Venezuela: Things to Note Before They Vote

imgresFor over a decade, foreign discourse on Venezuela rarely occurred without a reference to its leader, Hugo Chavez. While the policies of Chavismo were certainly divisive, the death of Chavez has coincided with rising instability in the country, leaving many to wonder over its trajectory in the coming few years.

After acting as foreign minister since 2006, Nicolas Maduro came to power following Chavez’ death in March 2013.[i] Maduro won by only a narrow margin, and his popular support has waned in the face of a veritable economic crisis, which has sparked lengthy waits for basic goods.[ii] Now, with parliamentary elections set for December 6, it is clear that Venezuela is in crisis. His tenure marred by public protest and his hold on power in jeopardy, Maduro is cracking down on opposition leaders, which bodes ill for any kind of smooth transfer of political power.[iii]

The next few months leading up to the elections will be crucial for determining Maduro’s chances of retaining power in parliament. His success or failure from here on out is tied to three points of contention: Venezuelan relations with Colombia, the state of the economy, and the fate of the opposition.

Although Colombia is no longer the problematic centre of illegal activity that prompted Plan Colombia, it has been a difficult neighbour for Venezuela, whose leadership has responded in kind. For Venezuela, the smuggling of its subsidized goods into Colombia has long exacerbated economic difficulties. Tensions between the two countries came to a head on August 19, when the Venezuelan government launched an intervention at the Colombian border, closing checkpoints in an effort to stop smugglers from crossing. Moreover, tactics such as raids and telephone wire taps were used without judicial approval.[iv] According to Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo, approximately 3,800 Colombians were expelled from Venezuela from early 2015 until the August border conflict, which implies muted hostilities prior to the intervention.[v] However, the tune changed after leaders of the two disputing nations met in Quito in September. Colombian officials admitted that Venezuela’s actions have reduced crime along the border, and both countries conceded to work together to “normalize” relations.[vi]

While such border control is necessary to make Venezuelan subsidies meaningful, these measures provide a distraction from growing internal opposition to Maduro and his economic policies. Colombians can be conveniently used as an internal enemy, and as long as this is done skilfully, relations between the two countries can remain relatively peaceful. Maduro has two options when dealing with this situation: he can either heighten tensions by using Colombians as economic scapegoats, or use a new agreement with Colombia to show his strength in tackling such problems as smuggling. The key aspect to watch here will not be the conflict itself, but whether the Venezuelan public responds favourably or not to Maduro’s actions.

It is the economy, however, that is the main point of contention for Venezuelans. Ever since the death of Chavez, phantom reports have trickled into Western publications about food shortages and public unrest. Over time, conditions have only worsened, with lengthy waits and increasing prices for staple goods such as bread and milk.[vii] The government refuses to release comprehensive data, but a combination of the country’s economic policies and of falling oil prices have given it a rate of inflation estimated to be the highest in the country’s history and even in the world.[viii] Furthermore, Venezuela’s economy and its resources to fund social programs are highly dependent on oil revenues.[ix] This lack of economic diversification has backed the country into a corner.

While the black market has ballooned and Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar, has been severely devalued, government officials have pinned the blame on discriminatory American policies.[x] Maduro’s government sees the opposition as the embodiment of foreign influence, and while these claims may be exaggerated, they strike a chord with the populist base of Chavismo politics. After all, the people that continue to support Maduro are those who have gained the most from the policies of Chavismo. These are working class citizens who have witnessed a growth in education and welfare spending under Chavez, which has enabled them to play a more active role in Venezuelan life.

This demographic’s reaction to the crisis is of greatest political importance. In the face of a stonewalling state and a scathing elite opposition, will the loyalty to Chavismo survive when the economic costs temporarily outweigh the benefits? The extent to which the government will fail to provide basic services will continue to worsen, and as the Corruption Perceptions Index grants Venezuela a score of 161/175 (meaning that Venezuelans perceive state corruption to the same degree as citizens of Yemen, Angola, Haiti, and Guinea-Bissau), it seems that the Venezuelan public is aware of these shortcomings.[xi] The rate of economic decline, coupled with the tenacity of Chavismo, will prove to be the second factor that can lead to Maduro’s removal from parliamentary power in December.

Finally, Venezuela’s opposition has a complex history, which plays a pivotal role in determining the future of Venezuelan politics. Cannon characterizes the opposition as one that, throughout Chavez’s tenure as president, moved toward greater institutionalization within party and electoral structures.[xii] With the recent economic difficulties, however, opposition leaders and grassroots groups alike have moved in the opposite direction, choosing revolts and protests to make their voices heard. Last year in the Venezuelan city of San Cristobal, university students took to the streets in a series of protests that engaged the general population and lasted for several months. According to former Mayor Daniel Ceballos, there were over 100 barricades, with at least 40% of the city affected. The protests ended with 43 dead and hundreds more injured. This year, a fourteen-year-old student was killed with a rubber bullet fired by police during a protest, and blame for such actions has been put on both sides.

The government’s response has also included the imprisonment of prominent opposition leaders. The most recent high profile case is that of Leopoldo Lopez, who was sentenced to almost fourteen years in prison for charges including conspiracy, incitement of violence, and damage of public property during his alleged participation in the 2014 protests. While this outcome is a blow to personal freedoms in the country, Lopez’s party is part of an opposition coalition that Jesús Torrealba, leader of the coalition, says has been united as a result.[xiv] Yet Lopez is not the only one affected, and so the political outcomes of these manoeuvres are thus unclear. Other cases include Manuel Rosales, a former presidential candidate, who was arrested on October 16 on charges of embezzlement. Moreover, former Mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma was arrested last February, while opposition leader Maria Corina Machado has been barred from taking political office.[xv] While this does not bode well for Maduro’s willingness to conduct free and fair elections, it may serve to further unite the opposition and convince those on the fence that the abuse of power can no longer be tolerated.

Maduro’s predecessor was a similarly contentious figure, albeit one with greater political and emotional clout. However, scholars are divided over whether Venezuela under Chavez was a democracy, an autocracy, or something in between.

In Democratic Careening, Dan Slater argues that while democracy was weakened by the lack of constraints on Chavez’s power, it was strengthened by increased public participation, education, and mobilization. Additionally, although Chavez removed some beneficial institutions, he effectively dismantled Venezuela’s oppressive oligarchy.[xvi] Kurt Weyland, on the other hand, notes that Venezuela has digressed to competitive authoritarianism, and he sees this as a danger to the region due to the popularity for the type of structural change Chavez tried to effect.[xvii]

Like a certain subset of North Americans, I have always found it difficult to pillory Chavez, despite his populist, and at times undemocratic, style of rule. As the opposition eschewed democratic tactics while Chavez directed state funds to provide for vulnerable citizens with health, welfare, and education spending, it seemed that he was a viable answer to the neoliberal policies that have harmed Latin America in the past.

However, I feel no such compunction in articulating my ardent hope that Venezuela’s legislative body becomes dominated by the opposition. Maduro’s ramping up of tensions with Colombia and his abuse of democracy in incarcerating his opponents are unwise policy decisions, perhaps meant to account for his inability to provide for his own people. The root causes of current economic conditions, including the lack of economic diversification and increasing inflation rates, may predate him. Yet, his refusal of economic restructuring or revitalization is incomprehensible given the conditions, and as such ultimately condemning.

In the next few months, keep your eye on Venezuela. We may be witnessing a crippling blow to one of Latin America’s most ambitious projects of egalitarianism. The early signs of what is to come point to instability, but it is the specific dynamics at play right now that will affect what happens next, and how the country will move forward.

[i] “Venezuela’s Leader Nicolas Maduro Divides Opinion.” BBC News, January 15, 2015.

[ii] Wallace, Arturo. “San Cristobal: The Birthplace of Venezuela’s Protests.” BBC News, March 7, 2014.

[iii] Reuters. “Venezuelan Opposition Leader Leopoldo Lopez Jailed,” 9–11, 2015, sec. World.

[iv]Cómo Se Originó El Conflicto Entre Colombia Y Venezuela. #EnPocasPalabras, 2015.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] “Colombia: ‘Crime Drops’ after Venezuela Border Operation.” BBC News. Accessed October 19, 2015.; “Colombia y Venezuela restablecen relaciones en seguridad.” El Universo, October 2, 2015.

[vii] Nagel, Juan Cristobal. “Looking Into the Black Box of Venezuela’s Economy.” Foreign Policy, July 13, 2015.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Alvarez, Cesar J., and Stephanie Hanson. “Venezuela’s Oil-Based Economy.” Council on Foreign Relations, February 9, 2009.

[x] “Venezuela’s Leader Nicolas Maduro Divides Opinion.” BBC News, January 15, 2015.

[xi] “2014 Corruption Perception Index: Results.” Transparency International, 2015.

[xii] Cannon, Barry. “As Clear as MUD: Characteristics, Objectives, and Strategies of the Opposition in Bolivarian Venezuela.” Latin American Politics and Society 56, no. 4 (December 1, 2014): 49–70. doi:10.1111/j.1548-2456.2014.00248.x.

[xiii] Reuters. “Venezuelan Opposition Leader Leopoldo Lopez Jailed,” 9–11, 2015, sec. World.

[xiv] Brodzinsky, Sibylla. “Venezuela Opposition Braces for Challenging Election after Leader’s Jailing.” The Guardian, September 12, 2015, sec. World news.

[xv] “En Venezuela, detuvieron a un líder opositor apenas volvió del exilio.” La Nacion. October 16, 2015.

[xvi] Slater, Dan. “Democratic Careening.” World Politics 65, no. 4 (2013): 729–63.

[xvii] Weyland, Kurt. “The Threat from the Populist Left.” Journal of Democracy 24, no. 3 (2013): 18–32. doi:10.1353/jod.2013.0045.