Key Factors in Venezuela as Elections Approach, Part 2

Greg Wilpert continues in his analysis of Sunday's National Assembly elections, noting that despite the current economic crisis the ruling socialist party has several factors in its favor, including its ongoing committment to social programs, a weak and divided opposition, and support from social movements. 


Despite the extremely difficult economic situation in the lead-up to the Dec. 6 National Assembly elections in Venezuela (which I outlined in a previous article), the Maduro government and the Bolivarian revolution currently do have a few things that make the situation not quite as bleak as one might otherwise think. I will present this domestic context, first, in terms of the government’s most recent actions and policies, second, in terms of the progressive social movements in Venezuela and, third, in terms of the opposition’s situation and actions.

Key Recent Policies

There is little doubt that the economic and social situation in Venezuela is very difficult at the moment, with the highest inflation rate since the time Hugo Chavez was elected president on December 6, 1998, constant shortages of (price-controlled) basic food goods, and a high crime rate. Recognizing this difficult situation, which the government says is the result of an “economic war” against the government, President Nicolas Maduro has been instituting a number of policies designed to address the problem areas of his administration.   

The perhaps most intensive effort in this regard has been devoted to the “Great Housing Mission,” which since its launch in 2011 constructed nearly 850,000 homes by November 2015 and is supposed to reach one million by the end of 2015. Already this means that the government has managed to construct an average of about 200,000 new homes per year since the mission’s launch, which represents a more than three-fold increase over the 2000-2011 annual average of public homes constructed. Given that the average Venezuelan household has five members, this means that more or less five million Venezuelans will benefit from the housing program by the end of the year – a not insignificant number if you consider that this represents one sixth of Venezuela’s total population of 30 million.  

The second major effort to counter the difficult circumstances was a new series of policies to control inflation, which he presented in October of this year. In the course of his two-and-a-half-year presidency, President Maduro already introduced a variety of changes to his economic policy in order to get inflation and shortages under control. Back in February, for example, Maduro announced a series of measures that were supposed to make one of the higher official exchange rates more accessible to the general public and that would make the black market currency exchange more legal. However, neither of these policies had much of an impact on the problems of inflation and shortages.

As a result, the government announced in October that a maximum legal profit would be introduced. One of the great problems of the current economic situation is that some vendors manage to make exorbitant profits by either purchasing goods at an extremely low price-controlled price and then re-sell them for many times that cost. Or, they import goods using one of the lower official exchange rate mechanisms, which makes the import extremely cheap for them, but then sell the goods anyway at a price that reflects a price calculated the back market exchange rate, thereby also making an exorbitant profit. The new economic measures thus examine the real prices of practically everything sold in Venezuela, and set a profit limit at 30 percent of the original cost.  

Although these new measures were accompanied by steep penalties for violators of the new profit maximums, so far it seems that the measure is not being adhered to. Inflation is still far above tolerable levels (of over 160 to 200 percent for 2015) and, if some anecdotal reports are generalizable, vendors are resorting to black markets even more, depriving supermarkets of even more products. One likely reason that these new measures have not had much of an effect (yet?) is that overseeing the prices and profits of all products and vendors in Venezuela is a task that is impossible for the Venezuelan government to fulfill. In short, this second policy area is still not having a positive impact on the economic situation. 

The third major policy effort for 2015 has been in the area of crime fighting, with a new program named, “Operation Liberation and Protection of the People” (OLP), which was launched in July of this year. In some ways this program represents a militarization of crime fighting, as it involves large-scale raids on high crime neighborhoods, using not only the police force, but also the National Guard. The government clearly felt such a military tactic was becoming necessary, not only because of the influx of Colombian paramilitary organized crime, but also because the crime rate more generally has increased in the past year (partly because of the Colombian paramilitary presence). Given the high crime rate and that previous measures to lower it did not work, most Venezuelans seem to approve of the OLP program. Whether it will make inroads into lowering the crime rate, though, is still too early to tell.

Aside from these three main areas of housing, economic policy, and crime fighting, the government is also continuing – at the same level as before – all of the Chavez government’s social programs, known as missions, such as in the areas of education, subsidized food, community health care, and the expansion of social security benefits, among other programs. It is no doubt the combination of all of these programs that has maintained much of the government’s popularity despite the severe economic crisis that the country is currently going through.   

Popular Movements and Organizations 

One of the greatest strengths of the Bolivarian revolution is the involvement of popular movements and organizations. Although Venezuela never had particularly strong mass movements, relative to other countries in Latin America, such as Bolivia, the Chavez government did emerge out of progressive movements (see George Ciccariello-Maher’s excellent social history of Venezuela: We Created Chavez). These movements, by and large, are still supporting the government, despite the many criticisms that they have of the government as a result of the current difficult economic situation. 

During Chavez’s presidency these movements were strengthened as a result of the government’s policies to broaden and open spaces for their participation in government social programs, community media, and via the communal councils and the communes (which are groupings of communal councils). Certainly, there has been some degree of interference by the government, but these have resisted such efforts, leading to a fair amount of tension and mutual suspicion between the government and community groups. Still, despite these tensions, both sides are very clear that they need each other’s support and that undermining or breaking ranks at this time would only contribute to an opposition victory, which would be bad for both sides.

An innovative new campaign has recently sprung up, known as “Every Heartbeat Counts”, which is in some ways typical of the government-social movement relationship. It represents a coming together of over 20 anti-capitalist community groups, many of them cultural. On the one hand the campaign is clearly a campaign to support the pro-government candidates running for National Assembly, but it is nonetheless independent of the government and seeks to push it further to the left by supporting the strengthening of communal councils and communes in Venezuela. It is difficult to say whether this campaign will make a difference in this election, but the critical support that they give to the government could make a difference in electoral circuits that are very tight. But more than that, the campaign is also an example of the creativity and energy that still exists just below the surface of Venezuelan politics, in the communities and the social movements, despite the frustration and even anger that many people have for the government.

The Opposition 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the political divide, the opposition seems to be as internally divided and weaker than ever, despite their surge in the polls. In some ways this is a strange situation, given that the government is without a doubt at its second-weakest point of the entire 17 years of the Bolivarian revolution (Chavez was first elected on December 6, 1998 – exactly 17 years prior to the December 6 National Assembly election of 2015) – the weakest point was the period of the coup attempt and the oil industry shutdown in 2002. One would think that such an opportunity for the opposition would serve to rally it and unify it in the effort to overthrow a government that they have hated for so long.

However, the opposition remains deeply divided between those who are convinced that the only way to get back into power is via an overthrow of the government by any means necessary versus those who would prefer a more constitutional path to regaining power. Also, the lack of a clear opposition program makes them look like the only thing they want is to depose the Bolivarian revolution, but have no idea what they want beyond that. Part of the problem here is that during his presidency Chavez succeeded in completely discrediting the neoliberal discourse to such an extent that practically no one in the opposition dares to bring neoliberalism up as an opposition program (unlike Argentina, where Macri was able to run and win on a neoliberal platform). It is the combination of a lack of political program and internal divisions over strategy that has made it almost impossible for the opposition to profit from the government’s current vulnerability to the extent that it otherwise might. 

Looking towards 6D  As usual, given the vast majority of the media coverage on Venezuela, there is a concerted effort to make it look like the Dec.6 election will be marred by fraud. This is an image that the Venezuelan opposition is actively promoting with the unabashed help from international media, the U.S. government, and the Organization of American States (its bureaucracy in Washington DC, not most of its member states). However, anyone who has bothered to take a close look at the Venezuelan electoral system, can quickly see that it is perhaps one of the (if not the) most fraud-proof electoral systems in the world. It is thus no surprise that President Carter once said, “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”

The danger inherent in the Dec. 6 election is thus not fraud, but the opposition’s reaction to the result. If it is a result that they do not like, they will almost certainly claim that there was fraud and launch into another violent destabilization campaign, just as they did following the April 2013 presidential election, which left 11 dead, and during the February-May 2014 street blockades known as “Guarimbas,” which killed 43 people and wounded hundreds of others.

The actual National Assembly result is very difficult to predict because it all depends on how well individual candidates do on the level of their electoral districts, of which there are 87 throughout the country. The governing PSUV had held an effective primary election to nominate the candidates last June, many of which are quite young and about half of whom are women. Also, the recent policies in the areas of housing and crime fighting have created plusses for the government among the population. Finally, the fact that most social movements are sticking with the government helps too.

On the other hand, the severe economic situation of inflation and shortages has also created an enormous amount of frustration amongst the chavista base, nearly outweighing the elements in favor of the government. The fact that there is an international campaign against the government, which the United States is leading and which the governments of Argentina and Colombia support, along with OAS Secretary General Almagro, probably won’t have much of an impact on the election itself, but will on the aftermath and the efforts to delegitimize the election, should the opposition not get the result it is hoping for.