Back from the Brink: Chavismo Reloaded?

UK-Chilean journalist and documentary filmmaker Pablo Navarrete unpacks the Bolivarian Revolution's surprise win in October 15 regional elections as well as the challenges that now await it. 

By Pablo Navarrete – Upside Down World
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Chavistas at the closing rally for the re-election of Jorge García Carneiro as governor of the state of Vargas on October 12, 2017. (Pablo Navarrete)

This article was originally featured at Upside Down World and has been republished here with permission. 

In July 2017 the Chavista government of Nicolás Maduro was under siege and the country on the cusp of civil war. Three months earlier a new and more extreme round of opposition street violence, known as guarimbas, had once again catapulted Venezuela into the global media spotlight. Images of death and destruction reinforced the “authoritarian failed state” thesis that had been peddled for years. Coupled with a severe economic crisis that was eviscerating the quality of life for ordinary Venezuelans, the heightened vilification of the government in international media outlets fed into a perfect storm for a new attempt at regime change. On the ropes, the Maduro government appeared unable to alter the dynamic that had left the 18-year-old Bolivarian revolution spiraling into what seemed like terminal decline.

Fast forward to Oct. 24 and the announcement by Venezuelan opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski that he would no longer participate in the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) as long as fellow opposition leader Henry Ramos Allup continued to be a member. Capriles offered a litany of charges against Ramos, including that he was serving as a spokesperson for the Maduro government. The political earthquake of significant Chavista candidate victories in the Oct. 15 regional elections to elect state governors and state legislators was producing aftershocks within the opposition, leaving them divided and rancorous.

As well as confounding critics, the elections results surprised even the most ardent Chavistas. The government coalition Great Patriotic Pole (GPP), led by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), won 52.7 percent of the vote, which translated into victory in 18 of the country’s 23 states. According to the country’s National Electoral Council (CNE), 61 percent of Venezuela’s 18.1 million-strong electorate came out to vote, representing a level of participation in regional elections second only to the 65.5 percent turnout in 2008. The infrastructure in place to ensure electoral participation was significant: 13,599 polling stations; 30,274 election machines; 90,822 election officers; and around 54,038 technical and operational personnel.

As is the norm in Venezuela under Chavismo, the elections (the 23rd national election or referenda held since the late Hugo Chávez first won the presidency in December 1998) were subject to considerable scrutiny. There were over 1,300 international observers, including representatives of the Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America (CEELA). Eleven audits of the voting system were carried out prior to the election; three more on election day itself; and a further two audits after the election, with one more pending for the week beginning 30 October. These audits have involved representatives of both pro- and anti-government parties. While international electoral observers testified to the veracity of the results, unsurprisingly,  sectors of the domestic opposition, as well as international forces hostile to the Maduro government, such as the governments of the US, Canada and France, disputed the results. The EU announced new measures to pursue sanctions against Venezuela.

Setting aside the uncorroborated allegations against the electoral process, the results and their reverberations require unpacking. Given the anti-government prism through which international media outlets portray developments in Venezuela and the country’s very real economic malaise, the Chavista victory appears counterintuitive. Yet understanding it is key to speculating on whether we are seeing the beginning of Chavismo’s renewal and the resurrection of a project whose obituaries have been circulating for years.

Victory from the jaws of defeat

Key to Chavismo’s Oct. 15 electoral victory was Venezuela’s opposition. As Ociel López notes in a cogent analysis published the day after the election: “what the opposition has done after their triumph in December 2015 will remain in the annals of political history as the leadership that most fully undermined its own victory, one that most thoroughly dispersed a broadly favorable correlation of forces.”

In December 2015 the MUD opposition coalition won a huge victory in the National Assembly elections, obtaining 56.2 percent of the vote and 112 out of the 167 seats. In February 2016, little more than a month after he assumed the presidency of the National Assembly, opposition leader Henry Ramos Allup announced that six months was too long a period to wait for the ouster of Maduro from office. Concomitant to this crude threat to overthrow a democratically elected president, the economic hardships intensified, with the government unable to address longstanding economic imbalances, chiefly an overvalued exchange rate in an economy where a “black market” dollar rate had grown exponentially and was being used within the country to price much of what was sold in the street. The perilous economic situation turned critical, with shortages of food becoming systematic. Undoubtedly, the “economic war” being waged on Venezuela by domestic and foreign actors and which the government repeatedly denounced was real, yet few practical solutions were offered and there was a feeling that the government had resigned itself to its fate.

Despite the despondency, the government managed to survive 2016, a year when it came extremely close to falling. It was in the context of an economic improvement in 2017 that insurgent elements in the opposition unleashed their guarimbas strategy to make the country ungovernable through violence, with the hope that their lobbying for some form of external intervention to remove Maduro from office would bear fruit.

Between March 31 and July 30, 2017, according to government sources, there were 6,386 demonstrations, of which 5,045 were by the opposition, with 88 percent of these ending up in violence. One hundred twenty-one people were killed during this period, with 42 percent of these attributable to the violence of the opposition protests and 13 percent of those killed were attributed to the state security services. Those state agents are now in prison.

However, all this was spun in a pro-opposition friendly way by global media outlets. Opposition acts of terrorism, such as armed attacks on military bases, with guns, molotov bombs, mortars and other homemade weapons, along with lynchings of security service members and those believed to be Chavistas through setting them on fire, were transformed into acts of heroic defiance, a pro-democracy movement fighting for freedom. For example, the left-liberal British daily The Guardian headlined an article on someone who flew over the Venezuelan Supreme Court and Justice Ministry offices, opening fire and dropping hand grenades, “Patriot or government plant?”.

It is inconceivable that similar acts could have taken place in in London or Washington without a devastating security response from the respective governments. In the name of fighting terrorism, nobody would have questioned the legitimacy of the armed response by the state or demanded that the security personnel killing terrorists be jailed and the government sanctioned at multilateral institutions.  

The cycle of violence was eventually broken by the second major factor explaining the Chavista’s recent electoral victory: the successful election of a National Constituent Assembly on July 30. This controversial move by Maduro not only provoked profound ire amongst domestic and foreign opponents but also met with widespread rejection from individuals who had previously either supported or sympathized with Chavsimo. It was Maduro’s biggest political gamble to date, an unexpected and unorthodox way out of the crisis. With significant voter turnout and the almost instant cessation of the violence that followed the election, it has also turned out to be Maduro’s biggest political victory to date. Moreover, it has laid the basis for the Oct. 15 victories and opposition divisions that are currently being played out in public.

Specific election victories and opposition defeats were especially sweet for the government: for example, 34-year-old rising Chavista star Héctor Rodríguez defeated the opposition to take the governorship of Miranda state (arguably the jewel in the crown of Chavista victories); while opposition leader and former government politician Henri Falcon lost to the Chavista candidate in Lara state, severely weakening any aspirations he had of running for the presidency in 2018. For the moment, Maduro has flummoxed many of his enemies, and the government now has the political breathing space to proactively address the roots of the  hardship in Venezuela today.

The screaming economy

In 1970 U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to “make the economy scream” in Chile to “prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him.” While they failed to prevent Allende from taking office, a U.S.-sponsored program of economic warfare (alongside a campaign of street violence and terrorism) resulted in much of what we see today in Venezuela: shortages and hoarding of food and goods, rampant inflation, and the denial of credit for the government internationally. On Sept. 11, 1973, the day after the U.S.-sponsored coup against Allende, the food that had been missing from the supermarkets magically appeared again.

Without doubt, Venezuela’s economy is today screaming. A kilo of beef on the black market costs the equivalent to a quarter of the monthly minimum wage (around 300,000 Bolivars, or less than US$20 at the black market rate). With inflation out of control, the purchasing power of ordinary Venezuelans is simply insufficient to adequately meet the daily costs of life. No one should be blind to the severity of the economic crisis. Nor should we be blind to its politically induced drivers, both from the opposition and the government. Despite repeated calls for action to tackle the inflation-depreciation spiral by sympathetic experts, the government has not addressed the massive discrepancy between the official and black market dollar rate. And how can it be that Dollar Today, a U.S.-based anti-government website, currently dictates the daily black market dollar rate in the country, effectively holding the economy hostage as it inflicts blow after blow to the significant socio-economic gains made by the population in the first decade of Chavismo.

Dealing with the economic situation is now fundamental, and if done successfully it would re-energize the Chavista base. It would also help greatly with other major challenges such as tackling corruption and the country’s security situation. If the factor preventing decisive action to address the exchange rate imbalance resides in the threat of confronting powerful Chavista forces who may be financially benefitting from the status quo, for example by importing goods at subsidised dollar rates to then sell at black market rates, then Maduro will have to show the necessary political courage to confront these forces. A failure to do so will erode the political capital the 15-0 election victories has granted Chavismo.

It is now also incumbent on Venezuela’s opposition to stop their multiple self-delusions and embrace reality in order to make an informed evaluation of where they went wrong and how to proceed. The current opposition divisions are unlikely to be resolved in the short-term and the extremist sections advocating violence and terrorism to enact regime change are likely to continue to hold considerable traction, especially with forces such as the EU and President Donald Trump fanning the flames of conflict.

As the dust settles on this latest election, those of us who do not view developments in Venezuela through the grossly distorted prism of the establishment media should defend the democratic rights of Venezuelans to determine their future free from violence and external intervention. A movement that was on its knees is now walking with a confidence not seen for a while.