Javier Biardeau: A Balance of 2016

The opposition surge has failed, and it is essential that a Bolivarian surge re-emerges to retake the political initiative, argues Venezuelan sociologist Javier Biardeau. 


In your opinion, what is the balance sheet for 2016? Let’s start with the political arena. 

A summary evaluation of 2016 must begin with the recognition that the beginning of the year was marked by the political expectations generated by the electoral result of December 6th 2015*, expectations over whether the opposition in the National Assembly would gain a super majority or not, and what implications that would have in the following months, given how it would define the course of the strategies adopted by rival political actors. 

A political evaluation of the second half of 2016 is marked by the development and culmination of the opposition’s strategy for a recall referendum, until it crashed and burned against the reality that it was impossible, given the series of political mistakes committed in the signature collection process, as well the attempt to impose a strategy of a recall referendum “by any means necessary” – thinking it was sufficient to create a climate of opinion and count on the support of international pressure to achieve their goals in the short term, without taking into consideration the strategies and tactics of the government itself, or the very time lapses established in institutional procedures and controls.  

Would you say that the opposition overestimated the political capital that it gained on December 6th? 

Absolutely. The opposition’s agenda overestimated that electoral triumph: they put a time limit of six months on removing Nicolas Maduro from office. As part of that maximalist strategy, they decided to incorporate the contested legislators from Amazonas into the National Assembly, in violation of a Supreme Court (TSJ) decision, and that generated a conflict of powers in which the the TSJ decided to declare the National Assembly void. 

The opposition bet on short-term political expectations, almost promising the probable “exit of Maduro from the presidency,” something which in the end didn’t happen via any of the mechanisms or actions that they tried to activate: street pressure, demonstrations, a constitutional amendment to cut short the presidential term, a constitutional reform which was abandoned early on, and then the already late request for a recall referendum, which was condemned to go through laws, rules and an intricate electoral program which placed time limits on, in the case of a favourable result, calling a new election and trying to remove Maduro from government.  

What caused the failure of these strategies to remove President Maduro from Miraflores Presidential Palace?  

I would say that the opposition underestimated the Maduro government’s ability to ease political tensions, as well as the organizational and mobilisational capacity of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and its allies in the Great Patriotic Pole, which, in spite of internal differences, managed to maintain levels of cohesion and unity which prevented a rupture or significant division in Chavismo, a split in political leadership, and even a fissure in civic-military unity. All that guaranteed a favourable outcome for political stability, which sustained a delicate balance of forces in the midst of a difficult economic situation and its negative social effects. 

Could you describe the government at this moment? 

Unfortunately a description of the government at this precise moment is very negative. Christmas has been overshadowed by a situation of accumulated collective stress due to deficiencies, failures and hardships which are not imaginary, nor the product of media campaigns as before. We can’t say that this is a prosperous Christmas, but rather that it is marked by the patience, stoicism and the resistance of the people, who do not want civil unrest, but rather are demanding a much more sensible and pertinent response from their leaders. People no longer want to put up with improvisations and toing and froing. It sounds logical, but the people want immediate solutions, not speeches or promises. 

And the opposition? 

Opposition sympathizers are tired of not seeing an alternative government with the will, not just to take power but also to take responsibility, embodied in their leadership. They are tired of being “the opposition to”, they want to be assertive and find real answers to their weaknesses and failures. The opposition base has matured, and is much more critical of its leadership, demanding much more resolve from them. The opposition doesn’t want to lose the hope of a space where they can take action so that their needs, demands and aspirations are effectively satisfied. The problem here is the discrepancy in the referential universe of the opposition leadership: a consciousness among citizens has developed and they are no longer willing to put up with a strongman culture (caciquismo) from their leaders. 

What lessons can Venezuelans learn from 2016?  

The greatest lesson is the need to get rid of maximalist strategies in the midst of a correlation of forces which increasingly points towards a situation of catastrophic deadlock, or to the continuous degeneration of both rival forces. The key here is to attain a space to draw up agreements and negotiations to tackle the serious economic crisis. At this moment, no force can crush the other without serious consequences, including a scenario of civil conflict with high levels of violence. In this sense, it is urgent and pressing for the acting government to regroup, reunify, and regain strength if it wants to emerge from this impasse of catastrophic stalemate.  

The opposition surge has failed, and it is essential that a Bolivarian surge re-emerges to retake the political initiative. Neither dialogue table, nor the coopted and supervised model of the “Homeland Congress,” are sufficient for such an effort to take back the strategic initiative. The capacity to articulate, amalgamate, convoke, and synthesise the demotivated Bolivarian forces, including moderate opposition sectors and independents that have been frustrated by the maximalist strategy of the opposition, is one of the fundamental challenges for the Bolivarian political leadership, and that means new instruments, new tools, new leadership, and new styles of political work and organisation.  

Let’s move on to a more controversial subject, a review of the economic sphere.

Look, the worst performance in terms of governability of the system was generated precisely in the economic sphere: the strategy of the Bolivarian Economic Agenda and the economic motors were not able to overcome the economic boycott and sabotage, nor to generate a sufficient climate of trust nor effective economic policies in areas such as the exchange rate, tax, and finance, nor to recover Gross Domestic Product. 

The recession became chronic, worsened by an abrupt fall in oil prices, which practically condemned the government to choosing between reducing imports or maintaining the payment on its external debt commitments, de facto liberalising prices, in accordance with a dispute over price indicators rooted in currency exchange matters.  

On the other hand, the government has tried to obtain additional resources through very controversial projects such as the Orinoco Mining Belt, which has opened up a profound debate over whether neo-rentier methods can be an authentic solution to a crisis of oil rentierism, and whether they are compatible with the vision of an alternative model inspired by Chavez’s ideas on eco-socialism.  

What can you tell us about the social cost of this conflagration?

In this picture, the worst affected are the social sectors such as the middle classes, the workers and the poor, who have witnessed a fall in their real income and have seen their purchasing power affected by heavy inflation. 

The government tried to buffer the impact of the situation through salary increases, which were never sufficient, and then finally through the Local Provision and Production Committees (CLAPs), in an attempt to alleviate the negative effects effects of a poor picture in economic performance. In this sense, an economic evaluation is very negative, with a loss of dynamism in economic activity, high inflation and imbalances in many areas, including in the importation and distribution networks for food and medical supplies.

And why hasn’t there been a concrete social explosion as some sectors of the opposition hope? 

Obviously, the missions and great social missions have managed to contain the worst effects of the economic panorama in a fairly impressive way, including better performance and coverage in terms of the distribution of food and medicine (including the CLAPs).  

But while political administration was able to achieve a favourable level of stability and defeat the opposition strategy to remove President Maduro, in terms of economics the situation is negative and requires deep efforts aimed at policy rectification and correction for 2017, including the need to open up a space for the negotiation of minimum agreements between social and political actors, a horizon that was envisioned in the so-called dialogue table which has entered a delicate suspension phase.  

From this perspective, how do you see the coming year? 

The first quarter seems to be marked by a lot of uncertainty and accumulated economic and social tension, even the possibility of civil unrest cannot be ruled out. December is a bad time to make projections because culturally it is a time when conflict is appeased. So it’s possible that effectively conflictive scenarios open up, with protests and different expressions of social discontent. 

The best and worst of this year?   

There is nothing better than winning spaces for peace and living together, and even a certain de-polarisation among ordinary people which has translated to a demand for concrete solutions to problems. The people are questioning the political class as a whole, demanding that they cease (pursuing) their ambitions and interests and start worrying about the living conditions of the people, that they address the priorities of the country, that politics is not separate from the needs felt by the majority and different sectors of the country.  

The worst is that this longing has not been assessed nor heard by the political leadership of both sides, that our economy has run aground, that we are a country that is in a ditch and that needs a great effort from everyone to retake the path of development set out in our Constitution, which, when you read its declaration of principles as well as its objectives, looks like a utopia right now, and which can only be viable, feasible and possible if that just, prosperous society with social wellbeing, described in that maxim of supreme social happiness, is found and valued once again, as necessary ground for common agreements.  

* Editor’s note: The Venezuelan opposition won a landslide victory in national legislative elections on December 6, 2015. 

Translated and edited by Rachael Boothroyd-Rojas for Venezuelanalysis.com.