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Across Latin America, economic growth has stalled, social tensions are on the rise, and political systems are under strain. And one country is suffering more than any other: in Venezuela, worsening economic and political crises, mostly of the government’s own making, threaten the stability of the state with the world’s largest oil reserves.
Ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for December 6, Venezuelan President Nicolas Máduro, who took office after the death of Hugo Chávez in March 2013, is cracking down on opposition figures and engaging in reckless saber rattling with Venezuela’s neighbors Guyana and Colombia. The government is nervous that the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) could lose its majority in the National Assembly for the first time since Chávez came to power in 1999, with the opposition more united than in past campaigns. But whatever the outcome of the election, political stability will not come to Venezuela in the foreseeable future.
Venezuela’s troubles are evident on many fronts. Although reliable economic data are lacking, Venezuela’s inflation is estimated at 200 percent per year, the highest in the world, and the value of the country’s currency is spiraling downward. The International Monetary Fund now expects the economy to shrink by ten percent this year, and many experts believe a default on a mountain of foreign debt is likely in 2016. Basic goods are unavailable or in short supply, forcing Venezuelans to spend hours in line to get milk or toilet paper. Looting has become common, and soldiers patrol supermarkets. Rates of violent crime, long a concern, have worsened as large, well-armed gangs control vast swaths of the country. Caracas now has one of the world’s highest murder rates.
Maduro seems paralyzed by the country’s problems. His attempts to put the economy in order and curb crime have been misguided and fruitless. Ineptitude is, however, only part of the problem. Maduro is the product of a governmental structure imposed by Chávez that relies upon the rule of a single leader. Chávez, the comandante, made all key decisions and possessed the political skills, charisma, and money—the price of oil rose from less than $10 per barrel to over $140 during his rule but has now dropped dramatically–that Maduro lacks. The result is disorder, indecision, and improvisation, combined with a desperate search for domestic and international scapegoats.
On the international stage, recent developments have further weakened Maduro’s standing. With the price of oil expected to remain low for the foreseeable future, the era of Venezuela’s regional influence, which reached its heyday under Chávez, is over. Today, an association with Chavismo has become a political liability for leftist parties across Latin America. The regional entity Chávez created to curtail U.S. influence—the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our Americas—is in shambles.
Moreover, the rapprochement between Washington and Havana, highlighted at the recent UN General Assembly, has been disconcerting for Maduro. The alliance between Venezuela and Cuba—and especially between Chávez and former Cuban President Fidel Castro–had been a key feature of the region’s geopolitical landscape, with Venezuela once supplying roughly 100,000 barrels of oil daily to help sustain the Cuban economy in exchange for thousands of Cuban doctors and, reportedly, close intelligence cooperation. Although the countries remain allies, Cuban President Raúl Castro is now pursuing greater engagement with the United States. Without the ideological backing of Cuba, anti-U.S. rhetoric coming from Caracas is less resonant in the region. Elsewhere in the area, Maduro has reignited old territorial claims against Guyana, and has accused Colombian “paramilitary forces” of promoting violence in Venezuela, closing much of the border between the two countries.
Like the regime’s provocations on Venezuela’s borders, Maduro’s crackdown on opposition figures seems to be an attempt to distract attention from the nation’s unremitting economic woes. On September 11, Leopoldo López, an opposition leader charged with inciting violence who was arrested following massive antigovernment street protests in February 2014, was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison in a proceeding that failed to meet minimal standards of justice and due process. López is one of roughly 80 political prisoners in Venezuela.
Although elections take place (in the 2013 presidential vote, opposition figure Henrique Capriles Radonski came within two points of Maduro), the government’s control of key institutions such as the judiciary and the electoral council means that the playing field is far from level. The government has employed its power to gerrymander, disqualify opposition candidates, and manipulate rules in its favor. The regime’s recent tactics are aimed at unifying hard-core Chavistas, deepening divisions within the opposition, and instilling fear and discouraging turnout for the elections. There is no evidence, however, that these moves are producing their intended effects. On the contrary, they may have inadvertently converted López into a martyr and rendered Maduro increasingly isolated in the region.
Even worse for Maduro, the opposition, whose leaders have in the past been divided by strategic disagreements and personal tensions, is now presenting a united list of candidates for the December vote. According to Datanalisis and other pollsters, Maduro has good reason to worry. His personal approval rating has dropped to 22 percent, and almost three-quarters of Venezuelans think the government has performed poorly. The opposition, whose vehicle is the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática), or MUD, polls over 20 points higher than the government. If the elections are clean and these numbers persist until December, the opposition should easily gain control of the assembly.
For many Venezuelans, the lack of an alternative plan may rekindle memories of governments before Chávez that were typically indifferent to the country’s social needs.
Maintaining the unity of the opposition will not, however, be easy. The opposition–which is formed by different parties of various ideological stripes—has yet to develop a coherent and imaginative agenda that addresses the country’s many crises and appeals to the still substantial sections of the population that profess allegiance to Chavismo. For many Venezuelans, the lack of an alternative plan may rekindle memories of governments before Chávez that were typically indifferent to the country’s social needs.
Yet Maduro’s isolation has not increased the pressure on his government to ensure that the December 6 elections are reasonably fair. In general, South American governments have been passive in the face of Venezuela’s degeneration. Given the stakes involved, there is understandably a great deal of concern about possible fraud. To date, despite continuous entreaties by Washington, there is no sign that the government will accept serious international election observers, including requests made by the Organization of American States. The Union of South American Nations–which is more sympathetic to the government of Maduro—will “accompany” the electoral process, but this hardly meets the criteria for a serious and credible observation effort.
It is hard to predict what will happen in Venezuela in the coming months. In light of Maduro’s highly unfavorable poll numbers, a clear victory for the government seems implausible. As a result, December is likely to represent a turning point, for better or worse. There is a chance, of course, that the election will be called off, but that would be costly for the government and bound to provoke a massive political crisis. The government may also attempt to take advantage of a lack of observers to steal the election outright, although few would find the results credible.
Even if clean elections are held and the opposition ends up in control of the assembly, the consequences are unclear. A healthier balance of political forces may emerge and produce pressure for more serious negotiations in the bitterly polarized nation, but it could also intensify political strife. In particular, the outgoing PSUV-controlled assembly could delegate all of its meaningful powers to Maduro, who would rule by decree, thus neutralizing the election results. At the same time, some analysts believe that a significant loss for the government would bring Maduro’s stormy rule to an end, with a possible intervention by the armed forces to replace him with another Chavista.
Heightened violent unrest cannot be ruled out. The consequences would be of enormous concern, for Venezuela and the entire region. Even in the most optimistic scenario, the vote on December 6 will not remedy the country’s worsening problems. But it may bring them to a head and, in doing so, offer a glimpse of hope amid the most severe crisis in Latin America’s recent past.