Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters during a meeting outside Miraflores Palace in Caracas, November 12, 2013.
Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Courtesy Reuters

Throughout the fall, things looked bad for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. His popularity was tanking; most Venezuelans blamed his government for the economic crisis that had been plaguing the country since the end of 2012. In just one year, inflation had soared from 20 percent to more than 50 percent, and shortages of electricity, food, and other essentials had become a part of everyday life. Efforts to control pandemic criminal violence hadn’t yielded significant results, either. The majority of Venezuelans believed that their country was headed in the wrong direction. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Maduro administration was set to lose the upcoming December 8 local elections -- and big time.

Then, at the beginning of November, Maduro launched an aggressive campaign to fix his image problems. He proclaimed an “economic war” against private businesses. He forced them to slash prices on their merchandise and urged the public to “empty the shelves.” Long lines of consumers have done exactly that, draining stores of electronics and appliances, clothing, and even toys. To be sure, Maduro’s campaign addressed the real needs of those looking to buy plasma TVs at rock-bottom prices, and it helped him take control of one of Venezuela’s biggest electronics importers. But he is gambling that his plan will be enough to convince the public that he is capable of steadying his country’s tumbling economy and protecting the interests of the disenfranchised. 

The long-term effects of Maduro’s populist strategy are yet to be seen. But the war on private businesses seems to have paid off in the short term. According to the latest polls, Maduro likely has the momentum he needs to win this weekend’s elections and give Chavismo a much-needed boost of energy. 

AFTER CHÁVEZ

Maduro is used to cutting it close. In 2012, a dying President Hugo Chávez bequeathed on Maduro a solid electoral majority, a party with an immense political propaganda machine, and the virulent rhetoric of Chavismo. To Chávez, Maduro was an obvious successor. He had been Chávez’s closest aide and had spent more time with Chávez than any other member of the inner circle during Chávez’s long treatments for cancer in Havana. But none of that came with charisma or strategic vision. In elections held just weeks after Chávez’s Pharaonic funeral, Maduro won merely 50.61 percent of the vote. 

Once in office, Maduro tried to undo the damage done by his tepid victory. His initial objective was to demobilize the opposition. He tried to do so in two ways: first, by convincing any would-be protesters that they would be targeted and that their leaders would bear the costs (including through imprisonment) and, second, by persuading civil and military Chavista elites that he wouldn’t tolerate any threats to the system that keeps them in power. After that, Maduro has attempted to strengthen his control of almost every facet of life in Venezuela. 

In April, just a few days after Maduro’s election, his government authorized the purchase of Globovisión, a small news station that was one of the opposition’s last media bastions, by a group of businessmen linked to the so-called boli-bourgeoisie, the economic class that has flourished under the protection of Chavismo. Since then, the opposition has virtually disappeared from TV screens. A march of thousands in Caracas two weeks ago, for example, went unreported. In 2013, there have been more than 160 reported attacks on journalists and media personnel. Most of the cases have been directly or indirectly linked to the government. And so Maduro has managed to manufacture an appearance of consent around his official version of reality.

In early September, Venezuela officially withdrew from the Human Rights Convention of the Organization of American States, thus preventing the Inter-American Court of Human Rights from addressing any violations in Venezuela. Chávez had announced the country’s retirement from the body in June 2012 after the court issued a ruling in favor of Raul Diaz, a Venezuelan whom the regime had accused of bombing the Caracas-based Embassy of Spain and Consulate of Colombia in 2003. The court found that Venezuela had treated him inhumanely while he was in prison.

At the end of last September, Maduro decreed the creation of the Strategic Center for the Defense of the Homeland (CESPPA), an intelligence and counterintelligence organization that is supposed to “foresee and neutralize potential threats to [Venezuela’s] vital interests.” CESPPA’s mission is to censor information and events that may be considered a threat to the country’s security. Opposition representatives have denounced the agency as an instrument for spying on them.

And finally, last month, Maduro asked Venezuela’s National Assembly to award him special powers to govern by decree. One of his first executive orders was to turn Chávez’s Plan de la Patria (Homeland Plan) into law. The plan, which Chávez first presented during his electoral campaign of 2012, is a road map for the construction of the socialist state. It aims to further the country’s independence and develop Venezuela as a regional superpower but also to preserve life on earth and save the human race. Maduro’s new law includes the creation of a system for training, organizing, and mobilizing the population to defend the homeland during a state of emergency.

For all his attempts to take power, however, Maduro’s grasp on Venezuela is still shaky. The reason is primarily economic. In February, as acting president, Maduro ordered a currency devaluation to try to put the brakes on the rising price of the dollar on the black market. Instead, its value shot up to ten times the official rate. Since then, Maduro’s inability to manage Venezuela’s economy has become even more apparent. According to the country’s central bank, international reserves are at their lowest since 2003, in the months after some pro-business elites and military officials attempted to push Chávez out of power and before a boom in oil prices allowed Chávez to create and finance a number of social programs to win mass appeal. 

Chávez might have been able to get away with economic incompetence. Thanks to the oil bonanza, he could always dip into state coffers to ensure public support. (In fact, he dipped into those coffers so often that he set the stage for today’s economic crisis.) Maduro can proclaim that he is the son of Chávez, but he has nothing to pay the public to get it to believe him. This year, Venezuelans have faced soaring prices and a scarcity of basic goods, such as sugar, milk, coffee, toilet paper, and medicine. Trips from one supermarket to the next in search of those products have given Venezuelans lots of time to think about Maduro’s economics.

SEIZING MOMENTUM

The opposition takes for granted that Chavistas will win most municipalities in this weekend’s elections. It nevertheless hopes to at least double its number of mayors and increase its vote share. A month ago, it had a good chance of doing so. But Maduro’s radicalism and war on prices have changed things. Luis Vicente León, president of Datanálisis, one of the most reliable polling firms, says that recent economic measures have helped Maduro’s image as leader and have motivated Chavista voters to go to the polls. (Both blocs expect low turnout, so their ability to mobilize voters will be the key factor in the result.) Time is of the essence, though. The public was more excited about the bargains before the stores were emptied of most of their goods.

The stakes in this election are high. After Maduro’s power grabs, there are no counterweights left to the executive branch. If Chavismo wins the day on November 8, Maduro’s government will be even more empowered to continue down its radical path. But that is not the only way the upcoming vote could end. If the opposition achieves its aims and wins a large share of the total vote and a significant number of the municipalities, it would deal a major blow to Maduro. The opposition could then try to use its momentum to oust Maduro from power in a presidential referendum at the end of 2015.

Because the opposition fears a harsh crackdown and because Chavismo is still popular in much of the country, the Venezuelan political dynamic is unlikely to change overnight. For Maduro, stability depends on a Chavista success this Sunday. If he doesn’t get one, the opposition will rise -- from the public and from the factious civil and military groups within Maduro’s party. And if that happens, Venezuelans’ long struggle for democracy could end with a military resolution.

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