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→
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→
Since 2004, Rafael Ramírez has served as the president of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PdVSA), the country’s state-owned oil company, and since 2002, Ramírez has served as Venezuela’s energy/oil minister.
That all changed on Tuesday, when president Nicolás Maduro announced a reshuffle of his government, the most significant since his controversial and narrow election in April 2013.
Ramírez, after Maduro and after Diosdado Cabello, the president of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), was the most powerful of the chavistas remaining in government in the aftermath of Hugo Chávez’s death almost exactly 18 months ago. Since that time, Ramírez became, in addition to PdVSA head and oil minister, vice president in charge of economic affairs.
A longtime old hand within chavismo, he was among the most pragmatic and moderate of the chavistas. Ramírez may have run Venezuela’s oil industry into the ground, and he may have been as corrupt as anyone in Venezuela’s government. But he didn’t radiate the kind of socialist, true-believer aura of other leading chavistas, such as former planning minister Jorge Giordani and former foreign minister Elías Jaua.
In the Maduro era, Ramírez endorsed reforms, such as reducing the gasoline subsidy that keeps the price of fueling Venezuelan cars lower than anywhere else in the world and otherwise liberalizing the economy, including with respect to the massively overvaluedbolívar.
Asdrúbal Chávez, the cousin of the late former president, will become the next oil minister, while PdVSA engineer and executive Eulegio Del Pino, a close Ramírez ally, will be the oil company’s next president.
Though he was simultaneously named foreign minister, it’s hard to see how Ramírez hasn’t suffered a demotion for a country where 97% of foreign earnings derive from oil. As PdVSA head, in particular, Ramírez controlled the most enviable element of Venezuelan economic policymaking — he controlled the profits. So while the move to foreign minister would be a promotion for many ambitious politicians, in Venezuela, it’s a way of sidelining Ramírez. Continue reading Ramírez demotion headlines Venezuela’s cabinet reshuffle→
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One key piece of data that I missed last night is the response of National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello (pictured above), who tweeted the following last night:
Profunda autocrítica nos obligan estos resultados, es contradictorio que sectores del Pueblo pobre voten por sus explotadores de siempre.
Deep self-criticism obliges us to note these results, and it’s contradictory that sectors of the poorest people have voted for their exploiters.
Cabello is the behind-the-scenes pragmatic bulldog of chavismo and he’s clearly the most relevant political leader within chavismo after the newly declared president-elect Nicolás Maduro. Given the narrow victory that Maduro won, he may well now be chavismo‘s most relevant political leader.
That makes his rather subdued statement an important touchstone for where Venezuela’s ruling part is headed, and it’s somewhat more subtle than the full-speed-ahead, at-full-volume victory speech that Maduro delivered Sunday night.
Some background: he served as the governor of Miranda state from 2004 to 2008 — opposition candidate Henrique Capriles got his start in national politics in 2008 when he ousted Cabello by a seven-point margin to become the governor of Miranda.
Cabello has since 2012 been the president of Venezuela’s Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), where the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and its allies control 96 seats to just 65 for the opposition.
If Maduro’s victory is not overturned following an audit of the election results, the next electoral test for chavismo will come in December 2015, when Venezuela holds its next scheduled parliamentary elections, and it seems fairly possible that Cabello and the PSUV could lose their majority.
CARACAS, Venezuela — You’d think in Caracas that the governing party were the PDVSA, not the PSUV.
But the state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., functions as much as any other organ in Venezuela in service of the government, formerly headed by Hugo Chávez and now, Nicolás Maduro.
Indeed, a stroll through Caracas finds the PDVSA brand saturates the city — much more than the nominal governing party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela). Here’s a PDVSA-branded hopscotch:
PDVSA (pronounce it ‘pay-duh-vay-suh’) was founded in 1976 when then-president Carlos Andrés Pérez nationalized the oil industry at the height of an oil boom the likes of which Venezuela had never seen. Venezuela’s oil industry began in 1914 when the first oil well was drilled in Mene Grande, in western Zulia. It began exporting petroleum by 1918, and that soon eclipsed an economy once based largely on cacao and coffee — though cacao production was dwindling in the early 20th century, Venezuela exported more coffee than any country in the world other than neighboring Brazil.
Venezuela was the world’s leading oil exporter by the end of the 1920s — Caracas was known as ‘the gas station south of Florida.’ We think of the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) as a largely Middle Eastern cartel today, but it was founded in large part in 1960 on the initiative of Venezuelan energy minister Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, who helped create it after reaching out to his ministerial counterparts in Saudi Arabia.
Through the next 40 years, Venezuela’s fortunes rose and fell with global oil price, but PDVSA remained relatively at arm’s length from the government — it paid income taxes and royalties to the government, as well as dividends (because it’s entirely state-owned).
This continued even after Chávez was elected — until 2002, that is, when Chávez attempted to take control of PDVSA, leading to a rebellion/coup attempt and a general strike among PDVSA employees later that year. Chávez, as it turns out, simply fired most of the offenders, and over the past 11 years, PDVSA has become essentially an arm of the government, which itself increasingly became an organ of chavismo.
So PDVSA employees today wear red, the color of chavismo, and over the past decade, PDVSA has been a direct contributor of funds to social programs, bypassing the formal channels of government — and also incurring its own liabilities (indeed, the IMF’s estimate of Venezuela’s public debt of around 51% includes PDVSA debts as well).
Whatever the benefits to deploying that capital for social welfare programs (and I’m not arguing for or against), it means there’s simply less capital to maintain production or develop new avenues for refining oil.
Rafael Ramírez, a loyal chavista, was appointed minister of energy and petroleum in 2002 and PDVSA’s president in 2004. If Maduro wins the election, it’s expected that Ramírez will stay in place — and so will continuity in oil policy under the Maduro administration. If Maduro replaces Ramírez, however, it could be an indication that he wants to shake up some of his predecessor’s policies.
CARACAS, Venezuela — On April 11, 2002, a large band of opposition supporters marched on Miraflores — the presidential palace — were met by chavista supporters, and exchanged gunfire meters from where Hugo Chávez and his advisers were sitting. A handful of protestors died and ultimately, in the following hours, Hugo Chávez left power for 47 hours. Right-wing businessman Pedro Cardona shortly took occupation of Miraflores, though his suspension of the National Assembly and failure to secure the support of Venezuela’s army slowly isolated him, and the Venezuelan army itself restored Chávez to power on April 14.
On April 11, 2013, exactly 11 years later, Chávez’s supporters, having freshly mourned their fallen leader last month, will mark the final day of the snap presidential campaign in a massive rally for his successor, acting president Nicolás Maduro, throughout Caracas.
I don’t want to spend too much time rehashing what’s now become history, legend, and political fodder. It’s famously difficult to know just exactly what happened back in 2002, whether it was technically a full golpe (a coup d’etat) or not, the full role of the army in both pushing Chávez (briefly) from power and restoring him, who opened gunfire on whose orders, or even how many people died. But it came in a particularly tense year of transition, and it’s generally accepted that the coup — much like the general strike later that year — came as a result of Chávez’s ultimately successful attempt to assert control over the state-owned oil company, Petroleós de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA).
The quintessential film on the subject, despite its pro-Chávez leanings, is a documentary, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, shot by an Irish film crew that just happened to be in Miraflores working on a piece about Chávez when the April 11 events rapidly spun out of control.
Another account — one that I think gets closer to the heart of the matter, despite the fact that it’s written by someone who has decidedly anti-Chávez sentiments, comes from Francisco Toro, one of the authors of the Caracas Chronicles blog, which posits that both Chávez and his opponents, having played brinksmanship games for months, finally went too far, leaving the Venezuelan army in the middle to keep both sides from escalating the bloodshed that day.
Though it’s eleven years later, and there haven’t been any coup or near-coup attempts since, it’s not without some irony that the anniversary hangs over Venezuela tensely three days before voters decide whether to reward chavismo with another six years in office or to turn to opposition alternative Henrique Capriles.
There’s been some discussion in the Venezuelan media over whether the armed forces are being deployed to help get out the vote for the governing Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela), though military officials have backtracked from that claim in recent days. Capriles in an interview with El Universal earlier this week forcefully argued that Maduro and the PSUV should respect the election results, and cautioned that the armed forces would be responsible to ensure a peaceful transition. Though Chávez managed to commingle politics into every aspect of the state — from PDVSA to the central bank to state government — the military has retained relatively more of a patina of independence from politics than other state institutions.
Polls, which are not quite accurate in Venezuela, gave Maduro an edge in the leadup to the election, but that doesn’t mean Capriles is hopeless — he won a tough reelection as the governor of Miranda state in an otherwise dismal set of regional elections in December 2012 after placing just 11% behind Chávez in the October 2012 election — a better showing than any of Chávez’s rivals stretching back to 1998. Maduro is no Chávez, and since the 2012 presidential election, Venezuela’s economy has only gotten worse, and there’s been no appreciable improvement in the standard of living, some of the continent’s worst crime and power shortages throughout the country.
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)?
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.