Venezuela: The Meaning of Maduro’s Mandate

While the Venezuelan opposition’s fraud claims following President Maduro’s reelection triumph hold little water, the Bolivarian Revolution stands at the most critical crossroads of its history.

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Socialist incumbent Nicolas Maduro was elected to a second term on May 20 with an over two-thirds majority. (AP)
Socialist incumbent Nicolas Maduro was elected to a second term on May 20 with an over two-thirds majority. (AP)
By Lucas Koerner – Venezuelanalysis.com
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Another election in Venezuela and once again the country’s right-wing opposition has cried fraud with the full backing of Washington and its allies.

On Sunday, Venezuelan President and United Socialist Party (PSUV) candidate Nicolas Maduro won re-election to a second six-year term with nearly 68 percent of the vote and the backing of virtually all of the left-wing parties in the country.

Despite signing an agreement in March to recognize the results, opposition frontrunner Henri Falcon has called the vote “illegitimate”, demanding new elections in October.

The latest post-election fraud allegations are anything but surprising. They have become the featured act of an all-too-familiar routine repeated by the Venezuelan opposition in 2004, 2005, 2013, and 2017, often with no or extremely sparse and dubious evidence. Nonetheless, the mainstream corporate media shows no sign of boredom, giving headline after headline to this now tired charade.

What was indeed unusual, if not exceptional, about Sunday’s election was that the claims of fraud began three months before the vote even took place.

In February, Venezuela’s main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), announced its decision to boycott the upcoming elections, arguing that the April 22 date was “too soon” and the guarantees negotiated with the government in Santo Domingo were “inadequate”. The US and its right-wing regional allies in the 14-nation “Lima Group” quickly followed suit, preemptively refusing to recognize the election result.

Ironically, the boycott, justified on the grounds that the election date was too soon, was announced a little over six months after the MUD’s failed campaign of violent anti-government protests demanding early presidential elections, which led to over 125 deaths between April and July 2017. At the time, the US State Department, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, and other regional conservative governments issued repeated calls for 2018 presidential elections to be brought forward.

In a bid to appease the MUD and its sponsors in Washington, the Maduro government agreed in March to move the elections back to May 20, signing an agreement with right-wing candidates Henri Falcon and Javier Bertucci that included a host of electoral guarantees.

In response, the MUD only hardened its stance. Former National Assembly President and 2002 coup veteran Julio Borges embarked on a seemingly non-stop international tour lobbying governments throughout the world not to recognize the elections and urging tough sanctions against Venezuela.

Meanwhile, the United States, the European Union, and Canada have imposed round after round of punishing sanctions in what can only be construed as a naked attempt to interfere in the electoral process of a sovereign nation. In fact, on the eve of the elections, Canada’s Trudeau government went as far as to illegally prohibit Venezuela from installing voting stations in its consulates, denying some 5000 Venezuelans in Canada the right to vote. Apparently for the West, it’s perfectly legitimate to meddle in foreign elections – except if the Kremlin is culprit. As Henry Kissinger commented in 1970:

I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.

As far as US geopolitical imperatives go and their absolute preponderance over international law and democratic norms, it’s clear that very little has changed over the last 48 years.

Incredulous claims

As in the past, the latest “sham” allegations hold little water.

Both Falcon and evangelical candidate Javier Bertucci have claimed that the ruling United Socialist Party’s “red spots” were used to buy votes and coerce voters.

A standard feature of the PSUV’s grassroots mobilization strategy for years, “red spots” are kiosks set up near electoral centers where pro-government voters are encouraged to check in after voting for the purposes of tracking party member participation. They are also used to coordinate internal party logistics such as getting water and food to their electoral witnesses at every center as well as providing transport for those with mobility problems. It is true that Chavistas scan their government-issued Homeland ID Card, which is also used to coordinate state social programs such as the CLAP food distribution network. However, voting is secret in Venezuela and there is absolutely no way for the PSUV to know how those scanning their cards voted – a fact conveniently omitted by the New York Times in its description of the “red spots”.

Moreover, the PSUV is hardly unique in its use of “red spots”; opposition parties, particularly larger ones with nationwide mobilization capabilities, routinely deploy their own kiosks close to polling stations for similar purposes. In fact, when we visited Petare’s 5 de Julio neighborhood during October 15 regional elections, the right-wing First Justice party had a yellow kiosk even closer to the voting center than the PSUV’s “red spot”.

In the course of VA’s exclusive on-the-ground coverage of Sunday’s vote, we visited numerous polling stations throughout Caracas where we spoke with witnesses for the PSUV as well as the opposition parties. Venezuela’s electoral process is unique insofar as all participating candidates have the right to deploy their own witnesses in all electoral centers. These witnesses monitor the process to ensure that legal norms are upheld, and at the end of the day they have access to paper copies of the vote tallies from each voting machine, which can be cross-checked with the electronic results sent to the headquarters of the National Electoral Council (CNE).

None of the opposition witnesses we spoke with reported any irregularities.

“I have not seen any irregularities,” said Pablo Milanes, a witness for the pro-Falcon Movement Towards Socialism party at the COECO5 voting station in the 5 de Julio neighborhood in Petare, eastern Caracas.

Concerning the “red spots”, Milanes complained that the local PSUV kiosk was “too close” to the voting center according to CNE norms but denied that it impeding citizens’ right to cast their vote.

“Every person is responsible for their actions. People will come out to vote if they want to come out to vote,” he told us.

Ironically, Falcon was joined in his hysteric “red spot” diatribe by his economic advisor Francisco Rodriguez.

Back in October, Rodriguez’s Wall Street investment bank Torino Capital issued a report roundly refuting the MUD’s fraud claims in regional elections, which saw the PSUV take 18 of 23 governorships.

At the time, Rodriguez concluded that it was abstention, not irregularities, that was most significant in sealing the opposition’s landslide defeat:

The most important driver of the opposition’s loss appears instead to be its inability to get out its voters… The data thus suggests that opposition supporters were not motivated to vote in this election. The concrete calls to boycott the election on the part of some vocal leaders may have adversely impacted opposition turnout.

In the October 15 elections, the PSUV likewise made use of “red points” as one of the elements of its formidable ground game, throwing to the wind any notion that this tactic had a substantial impact on outcome. They also used them in precisely the same manner in the 2015 parliamentary elections, in which the opposition won a landslide victory and, for a change, did not cry fraud.

In fact, the only major difference between October and this past Sunday was the extent of opposition abstention.

In October, the opposition lost 2.1 million votes relative to its watershed 2015 parliamentary victory with 7.1 million votes – a 30 percent decline.

On Sunday, the opposition garnered approximately 3 million votes, constituting a further loss of 2 million votes with respect to October and a nearly 58 percent fall compared to 2015.

Abstention was highest in the opposition’s traditional upper middle-class bastions, such as Chacao and Las Salias in Miranda State, where turnout was 13.87 and 18.83 percent, as well as in areas which have seen significant emigration in recent months, such as Merida and Tachira State. While Venezuelans outside of Venezuela are able to vote, they must be registered and hold a visa for their resident country, a requirement which the majority of temporary emigrants do not fulfill.

This recent drop in voter turnout even marks a steep drop in comparison to December municipal elections, which were likewise boycotted by the main opposition parties when participation was 32.02 and 38.3 percent in these municipalities.

The bottom line is that Rodriguez’s analysis holds true today as much as in October, namely that it was mass abstention, not any irregularities, that doomed Falcon’s presidential bid.

This fact has been paradoxically recognized by Falcon’s own campaign manager, Claudio Fermin, who said in a recent interview, “Do you really think that that number of votes that Falcon, Bertucci, and Reinaldo Quijada won are all of the discontent Venezuelans? … what happened is that millions of discontent Venezuelans were convinced by a strange sorcery that the way to protest is to stay home and the result need not have been what it was.”

Exceptionalizing abstention

Last year, Venezuela’s right-wing opposition likewise claimed that July 30 National Constituent Assembly elections were fraudulent on the grounds that the turnout of over eight million voters was “too high” to be credible. This came after a violent four-month long anti-government insurrection led by the main parties of the MUD, which saw 200 polling stations besieged on election day.

Now, the MUD claims that the Sunday’s presidential election is illegitimate because too few people voted, namely on account of the high abstention which they themselves promoted.

Unable to win a majority at the polls due to their disastrous string of strategic blunders – ranging from violent protests to electoral mobilization to blanket boycott – the right-wing parties of the MUD have desperately sought to construe Sunday’s 54% percent abstention as an endorsement of their radical regime change agenda.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. A February Datanalisis poll found that just 31.7 percent of Venezuelans have a positive view of the MUD, a precipitous decline from 59.7 percent in October 2016. While the opposition coalition has been effectively collapsed into the Free Venezuela Broad Front in a concerted rebranding effort, its leaders remain overwhelmingly unpopular. The same February poll gave Julio Borges an approval of just 29.3 percent, while Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo Lopez stand at 30.8 and 40.4 percent, respectively.

It’s worth noting that Capriles and Lopez are routinely presented by the international media as guaranteed victors if they were allowed to run against Maduro, but neither surpasses fifty-percent popularity. Pardoned by Chavez in 2007 for their prominent roles in the 2002 US-backed coup, Lopez was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for leading 2014’s violent anti-government protests, while Capriles was barred from running by the Comptroller General’s office over corruption allegations. Both are deeply divisive figures and it’s far from certain that they would have been able to unite the bulk of the opposition behind them, let alone win over enough independents and disillusioned Chavistas necessary to triumph.

Moreover, Sunday’s 46 percent turnout and Maduro’s approximately 31.25 percent vote share of the total electorate are by no means unusual by regional standards.

Lest we forget that in 2016 Hilary Clinton garnered just 32.9 percent of all registered voters, while Donald Trump won 31.49 percent. Faced with the two most unpopular candidates in US history, the true 2016 presidential winner was abstention.

Similarly, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos and Chile’s Sebastian Piñera were elected with 24.39 (2014) and 23.98 percent (2017), respectively, with turnout standing at 47.89 and 44 percent.

In uncritically repeating the Venezuelan opposition’s canard regarding abstention, the international media once again reveals its shameful double standards, conveniently glossing over US-backed regimes with much less of a democratic mandate than Maduro, including what are effectively un-elected dictatorships in Honduras and Brazil.

A pyrrhic victory?

However, while contextualization is necessary, Venezuela cannot be compared to “low intensity” bourgeois representative democracies like the United States, Chile, or Colombia given that the project of the Bolivarian Revolution is precisely to overcome the capitalist state’s inherently anti-democratic institutional framework in favor of radical communal forms of self-government.

Not for nothing does the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution define Venezuela as a “participatory and protagonist democracy” in an open invitation to the country’s poor Afro-indigenous majority in the countryside and shantytowns to take the reigns of the state and public life generally for the first time since the nation’s founding.

A key aspect of this new popular sovereignty has manifested itself at the ballot box, with the Venezuelan masses finally achieving under Chavez an electoral system that not only enfranchises them but guarantees beyond all doubt the will of the majority. This strikes a sharp contrast with countries like the US, Mexico, or Honduras, where popular majorities are regularly suppressed through institutionalized anti-democratic mechanisms and/or outright vote rigging.

Given that the Bolivarian process depends on the continual bottom-up mobilization of a progressively politicized Chavista majority, both in the active constructive of new institutions of people’s power as well as in defense of existing gains in the streets and at the ballot box, Sunday’s results must be read as a clear warning sign.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that May 20 was a popular victory, in which the Venezuelan people, faced with severe sanctions imposed by Washington in tandem with an open opposition destabilization effort, defied the Empire and voted massively for continuing the Bolivarian revolutionary sequence.

As grassroots United Socialist Party activist Carmen Bello told to us during our visit to the working class July 5th barrio in Petare: “Here we are not fighting for a box of food. Here we are fighting for our sovereignty!”

Moreover, contrary to the mainstream media narrative that all-together denies the existence of Chavistas or reduces their political subjectivity to a paltry cash bonus, the 6.2 million who voted for Maduro amid economic crisis and international blackmail did so in order keep alive the flame of the revolutionary experiment, demonstrating that another world is indeed possible.

“Today is important, in spite of all the international attacks against us, the people continue to mobilize. The central issue is organizing for a different kind of state, which was Chavez’s proposal, a state where we all participate,” explained Guilda Mercado after voting in the Isiaias Medina neighborhood in the working class western Caracas sector of Catia.

But on the other hand, May 20 was irrefutable evidence that four years of deep economic crisis – to which the Maduro government has yet to offer a substantive, structural response – has exacted its crushing political toll.

As Venezuelan writer Nestor Francia observes, Maduro received on Sunday 1,341,717 less votes than the 7,587,579 he received in 2013, despite the electorate having grown by around two million in the interim. Even more revealing, the incumbent received 1,063,218 less votes than Chavez garnered in 2006, when there were approximately four million registered voters. In total, we can conclude that the government has lost 1,945,270 votes since Chavez’s high water mark 2012 reelection victory, in which he won 8,191,132 votes.

Similarly, there is nothing to celebrate about Sunday’s 46 percent turnout in comparison to the 79.68 percent that voted on April 14, 2013. This declining participation cannot be attributed, as the government claims, to transportation problems or the opposition’s boycott call, given that an important fraction of the Chavista social base opted to abstain. These nearly two million Chavistas who stayed home on Sunday didn’t do so because they were somehow fooled by the MUD’s propaganda. Rather, their abstention must be read as an act of protest directed at the Maduro government. Their message appears to be, “You cannot continue to forestall revolutionary solutions to the current crisis and expect to retain our votes.”

In this context of eroding support, Sunday’s victory could very well prove pyrrhic if it does not heed the demands of popular movements to adopt a revolutionary program for overcoming the crisis, such as that proposed by the Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current.

In short, as Francia concludes, if the crisis is an economic war as Maduro claims, then the government must fight alongside the people:

It’s true that we have had to face the ravages of the economic war and the sabotage (and bureaucratism, corruption, and inefficiency), but the people say in the streets: War is war, either the government runs or it stands and fights! The people don’t want promises of future paradises; they want actions, deeds, realities.

The only certainty is that with Trump’s latest economic sanctions and threats of an oil embargo, this war is set only to intensify.

Special thanks to Paul Dobson for his input and contributions.