Tag Archives: capriles

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.’

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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

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

Show us the long-form, Nicolás! (In which ‘birtherism’ comes to Venezuela.)


So birtherism isn’t limited to the United States and the tea party movement’s nutty claim that US president Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya and not in the US state of Hawaii. Venezuela Flag Icon

As it turns out, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro is taking some heat over accusations that he was actually born in Colombia, not in Caracas, the capital of the country that he leads.

Maduro’s government is sinking under the weight of power outages, a return to expropriation (including a local toilet paper factory) and continued shortages of basic goods due to inefficient foreign currency exchange and a gap between the real and official value of the Venezuelan bolívar, which has led to ridiculous means to game the Venezuelan currency — one story earlier this week demonstrated how flights out of Venezuela are nearly 100% booked for months in advance as a way to arbitrage the difference in the official and actual rates.

Maduro, whose country is essentially locked out of conventional global debt markets, went to Beijing earlier this week (pictured above) to procure another $5 billion in financing (and $14 billion in development of Venezuela’s oil-rich Orinoco belt) from the Chinese government.  He picked another odd fight with the United States and came up with a truly nutty excuse for skipping the UN General Assembly meeting this week, which follows the possible implication of Venezuela’s government in the brazen attempt to transport 1.3 tones of cocaine from Caracas to Paris on an Air France flight earlier this month.

Rumors have swirled over the past months about Maduro’s birthplace and his nationality, but his chief rival in the April presidential election, Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, is ratcheting up the pressure.  Capriles and Walter Márquez, an opposition member of Venezuela’s Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), took up the claim yesterday that Maduro was born in Bogotá:

Márquez claimed that he has documents and testimonies attesting to Maduro’s dual nationality.  “Nicolás Maduro lived in the Carora neighborhood, in Cúcuta (Colombia). There are testimonies of people who spent time with him. We found the record of the birth certificate of Nicolás Maduro’s mother. She was born in Cúcuta. I contacted people who can testify that Maduro was born in Bogotá,” Márquez stressed.

Márquez added that so far the supporting documents attesting that Maduro’s father is a Venezuelan have not been found. “We have a copy of the marriage certificate of his (Maduro’s) parents, and the birth certificate of his older sister. Later on, I will disclose documental and testimonial evidence proving Maduro’s Colombian nationality,” he stressed.

Maduro’s doing a pretty good job of discrediting himself these days, so further discrediting Maduro (instead of chavismo more generally) won’t by itself do much good for the opposition — and it could backfire against them.  By pursuing a ‘birther’ strategy, the opposition is giving the Venezuelan military or rivals within the chavista elite, such as National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, an opportunity to remove Maduro and start anew once Venezuela’s basketcase economy truly hits rock bottom.

Even if Márquez and Capriles somehow had smoking-gun proof that Maduro was somehow ineligible for the Venezuelan presidency, it’s also pretty clear that Maduro could claim that he renounced his Colombian citizenship or he could do so and still remain eligible for the presidency.  But even if he didn’t, does anyone think that a chavista-dominated court system would even entertain removing Maduro from office?  It’s hard to see just why the opposition is pursuing this strategy, because it telescopes to the Venezuelan electorate that Capriles and the opposition are less interested in making their lives better than scoring political points — or even plotting a strategy that could win power.

But under the constitutional process for nationality in Colombia and Venezuela, it’s easy to see how Maduro might wriggle out of any ‘birther’ scandal, even without leaning on Venezuela’s corroded state institutions.

Article 41 of Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian’ constitution — promulgated by late president Hugo Chávez in 1999 — states that only Venezuelans by birth who have no other nationality shall be permitted to hold the offices of President: Continue reading Show us the long-form, Nicolás! (In which ‘birtherism’ comes to Venezuela.)

Where Capriles and the Venezuelan opposition go from here


Henrique Capriles’s last hopes of winning a recount in the April 2013 presidential election slipped away earlier this month when the chavista-controlled judicial system dismissed his complaints over the election.Venezuela Flag Icon

No one thought that, four months later, the opposition candidate had much of a chance of unseating Nicolás Maduro, no matter whether he actually won more votes.  But the decision two weeks ago of Venezuela’s top constitutional court not only dismissed Capriles’s complaint but fined Capriles around $1,700 for insulting the integrity of the court, and it suggested that Venezuelan prosecutors file a case against Capriles, who is also the governor of Miranda, for offending the institutions of the state.

No one thinks that the April 14 vote was incredibly fair — Maduro’s ruling chavista party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela) has co-mingled party and government for so long that it’s impossible to separate the two.  Chavismo remains both the dominant party and ruling ideology in Venezuela, even after Chávez’s death in March.  The Maduro campaign wielded a huge advantage in its access to state-controlled media and funds, and that followed a massive spending spree last year in the leadup to Chávez’s own reelection in October 2012.  But there’s credible evidence that the vote was not incredibly free either, with reports of voter intimidation and manipulation by chavistas and by police and army officials.

Officials in Venezuela’s electoral commission (the CNE) point to a June audit that ‘confirmed’ Maduro’s 1.49% margin of victory.  But the CNE won’t release the logs of voter signatures and fingerprints that correspond to the voting machines, which might otherwise reveal how fraudulent the voting actually was.  Neither Capriles nor the broad opposition group, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, the Democratic Unity Roundtable), believe the result is legitimate.

Meanwhile, the chavistas are engaged in a slow-motion, cold civil war, and the Venezuelan economy is struggling with a combination of low growth, import dependency, depressed oil output, dysfunctional currency markets, and hyperinflation unseen since the 1980s.

So what happens next — and how does the opposition think about the future?  Continue reading Where Capriles and the Venezuelan opposition go from here

‘Pragmatic’ Merentes winning control over Venezuela economic policy, but to what end?


When Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro appointed Nelson Merentes as his new finance minister shortly after Maduro’s controversial election in April, no one knew whether Merentes would actually be the official in charge of economic policy.Venezuela Flag Icon

That’s because the former finance minister Jorge Giordani, the longtime policymaker in the era of former president Hugo Chávez, remained planning secretary — and in a huge public-sector country like Venezuela, there’s little left untouched by central planning.  Giordani, more than anyone else, was responsible for the statist economic policies of the Chávez era, including currency and price controls.

But this week, there was no mistaking that Merentes is now ascendant — Edmée Betancourt, who had served as president of Venezuela’s central bank (BCV) for just over three months, stepped down in favor of Eudomar Tovar, an economist who was most recently the head of Venezuela’s currency exchange (CADIVI).  Betancourt, a former commerce minister, was seen as closer to Giordani and the more ideological, statist wing of chavismo, while Tovar and Merentes are associated with a more pragmatic, moderate view of economic policy.  Rumors swirled last week that Giordani might soon leave the planning ministry, abandoning a recent push to raise taxes, to take up an ambassadorship soon.

Leave aside for a moment that in an era of central bank independence, neither Giordani nor Merentes would be dominating the BCV’s monetary policy in a country with sounder financial institutions.  If Merentes and Maduro really want to shake up Venezuela’s economy for the better, they should start by reintroducing a line between the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and the institutions of the Venezuelan state — starting with the BCV, but also with the national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA).

Merentes’s rise should provide at least some cautious optimism — if Giordani would have doubled-down on statist Chávez-era policies, at least Merentes seems to realize that Venezuela’s basketcase economy has some problems.  The central bank’s reserves are dwindling, Venezuelan GDP growth has slowed to nearly nothing, and inflation has reached its highest level since before Chávez came to power in 1999 on the road to a potential hyperinflationary collapse.

But it remains far from clear that Merentes is willing to embark upon a program of true economic reform or whether Maduro has both the political capital and the political will to enable him to do so.  Moves to devalue the bolívar both officially and unofficially earlier this year was a start in bringing the Venezuelan currency’s stated value in line with its real market value, but the currency has decline further in value throughout they year: despite an official value of 6.3 bolívares to the dollar, its real value has dropped from around 20 at the time of the April 14 election to more than 30 or 35 today.  Maduro took steps to tweak the currency exchange system through the introduction of SICAD auctions earlier this spring — because the vast majority of U.S. currency comes to Venezuela through the government’s sale of oil products, the government must develop a mechanism to sell those dollars to importers who need hard currency.  But neither Maduro nor Merentes have been in a rush to hold regular dollar auctions (only around $600 million has been auctioned off so far in 2013) or to deliver the actual dollars from the government to the private sector.  But the fuss over SICAD and currency exchange is really just a stop-gap measure — if the ‘pragmatists’ can’t even get this right, it leaves little faith in their ability to overcome more fundamental problems with Venezuela’s economy.

Maduro and Merentes still hope that they can borrow their way out of Venezuela’s current malaise, and the government had the brass to float the possibility two months ago that Merentes would go on a roadshow to New York and London to gauge appetite for Venezuelan bonds.  That roadshow plan quickly fell apart when it became clear that there’s little appetite for risky Venezuelan debt among global investors — yields on Venezuela’s benchmark bond have been in the double digits since Maduro’s election. Continue reading ‘Pragmatic’ Merentes winning control over Venezuela economic policy, but to what end?

It’s Diosdado Cabello’s world, the rest of Venezuela is just living in it


Venezuela, just over a month after its still-contested presidential election, has made global headlines in the past couple of weeks for its chronic shortages of everything from toilet paper to church wine, with rationing soon to begin in the large western state of Zulia.  Venezuela Flag Icon

That means that the country’s economic collapse is proceeding more or less as depressingly predicted — with oil prices stagnating, and with the state-owned Venezuelan oil industry’s production reducing, it means that the country has fewer and fewer dollars to fuel its increasing dependency on imported goods, a shortage that’s been exacerbated by the government’s somewhat inefficient system of auctioning off the dollars to importers and the fact that the Venezuelan bolívar is fixed at an artificially high rate.

That’s one of the reasons that Nicolás Maduro, even with the full force of a government that has excelled at blurring the line between the Venezuelan state and chavismo, only barely won election follow Hugo Chávez’s death and why his challenger Henrique Capriles is still waging a campaign in the court system, however quixotic, to expose voting fraud in April’s election that could well reveal that Capriles won the election instead.

Maduro’s loss weakened his already tenuous position within the ranks of chavismo, and the key power brokers under Chávez have largely retained their roles under Maduro, including Rafael Ramírez, the energy minister and the president of the state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), and Jorge Giordani, the former finance minister who remains the planning minister under Maduro.  Forget the fact that new policymakers could potentially reverse course on Venezuela’s economy or that Giordani, Ramírez and Maduro appear to be doubling down on the same policies that have led to Venezuela’s precarious situation — it shows that Maduro lacks the power to replace his rivals with ministers who owe their loyalty to Maduro.

But as the economy melts down, it isn’t surprising to see chavismo itself breaking down.  The first major breach came a couple of weeks ago, when a purported recording of a conversation emerged between Mario Silva, who hosts the popular, massively pro-chavista ‘La Hojilla’ television program, and Aramis Palacios, a Cuban lieutenant colonel in G2, the Cuban intelligence agency.  Silva is as much of a true believer in chavismo as anyone in the top circle of Venezuela’s ruling elite, so if Silva has such wide doubts about Maduro (at one point he says, ‘we are in a sea of shit’), imagine what the rest of the government thinks.

It’s also, of course, somewhat of an international scandal as well — though Cuban intelligence long worked hand-in-hand with Chávez and the Venezuelan government, what exactly was a pro-Chávez talk show host doing talking to a Cuban spook?  The link between the two countries became an issue during the campaign, with Capriles attacking the generous oil subsidies to Cuba that Chávez initiated a decade ago, and Maduro is widely believed to have been Havana’s top choice to succeed Chávez.

But the recording was most tantalizing with respect to Diosdado Cabello (pictured above) and his role in Venezuela’s future — no one has more power in post-Chávez than Cabello, including even Maduro. Continue reading It’s Diosdado Cabello’s world, the rest of Venezuela is just living in it

We’re starting to see what Madurismo will look like in Venezuela


It’s been nearly three weeks since I returned from Caracas to cover the Venezuelan presidential campaign, but the post-election situation there remains far from becalmed, unfortunately. Venezuela Flag Icon

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.   Continue reading We’re starting to see what Madurismo will look like in Venezuela

Gettin’ Raucous in Caracas

Here’s a piece I wrote for an LGBT website on the Caracas gay scene a couple of weeks ago– and how the election season put a damper on exploring Caracas’s nightlife.  It’s not my typical foreign policy analysis, but perhaps some of you will enjoy it nonetheless if you ever find yourselves with a free night in Venezuela’s capital.


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CARACAS, Venezuela — Perched in a valley of a mountain range that runs along the Caribbean coast on the northern rim of South America, Caracas isn’t exactly the first thing you think of when you think gay destination.Venezuela Flag Icon

But you’d be surprised at how much fun life could be in the capital of the Bolivarian Republic — Sean Penn can’t be completely wrong, right?

My chief obstacle was the ley seca, the dry law that went into effect at 6 p.m. Friday night in advance of last Sunday’s election.   Nothing kills a South American party faster than public teetotaling, though Venezuelans had figured how to circumvent that law fairly discreetly after a similar dry spell following the death of former president Hugo Chávez and another during semana santa (Holy Week).  But the state of things left nightlife a bit more subdued than it would have otherwise been.

Being stuck in Caracas during election season isn’t all bad, though.  In a society that now, more than ever, is incredibly political polarized, gay life is one of the few parts of Venezuelan society where chavistas — the followers of Chávez and his successor, president-elect Nicolás Maduro — mix with opposition supporters.

Unlike in the United States, both sides court the gay demographic, and early in the most recent campaign, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles lashed out at Maduro for using homophobic language to slur Capriles (he’s called Capriles a ‘little princess’), arguing that there’s no place for the kind of machismo language that ostracizes and excludes gay Venezuelans.  Despite Maduro’s language, the Venezuelan government hasn’t been wholly bad for LGBT rights.  Chávez’s 1999 constitution attempted to include language banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, though Chávez in 1999 outlawed discrimination by statute.

Capriles, for the record, is fairly easy on the eyes and incredibly fit, in contrast to either Maduro or Chávez.  He’s also single, though he’s been linked to numerous women in the past, so don’t get any ideas.

Notwithstanding the pre-election ley seca, and the post-election tension, which continues even now to threaten Venezuela’s political stability, I still found some time to see the best of gay Caracas while covering the election and its policy issues.

Don’t expect Buenos Aires or Rio — Caracas isn’t a hard-dancing party town.  Instead, expect a surprisingly sophisticated mixed scene — the term in Caracas for the more gay-friendly scene is ‘en ambiente,’ but really the entire neighborhoods of Altamira and Chacao, as some of Caracas’s safest neighborhoods, come alive with a chill scene at night.  Forget what you’ve heard about the ‘murder capital’ of the world — Altamira and Chacao are walkable by night with the precautions you’d use in New York or Los Angeles.

I was lucky to have Julian Eduardo — a.k.a Stayfree — to show me around town.  He’s an icon of gay life in Caracas as one of the first Venezuelans to come out publicly, and he was for a while one of the hosts of a popular television show, ‘Noches de perros,’ making him one of the first openly gay figures on Venezuelan television.  He said that Caracas has become increasingly sensitive to LGBT issues over the past decade.  Though gay life in Venezuela may not be as out and proud as in countries like Argentina and Uruguay, which have both enacted gay marriage (Uruguay did so last week), gay life in Venezuela is a mellow thing, especially in the capital.

So, for instance, check out Puto Bar, which is Chacao’s answer to a hipster dive with great music, cheap drinks and a fun mixed, en ambiente scene where there’s usually even more action outside among the smoking area than inside with the night’s live set.  There were quite a few boys with some assets worth, ahem, expropriating, faster than you can say ‘Mister Danger.’ Continue reading Gettin’ Raucous in Caracas

CNE agrees to 100% audit of Venezuelan votes


It’s been a testy week in Venezuela, to say the least, but the decision of the CNE (the National Election Council) to conduct a full audit of all of the votes in last Sunday’s election is an olive branch that could pull the country from the brink of tipping into violence and further instability.Venezuela Flag Icon

When I left Caracas on Tuesday afternoon, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles was canceling a planned rally on Wednesday after acting president Nicolás Maduro threatened that Capriles would not be allowed to hold the rally, accused Capriles and the opposition of trying to mount a coup against him, warned that he would respond to the opposition with a firm hand, all the while arguing that Capriles was the person inciting violence.

Wednesday was hardly any less tense, with Leopoldo López claiming that arrest warrants had been issued against him and Capriles, the chief justice of Venezuela’s top court, Luisa Estella Morales, ruled out a manual recount of all of the votes, and National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello refused to allow any opposition deputies to speak until they recognized Maduro’s victory as legitimate.

But late yesterday, the CNE’s decision came even as Maduro himself flew to Lima for a short emergency meeting of UNASUR (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas, or the Union of South American Nations), which recognized Maduro’s victory, despite issuing a stern call for peace.  It seems likely that the CNE decision may have been urged on by pressure from UNASUR, though that’s mere conjecture.

Maduro’s inauguration will proceed today as planned, though opposition officials will not attend.

Capriles has welcomed the CNE’s decision, though the CNE itself says the process of auditing results may take up to a month.  For now, though, both sides are backing away from a very fraught five days:

Capriles explained that the announced audit of 46% of the remaining ballots represents 12,000 ballot boxes approximately. “Irregularities will be found in those 12,000 boxes,” he noted.

The opposition leader stressed that the audit shall include the verification of fingerprints, the recount of ballots, and the review of tally sheets and voters’ lists.

One of the key issues is determining how many votes Capriles received abroad — his campaign claims that he won 55,000 votes to just around 3,500 for Maduro.  That’s not enough to make up the difference between the two (Maduro officially won 7.575 million votes to just 7.303 million for Capriles), but it could narrow the gap.  It’s widely believed, however, that many of the votes abroad won’t make it back to Caracas — Hugo Chávez prior to the 2012 vote closed the Miami consulate, forcing south Florida Venezuelans to travel all the way to New Orleans to register their votes.

It seems fairly unlikely that a very pro-chavista CNE would countenance enough wrongdoing to hand the presidency to Capriles, so I don’t know what the endgame is here.  Though Maduro may well have won on a purely numerical count, it’s impossible to know how many votes were bought, coerced or otherwise wrung out of an electoral machine that’s blurred the lines among the state, the state-owned oil company and the governing Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela).

So the most likely scenario is that a long, drawn-out audit confirms Maduro as the winner.  That doesn’t mean Capriles has ‘lost’ in the full sense of the word, necessarily — he’s brought chavismo to the brink of defeat, and Maduro’s weak mandate is for the continuity of chavismo, not for Maduro’s leadership in its own right.  So it will likely be a very grim denouement for chavismo between now and 2019 — and the opposition will likely continue to grow in stature prior to 2015 parliamentary elections and a potential 2016 recall election to oust Maduro.  In the meanwhile, schisms are likely to open within chavismo as Venezuela’s economy continues to worsen between those who want to double down on chavista-style socialism (or even more Cuban-style socialism) and those who want to reverse course.

It won’t be pretty, but for now, at least, it won’t be so ugly as to involve violence against opposition rallies.  Given where Venezuela started its week, that’s not the worst outcome — even if you think Capriles is the rightful winner of Sunday’s vote.

Chávez’s radical antics provide space for progressive Latin American left


In a piece for The National Interest today, I stepped back from the immediate issues surrounding Sunday’s presidential election and the fallout, increasingly tense, with challenger Henrique Capriles canceling a march today against potential fraud in the election and with president-elect Nicolás Maduro very much using the threat of state violence to shut down the opposition’s mobilization for a full recount.brazilVenezuela Flag Icon

It’s a piece I’d been hoping to write for some time, and I wish I’d published it sooner, but it’s still relevant given how much the late Hugo Chávez (pictured above in happier times with the late Argentine president Néstor Kirchner and former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) looms not only over Venezuela, but over all of Latin America.  I’ve written that his radical, anti-American antics have allowed other more moderate leftists in Latin America room to develop a truly progressive, social democratic movement for the first time ever, really.  Chávez, at home, transformed Venezuelan politics from a right-left contest to a battle between a more business-friendly, democratic left, as personified by Capriles, and a more socialist, militant leftism, as personified by Maduro.

I argue that Lula da Silva, in particular, has been incredibly canny in triangulating himself between the U.S. center of gravity and chavismo, exquisitely playing one against the other:

But the tidy duality of a moderate lulista left and a radical chavista left obscures the complex, often symbiotic relationship between the two forces. In particular, Lula da Silva was always incredibly cunning in using Chávez as a foil in hemispheric politics. Lula da Silva made three failed presidential bids prior to his election in 2002, fully four years after Chávez took power. By the time Lula da Silva took office, Chávez had arguably done more than anyone else in Latin America to make Lula da Silva seem moderate in contrast.

It’s certain that Lula’s vast social reforms would seem more radical—and may have met more domestic and international disapproval—if not for Chávez’s ad hoc expropriations and anticapitalist fulminations from Caracas. By giving Chávez his full support, he guaranteed especially kind treatment of Brazilian private interests in Venezuela, and his fervent support for Maduro in a taped endorsement earlier this month was provided in no small part to ensure kindness from a Maduro administration. Brazilian officials have already started casting aspersions on the Capriles camp, which has called for a full recount of the vote. But Lula da Silva’s support for Chávez also gently reminded U.S. diplomats that they had an interest in boosting the Brazilian model as a counterweight to the Venezuelan model throughout the region.


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.