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.
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→
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.
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.
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).
I write Friday for The National Interest a follow-up post on Venezuela’s legislative elections.
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.
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.
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→
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.
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→
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.
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.
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.
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.
Venezuela remains in somewhat of a twilight zone following Sunday’s election — CNE (the National Election Commission) has declared Nicolás Maduro the winner by a narrow margin, but opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has refused to concede until a full audit of all of Sunday’s votes has been conducted.
The following days will put a brighter spotlight on Venezuela’s opposition than at any time since the early 2000s. The last broad opposition coalition, Coordinadora Democrática, disbanded in 2004 when it lost a referendum in August 2004 to recall Hugo Chávez from office by a lopsided margin of 59.1% to 40.6%.
Capriles (pictured above with Lara governor Henri Falcón)is the standard-bearer of a new, broader coalition — the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, the Democratic Unity Roundtable). The MUD formed in January 2008, and Capriles was selected overwhelmingly to lead it into the October 2012 presidential election against Chávez. His loss to Chávez was by a margin of nearly 11%, but it was a better performance than any presidential challenger to Chávez in 14 years.
Capriles and the MUD have a lot of hard decisions ahead.
The first involves whether they have hard information that Maduro and the chavistas falsified the vote. As Maduro had the state media, the state oil company, the public bureaucracy and then some behind him, Sunday’s election was far from fair, though Maduro may have nonetheless won an essentially free vote, despite reports of all sorts of dirty tricks. But in the poker game that’s taking place today in Venezuela, we don’t know whether the MUD is holding a straight flush or a pair of 7s.
That defines the broader second decision facing the MUD — regardless of whether it thinks it can prove electoral fraud, will it do so? Capriles has two options here.
There’s the Al Gore / Richard Nixon model, whereby he can concede defeat for the unity of the nation, notwithstanding difficult questions about the election that may well never be answered, as was the case in the 1960 and 2000 U.S. presidential elections.
There’s also the Andrés Manuel López Obrador / Mikheil Saakashvili model. This is a high-risk / high-reward model. If Capriles presses his case on all courts, the result could be like what followed Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, where Saakashvili mobilized popular opinion to dispute Eduard Shevardnadze’s fraudulent victory in the 2003 presidential election. But it could also be like the 2006 Mexican presidential election, when López Obrador fought an increasingly noisome battle against what most Mexicans concluded was a narrow but legitimate victory by Felipe Calderón.
But what is the MUD? So far, it’s been relatively united in the goal of bringing Venezuela’s chavismo chapter to an end, and it seems likely that the taste of victory in Sunday’s presidential election will fuel more unity. But it’s a far from homogenous coalition.
CARACAS, Venezuela — The national headquarters of Henrique Capriles on Friday morning buzzed with optimism, with less than 48 hours to go before polls open in a race that many have judged hopeless for the opposition.
In the wake of a rally in downtown Caracas last Sunday that brought hundreds of thousands of supporters to rally behind Capriles (without having to bus in massive numbers of supporters from across the country, as the chavista candidate Nicolás Maduro did in a similar rally on Thursday), and in the wake of a widely ridiculed comment by Maduro that a little bird told him that the spirit of Hugo Chávez blessed his campaign, Capriles campaign advisers are optimistic that their candidate has the momentum going into Sunday’s election, especially as voters realize the extent of Venezuela’s rapidly tumbling economy in recent months.
But Maduro, who is hoping to win a full term in his own right after the 14-year rule of his predecessor, Chávez, has everything else — the implicit support of the structure of the entire government, the armed forces, the state-owned oil company, plenty of resources, and significantly stronger media presence.
Though election law prohibits the publication of polls in the week prior to the election, polls are rumored to show Capriles closing a gap with Maduro — one such poll allegedly shows Maduro with a narrowing 55% to 45% lead, and Capriles’s internal polls show a massive swing as well. But whittling down Maduro’s lead and winning the election are two different things.
Leopoldo López, the former mayor of Chacao (one of five municipalities, and generally the ritziest, within Caracas) from 2000 to 2008, is one of the rising stars of the opposition. Chávez’s government barred López from running for office until 2014, a move that brought the censure of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In 2009, he founded Voluntad Popular, a centrist party that’s a member of the broad opposition coalition, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable).
‘I’m excited about change, I’m excited about the real possibility of winning, I’m excited about Venezuela opening a new cycle,’ Lopez said on Friday morning at Capriles headquarters. ‘The worries? What the government could do to put a stain on what will happen. This is not a regular election. This is not Bush-Clinton, this is not Candidate A versus Candidate B. This is a race against a state. I doubt there are other democracies where there are [such] clear differences in terms of the abuse of power. In this case, this is PDVSA, the state oil company, and the other powers of the state, against the people. But we have great faith the people will make the difference.’
The executive director of the MUD, Ramón Guillermo Aveledo (pictured above, with Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma and other top MUD officials at his right, rejected outlandish charges made in recent days at a press conference earlier today at Capriles headquarters as well.
In my earlier companion piece today, I discussed the policy case for electing Henrique Capriles as the next president of Venezuela in an attempt (however vain) to separate the emotional divide in Venezuela from the policy rationales that underline each candidacy.
Separating the policy from the personal is even more difficult in the case of Nicolás Maduro, however, whose campaign at every turn has been one massive embrace of Chávez, not only as a predecessor, but as nearly a deity in his own right. So far, the Maduro campaign begins and ends with ‘Chávez,’ and there’s no guarantee that once elected, Maduro would wield a sufficient personal mandate even to take sufficient control of Chávez’s Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela).
There’s frustratingly little substance as to what Maduro (pictured above) would do with a six-year presidency, let alone whether he could come to dominate a governing regime with a handful of key powerbrokers, such as energy minister Rafael Ramírez, finance minister Jorge Giordani, and national assembly president Diosdado Cabello, none of whom will easily step aside from their relative and significant fiefdoms in government.
But, as I asked with respect to Capriles earlier today, what policy arguments should motivate a moderate voter who enthusiastically supported Chávez in 1998 but who’s become increasingly disenchanted about the reality of Venezuelan governance and who may be flirting with supporting Capriles — is there a rational case for supporting Maduro over Capriles? Continue reading The policy case for Maduro in Venezuela→
Tuesday kicks off the official start of the campaign in Venezuela for the presidential election on April 14.
It’s a little artificial, given that the campaign really began unofficially the day that Hugo Chávez died and certainly both the pro-chavismo and opposition forces have been preparing for such a campaign since Chávez left for his final, unsuccessful round of treatment in Cuba.
Not surprisingly, much of the pre-campaign has been waged on visceral and emotional lines — the pro-/anti- chavismo debate in Venezuela has become inextricably so linked to personalities and identity politics that it’s often hard to step back and articulate the policy rationale for each candidate. Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate, has even stepped up his attacks against acting president Nicolás Maduro, in a much more insistent (even populist) tone than he ever took in his 2012 presidential campaign against Chávez.
That seems likely to intensify over the next 13 days.
But to the extent it’s possible to put aside the emotional in favor of policy, what policy arguments should sway, say, the moderate voter who enthusiastically supported Chávez in 1998 and well into the last decade but who has doubts about the performance of the government in recent years to make the jump to support Capriles (pictured above) and the broad Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD)?
If you already thought that Venezuela was the Turkmenistan of Latin American politics, you need no further proof than the latest stunt on Tuesday from acting president Nicolás Maduro.
In the clip below, Maduro has launched an oversized check up to the heavens to a grateful Hugo Chávez, representing the dividends received by CANTV, the Venezuelan telephone company that Chávez nationalized in 2007. It’s another great find from Caracas Chronicles, which has been on quite a roll in the post-Chávez era in covering Venezuelan politics:
‘!Vuela, Vuela!, ¡en homenaje al Comandante!,’ Maduro exclaims (‘Fly! Fly! In tribute to the comandante!’), as red balloons (red symbolizing the color most associated with Chávez) float the check of 1,800 million bolívars upward to the skies.
As outrageous as it seems, it’s part of a series of impressions that the post-Chávez era is featuring an even creepier cult of personality in Venezuela than when el comandante was alive.
It began with the plans — now apparently aborted — to embalm Chávez and place him on display, just like Vladimir Lenin is on display in Moscow or Mao Zedong is on display in Beijing. Those plans were belatedly phased out after officials determined that officials had waited too long after Chávez’s death in order to embalm him.
Then there are the over-the-top tributes like this, mingling the legacy of Chávez with that of Venezuelan founding father Simón Bolívar and other left-wing martyrs, and even Chávez’s Cuban benefactors have a thorough celebration of his life at Granma.
Maduro even joked (or was it a serious claim?) that Chávez, his place in heaven secured, nudged God to make Argentine cardinal Jose Maria Bergoglio the world’s first Latin American pope.
It wouldn’t surprise me if, like in Turkmenistan, Maduro started trying to rename the months of the calendar after Chávez — there’s even a snarky website, madurodice.com, that tracks the number of Maduro’s mentions of Chávez on the campaign pre-campaign trail.
But the massive miles-long queues of people waiting to pay tribute to Chávez in death, and an extremely elegant funeral that drew nearly every leader in Latin America from Chile to México, with a ley seca (dry law) implemented to keep life in Caracas especially a bit more subdued in the potentially challenging days following Chávez’s death should have been enough to mark the extremely oversized impact that Chávez played within Venezuela’s political system — and above all in the spoils system that funneled oil wealth from the government to its supporters, from top government officials on downward.
All of this and Venezuela’s formal campaign season doesn’t even kick off until April 1.
French public intellectual Bernard Henri-Lévy has already decried the growing chavismo cult of personality:
What is less known, something that we will regret overlooking as the posthumous cult of Chávez swells and grows more toxic, is that this “21st-century socialist,” this supposedly tireless “defender of human rights,” ruled by muzzling the media, shutting down television stations that were critical of him, and denying the opposition access to the state news networks.
For Chávez supporters, there are certainly myriad policy reasons to support Maduro in the upcoming election over challenger Henrique Capriles — like him or not, he fundamentally transferred Venezuela’s oil wealth to the poorest Venezuelans in amounts unknown in nearly a century of the country’s oil wealth. You can argue that Chávez’s redistribution of wealth has been inefficient, that his expropriations and other economic policies have left Venezuela mired in debt, a pariah of the global financial system and ill-prepared for the day that oil prices drop, and that other more moderate regimes from Perú to Brazil have notched records of poverty reduction just as impressive as — or more so than — Venezuela under chavismo. Continue reading In death, the Chávez cult has become even creepier→
Just days after the death of longtime Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, his previous opponent in the 2012 election, Henrique Capriles, lost no time in taunting acting president Nicolás Maduro:
Nicolás, nobody elected you president. The people didn’t vote for you, kid.
It was quite a bit out of character for Capriles (pictured above), who often campaigned against Chávez, then ailing with the cancer that ultimately took his life, with kid gloves — after all, Chávez remained the beloved champion of Venezuela’s poor, and Capriles himself pledged to retain the misiones that provided education and health benefits in the event of his election.
In fact, Capriles’s sneering and taunting attitude was more reminiscent of Chávez, who never lost an opportunity for a little name-calling.
Although Capriles is reported to have seriously considered boycotting the election, he announced March 10 that he would accept the presidential nomination of the opposition coalition, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) with the kind of intensity that critics claimed his previous 2012 campaign lacked. In a fiery, nearly hour-long speech, he attacked the record of chavismo and pursued Maduro with a newfound aggression, challenging Maduro by his first name (¡Y tu, Nicolás…) and attacking the government’s handling of the constitutional succession and its performance since Chávez won reelection:
Maduro was hand-picked by Chávez as his new vice president and anointed as his preferred successor, and he has — for now — secured the support of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and much of the Venezuelan army, now sympathetic to the ruling chavista regime after 14 years of Chávez in power.
But from his newfound abilities in populist rhetoric and campaign aggression, it may well be Capriles who is becoming the true heir to Chávez.
For example, on March 10, in response to ‘homophobic’ slurs from Maduro, Capriles took the opportunity not only to deny them, but to make a full-throated attack on the machismo of the chavistas and to argue forcefully for social inclusion for all Venezuelans, no matter what their sexual orientation:
That takes a lot of brass — and perhaps it’s the kind of brass that comes from a campaign against Maduro that seems more doomed than the one last year.
The conventional wisdom is that Maduro will ride the wave of sympathy for Chávez to victory so soon after the funeral, and polls show that Maduro is leading Capriles, in some cases by a wider margin than the 11% victory Chávez won in 2011 (such as a recent Datanalysis poll that gives Maduro a 14-point lead).
Capriles has attacked the polls, too, arguing that the government are paying pollsters to show Maduro leading. True or not, it’s a classic play from the Chávez playbook — disregard the facts, and turn a negative into a way to attack your opponent.
What it means is that Capriles is running the kind of offensive campaign that Chávez ran throughout his career, and Maduro is running the kind of defensive, hesitant campaign that’s typically been associated with the opposition.
But regardless of whether Capriles has a chance to win, he’s now free to run against chavismo without having to run against the charismatic commandante himself.
After a setback for opposition forces in the regional and gubernatorial races in December 2012 (Capriles himself won reelection only narrowly against Elías Jaua, a well-financed former Chávez vice president), a feisty loss in the April 14 presidential election would not only energize the opposition, but keep it united and prepare it to take on the PSUV in parliamentary elections due in 2015.
Even more slyly, one of the subtle themes of the Capriles campaign is simply, ‘Maduro is no Chávez.’
The subtext here is that, even if you supported Chávez, and perhaps especially if you supported Chávez, you don’t necessarily need to support Maduro, who doesn’t measure up to Chávez. Capriles has argued that Maduro, in less than a hundred days as the de facto acting president during Chávez’s terminal illness, has already begun to dismantle the achievements of the Chávez era.
That’s one reason Capriles has been so aggressive in attacking Maduro’s February devaluation of the bolívar, Venezuela’s currency, which lowered its value by 32%. Maduro doubled down this week, however, announcing a second devaluation that is expected to cut even more deeply into the value of the currency, and a new foreign exchange system to assist importers acquire increasingly rare U.S. dollars. The devaluations are also designed to cut a budget deficit that swelled in 2011 and 2012 in advance of Chávez’s reelection, despite abundant oil wealth.
It’s also why Capriles has gone on the offensive about cutting subsidies to Cuba — it’s widely believed that Maduro was Havana’s preference as Chávez’s successor, hoping that Maduro’s election will secure the uninterrupted flow of oil subsidies, cheap credit and other goodies to the Castro regime. Again, the anti-Cuba rhetoric is subtle way of reclaiming nationalism at the expense of Maduro’s relatively weaker position. Capriles would never have been able to attack the nationalist bona fides of Chávez, the 21st century champion of ‘bolivarian’ revolution. Not so with Maduro.
Consider, too, this television advertisement from the Capriles campaign yesterday — although it’s only a simple 21-second spot, it’s a harsh indictment of chavismo that lists five reasons for change: violence, power outages, expropriations, deficient hospitals and lack of water:
Capriles may well still lose the election because the wall of sympathy for Chávez was always going to be too high to surmount.
But make no mistake, Capriles is certainly waging a more spirited campaign than anyone every really anticipated — it may not be enough to win the election, but it may well make it a far closer run than the chavista regime would have liked. That, in turn, will lay the groundwork for a future challenge if Maduro wins and conditions deteriorate in advance of parliamentary elections or before the next presidential election in 2018.
But as Francisco Toro, of the always-insightful Caracas Chronicles writes today in The New York Times, politics has not stopped simply because the 14-year leader has died:
And now, Chávez’s hand-picked successor is telling the man’s grieving followers that we — those who disagree with him — are responsible for the illness that took his life.
Within hours of the president’s death being announced, gangs of motorcycle-riding Chávez supporters burned down an encampment where opposition-minded students had been demanding that the government tell the truth about his condition. Rumors of riots circulated feverishly on Twitter throughout Tuesday evening, still unverified.
Maduro, for now at least, seems to have firmly grasped control of the government, including the immediate support of the Venezuelan military, and the parallel power structures of Chávez’s governing Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela).
Foreign minister Elías Jaua (former vice president), who announced that Maduro was taking over as acting president, seems to be on board the Maduro bandwagon, and Cuba has long thought to have favored Maduro as Chávez’s successor (incidentally, one of the most fascinating aspects of the past three months and the months ahead is the role that Cuba plays in Venezuelan governance).
There’s a chance that Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly, could attempt to win the presidential nomination, but that seems unlikely, at least today. Time will tell.
Under the Venezuelan constitution, Maduro must call an election within 30 days of Chávez’s death but, as Diego Moya-Ocampos noted last month in Americas Quarterly, it’s not clear whether Maduro must call the election to be held within 30 days or whether Maduro must make the announcement within 30 days.
In one instance, Venezuela faces a presidential election on or before April 5. In another instance, Venezuela faces an election anytime over the course of 2013, conceivably, so long as it is announced before April 5. My first instinct is that Maduro will want to schedule the election as quickly as possible — to take advantage of lingering sympathy for Chávez and the legacy of his ‘Bolivarian’ project, to subdue intraparty rivals such as Cabello and to avoid giving the opposition a chance to develop support over a long campaign, especially at a time when so many problems are so visible: Venezuela’s economy remains in shaky condition, shortages and outages are commonplace and the country’s violent crime remains, as ever, some of the worst in the Western hemisphere.
Chávez’s former opponent, Henrique Capriles (pictured above), is assumed to become the candidate who will challenge Maduro in the upcoming presidential election to determine Chávez’s successor — he was the candidate of the unified opposition umbrella group, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), in the October 2012 presidential election.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has died today at age 58 after a long battle with cancer, and that sets off a snap 30-day campaign to select his successor.
Putting aside politics and policy for a moment, it is clear that Chávez commanded a huge amount of support among the 29 million residents of Venezuela. Though many critics, both within Venezuela and outside the country, especially in the United States, found his style of populist ‘bolivarian’ socialist government offensive, his largest legacy may well be addressing poverty in Venezuela after decades of leaders ignored Venezuela’s poorest– and even lift many Venezuelans out of poverty with massive amounts of social welfare spending on health, education and other support through his misiones, though we’ll leave for another day the question of whether that spending, based largely on Venezuelan natural resources and high global demand for oil, is sustainable in the long run.
It’s a testament to Chávez’s influence that Henrique Capriles, his opponent in the October 2012 presidential election, campaigned on a basis of retaining many of the misiones. Although Chávez won reelection with nine-point victory over Capriles, the opposition made clear to Venezuelans that, to some degree, ‘we’re all chavistas, now.’ (follow all of Suffragio‘s coverage here).
His legacy will also be one of a troubling, divisive, oppressive autocrat — an erratic style of rule that diminished press freedom and blurred the line between the military, the government and politics. Although elections remained free in Venezuela under Chávez, his mobilization of government to support his political survival meant that elections weren’t necessarily fair. He also championed an anti-imperialist style that antagonized the United States and other Western governments (he famously called former U.S. president George W. Bush ‘Mister Danger‘ and a donkey), seeking instead common cause with countries like Iran and other rogue states.
But Chávez’s health — which was always an issue, however muted, during the campaign — took a turn for the worse after his reelection. He departed for Cuba very soon after the election for cancer treatment, missing his own re-inauguration, and really since the day he was reelected, Venezuela’s been trapped in a bit of political paralysis with a president on what turned out to be his deathbed.
Upon reelection, Chávez was scheduled to have remained in office through January 2019; now that he’s died in office, Venezuela faces a snap election to be held within 30 days.
That’s right — Chávez’s successor will be chosen by April 5.
Before leaving for treatment in Cuba, Chávez appointed a new vice president, former foreign minister Nicolás Maduro, and anointed him specifically as his successor. That means Maduro is likely to lead Chávez’s ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela) into the snap election, though it’s possible that Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly, could attempt to win the presidential nomination. Given the outpouring of sympathy for Chávez, though, and the suddenness of the election, that seems unlikely.
I’ll note that Cabello himself is far from Caracas today, dealing with the death of his own mother, Felicia de Cabello, which makes the timing of Chávez’s own death perhaps suspicious.
Though Cabello may command more support within the PSUV ranks, Cuba’s leadership is thought to back Maduro, and that’s likely to be a hugely determinative factor in the days to come — one of the key questions is the role that the Cuban government of Raúl Castro has played in Venezuela’s governance in the past couple of months while Chávez has been incapacitated.
His recent opponent, Capriles, was narrowly reelected as the governor of Miranda, Venezuela’s second-most populous state, in the state elections in December 2012, and so the dynamics of the snap elections, held so closely after the previous presidential election, means that Capriles, the highest-ranking official from within the broad opposition coalition, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), will likely be its candidate — and we’ll be asking once again whether Capriles defeat chavismo, this time without Chávez. Again, the governor of Lara state, Henri Falcón, himself a former chavista, might also emerge as a potential challenger, though with such a short presidential campaign, Capriles has more national name recognition and the ability to mobilize a rapid campaign team, and the opposition will surely see this as their best opportunity to take power in the past 13 years.
I’m not sure what the next 30 days will bring.
We could see infighting over the nomination from both the PSUV or the MUD or we could see very rapid alignment in light of the election ahead.
We could see Venezuelans turn away from the chavistas without their charismatic leader, with Venezuela’s economy sputtering and with the most credible opposition in years providing a compelling alternative government. We could also see a wave of sympathy for the long-ailing Chávez sweep his chosen successor Maduro into power.
Although for now the military has vowed loyalty to Maduro, meaning that there’s no imminent threat of a coup, will the military, now fully integrated into Chávez’s political empire, even allow a fully free and fair election in 30 days that could result in the election of an opposition candidate? We just don’t know.
For now, it’s enough to note Chávez’s passing, note his complicated legacy to Venezuela and to the world, and hope for the most peaceful and seamless transition possible for the people of Venezuela.