was the top issue in 2013, the country’s violent crime rate is now topping the 2014 agenda after the horrific murder of Mónica Spear, the 29-year-old television star and 2004’s Miss Venezuela, and her ex-husband were shot in an attempted robbery, after their car broke down on a highway Monday night.Venezuela Flag Icon

Violent crime in Venezuela didn’t spring up overnight, but even president Nicolás Maduro admits that 2013 saw a rise in crime.  But it’s been on the rise throughout the chavista era.  It’s a topic that I discussed earlier today on Fusion’s America with Jorge Ramos (in my first-ever live television interview — next time, I need to know where to put my eyes!).

When Hugo Chávez was first elected in 1999, he and his advisors thought that reducing crime in Venezuela was a matter of reducing poverty and inequality.  For all the faults of chavismo, you can point to a substantial reduction in poverty and inequality since 1999, though there’s obviously some debate as to whether the chavistas accomplished that goal in the most efficient, effective or sustainable manner.

Yet even as poverty decreased, violent crime increased steadily over the Chávez era.  Official figures aren’t available (and it’s doubtful they would be reliable even if they were), but Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia, an NGO that tracks violent crime, claims that the homicide rate is 79 per 100,000 — a rise in 2013 from a rate of 73 in 2012.  That makes Venezuela second only to Honduras, with a 2012 homicide rate of 91.6 per 100,000.

If there’s one point to take away about the link between poverty and violent crime, it’s that the poorest Venezuelans are more likely to be victims of crime themselves.  Crime is higher in the cities than in the countryside, and it is highest yet in the barrios of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas — you’re much likelier to be murdered in the more lawless neighborhoods in the mountains overlooking downtown Caracas than in the wealthier and safer valley below.  While every murder is a tragedy, Spear’s death is just one of tens of thousands annually.  Justice rarely comes for many of those anonymous victims and their families, given that crimes are rarely investigated and even more rarely prosecuted.

Crime is a complex sociological phenomenon, so it’s not easy to point to one variable in particular as its direct cause.  Poverty may play a role, but it’s not a matter of ‘if x, then y.’  In the case of Venezuela, the more relevant factors include a high gun ownership rate, corruption and low trust in public institutions, and a climate of political polarization.  But the biggest factor is the weakening of the rule of the law over the past 15 years.

As Juan Nagel writes in Foreign Policy, Venezuela has very few judges and prosecutors, and many of them are corrupt.  Policemen and other officials commonly take bribes.  Jails are overcrowded and controlled by the criminals locked inside them. No one has much faith in the justice system.  If you look at the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, Venezuela is ranked 160. Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia are tied for dead-last at 175.  That should tell you quite a bit about Venezuela’s culture of impunity.  It’s not just the justice system, either.  It’s the kind of ‘democracy’ whereby all of the state organs, from state media to the electoral commission to the courts to Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), the state oil company, have all been politicized and are today essentially levers to boost chavismo.  It’s the kind of ad hoc economic policymaking where rules change from one day to the next, or the Venezuelan president can expropriate a business or nationalize an industry on a whim.  That, too, corrodes the rule of law.


That’s also why there’s very little chance that Maduro or any chavista regime is likely to reverse the decade-long trend of greater violent crime.  Despite a high-profile photo op with opposition leader and Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles (pictured above), Maduro (like Chávez before him) has worked to strip municipal and state governments of much of their autonomy by consolidating power over local budgets under the national government.  That’s especially true for states and municipalities controlled by the opposition. Continue reading Chavismo offers no solutions for Venezuela’s violent crime

14 potential game-changers for world politics in 2014


Though I rang in the new year with a list of 14 world elections to watch in the coming year (and 14 more honorable mentions to keep an eye on), I wanted to showcase a few more thoughts about what to watch for in world politics and foreign affairs in 2014.

Accordingly, here are 14 possible game-changers — they’re not predictions per se, but neither are they as far-fetched as they might seem.  No one can say with certainty that they will come to pass in 2014.  Instead, consider these something between rote predictions (e.g., that violence in Iraq is getting worse) and outrageous fat-tail risks (e.g., the impending breakup of the United States).

There’s an old album of small pieces conducted by the late English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, a delightfully playful album entitled Lollipops that contains some of the old master’s favorite, most lively short pieces.

Think of these as Suffragio‘s 14 world politics lollipops to watch in 2014.

We start in France… Continue reading 14 potential game-changers for world politics in 2014

After local elections, what next for Venezuela’s government?


Earlier this month, Venezuela held municipal elections — the last set of elections that will take place until the end of 2015.Venezuela Flag Icon

The results came after an extraordinary month in Venezuela, when president Nicolás Maduro obtained an Enabling Law, a decree for extraordinary powers from the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), a radical step that gives Maduro fast-track powers to regulate the Venezuelan economy for a year.  At the time, Diosdado Cabello, the president of the National Assembly, said that Maduro asked the National Assembly to ‘pass all the laws necessary to wring the necks of the speculators and the money launderers.’  In an even more radical move earlier that week, Venezuelan forces commandeered top electronics retail chain Daka, forcing price cuts that launched a frenzy of consumer spending at low prices.  Critics called the spectacle the ‘CaDakazo,’ a play on the 1989 Caracazo riots, protests and looting in response to the government’s decision to implement an IMF reform package of significant fiscal adjustments.

Short of a magical rise in the price of oil, Venezuela’s inflation (already around 54% this year), the shortage of basic goods and services (fueled by rise in dependence on imports and a shortage of dollars), and increasingly troubled finances mean that Venezuela’s economy will only worsen over the next two years.  Despite all that Venezuela’s been though in the past 14 years since Chávez first took power, the current economic crisis could get much, much worse.  Maduro’s first year in office has the feel to it of the first 30 minutes of a really chilling horror film — you know you have another 90 minutes of terror ahead of you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

In light of the massive government-forced handout of retail electronics in November, it’s not surprising that the governing Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela) won a greater share of the vote than the umbrella opposition group, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, the Democratic Unity Roundtable).  The actual numbers vary, depending on which third parties you classify as PSUV/Maduro supporters, which you classify as opposition allied with Capriles and the MUD and which are really, truly independent.

But generally speaking, the chavistas won around 48.8% to just 40.8% for the MUD.  Though the opposition dominated Venezuela’s urban centers and it easily retained the mayor’s office in Caracas, it won Barinas (the state capital of Chávez’s home state), Valencia and Barquisimeto.  But it only narrowly held on in  Maracaibo, the second-most populous city, and the national vote tally is much worse than in April, when Capriles very narrowly lost the presidential election to Maduro.  Though Capriles appears to command unity as the leader of the united opposition, there are cracks in the unity — popular opposition figure Leopoldo López has argued for a stronger street presence and a more muscular opposition to Maduro.  López’s party Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) performed especially well in the local elections, and you should expect to see and hear much more from López in 2014 and beyond.

But where does Venezuela go from here?  There are 24 months until the next major Venezuelan elections, the parliamentary vote to determine the composition of the National Assembly.  In a country like Venezuela, where the economy is rapidly disintegrating, that’s quite a long time for the status quo to hold.  Stunts like the ‘CaDakazo’ can only buy Maduro and the PSUV short-term delays — they don’t constitute long-term solutions for Venezuela’s growing economic crisis.

Imagine for a moment that you’re sitting in Miraflores, the Venezuelan presidential palace, and the future that you see is massive hyperinflation, continued shortages and economic decline.  You don’t face the prospect of a recall for three more years, and you wouldn’t face reelection until 2019.  So why worry about Capriles and the MUD?  Wouldn’t you be most worried about internal PSUV threats?  Like Cabello, a crafty operator with plenty of ideological flexibility, who has a separate power base from his perch as the president of the National Assembly.  Perhaps you’d be worried about another young chavista, with the same kind of charisma as Chávez had, rising up to reclaim the ‘true’ mantle of chavismo.  The Venezuelan military currently supports Maduro, but given sufficient time, might they reach a point where the economy (and the accompanying social unrest) becomes so bad that they intervene themselves?  

When Maduro replaced longtime finance minister Jorge Giordani, an instinctive central planner, with the more pragmatic former central bank president Nelson Merentes, there was a brief window when fundamental economic reform seemed like a possibility.  But with local elections looming, Maduro doubled down on state intervention in the economy — Giordani, who remained planning minister, continues to wield more influence over policymaking, and Rafael Ramírez, the longtime energy minister, replaced Merentes as Venezuela’s vice-president for economic matters in October. 

Having essentially won those elections, Maduro has some breathing space to take the kind of steps that could give Venezuela’s economy a chance, though time is running short.  Moody’s already downgraded Venezuelan debt to Caa1 last week — essentially, junk status.

The current problem of shortages are due to the fact that Venezuela is bringing in fewer dollars, which in turn must support rising demand for imports.

That’s partly due to the long-term economic tectonics of a petrostate — in Venezuela (as in Saudi Arabia or Qatar), it’s easier to get your hands on oil wealth than it is to try to generate new wealth.  Over time, that means non-oil industries wither as the country becomes more dependent on oil revenues to finance other goods and services.  But chavismo has made this worse — 14 years of ad hoc expropriations of Venezuelan businesses severely exacerbated the effect.  The long-term solution is to find a way to diversify Venezuela’s economy away from oil, while maximizing the effectiveness of Venezuela’s oil wealth.  When a country with as much oil as Venezuela is importing refined oil products from the United States, there’s clearly a problem with overdependence on imports.

What’s staggering is that Venezuela still reportedly has a trade surplus — so while it still might technically be able to afford its costly import habit, it’s getting harder and harder to feed that habit.  After all, many Venezuelans have other uses for dollars than importing toilet paper for resale.

So what’s a former-bus-driver-turned-president to do? Continue reading After local elections, what next for Venezuela’s government?