Is Corruption the Enemy to Unify Chavismo?

In the opening delivery of his VA column, Clodovaldo Hernández sets sights on the recent anti-corruption drive and its political implications.

If we follow along with most interpretations of the anti-corruption campaign undertaken by the Venezuelan government over the last few weeks, we would have to conclude that within Chavismo, the political conglomerate that sustains the Venezuelan revolution, there is a war of extermination between factions going on.

This perception has solid foundations, since the officials prosecuted and imprisoned early on belong to what can be identified as an internal current, the one led by the now-former Oil Minister of Petroleum.

However, there are other ways of interpreting what is happening. And it could be said that one of them is exactly the opposite of the statement above. “Operation Whoever May Fall” seeks to find -as quickly as possible because time is running out- a new common enemy that will reunite Chavismo.

And the fact is that the US decision to remove self-proclaimed “interim president” Juan Guaidó from the playing field has deprived the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its allied forces of an easily identifiable adversary, one that would have allowed them to organize a strategy to remain in power with the 2024 presidential elections around the corner.

The plight over the lack of opponents

Alongside the dismissal of Guaido, there are other factors that had previously united Chavismo but have now disappeared or declined. Let us take a look:

The opposition as a bloc. Always guided and supervised by the United States, the opposition as a heterogeneous coalition of political forces was an enemy to defeat in the early years of Hugo Chavez’s government, especially between 2001 and 2004, when the then-called Coordinadora Democratica carried out insurrectional strategies with the April 2002 coup and the 2002-2003 oil lockout. Afterwards, the opposition forces remained unified in an attempt to revoke Chavez’s presidency in the 2004 recall referendum. All of their attempts failed, as Chavez returned to power 47 hours after being overthrown; the lockout failed to topple the government; and the president won the recall referendum resoundingly.

Rebranded as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), the opposition parties had their strongest showing in 2015 when they won the legislative elections by a wide margin, which allowed them to take control of the National Assembly until early 2021. From this parliamentary body came the figure of the interim government.

Currently, there is no unified opposition coalition. Differences between parties and the ambitions of leaders have led to various differentiated segments that appear to be difficult to reconcile.

Depending on how the scheduled October primary elections unfold, where a single opposition presidential candidate (or as close as to that) will be chosen, it is possible that the anti-Chavismo coalition may regain its status as a common enemy. However, at the moment, this looks unlikely.

The imperialist blockade. Since 2015, when Barack Obama decreed that Venezuela posed an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States,” Chavismo has seen the US empire as a direct adversary. This situation has been exacerbated by the adoption of unilateral coercive measures (“sanctions” in US parlance), and later by the economic blockade imposed during the Trump administration.

Paradoxically, the economic improvement that was registered between late 2021 and mid-2022 has caused Washington’s blockade and sanctions to lose their status as a common enemy. Although high-ranking government officials claimed in February that 80% of Venezuelans attributed the nation’s woes to US economic aggression, the Hinterlaces polling firm (which is close to Chavismo) warned that between December 2022 and the first quarter of 2023, this perception has been in free fall.

The hostile Latin American environment. During much of the past decade, right-wing governments in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Mexico, and others allied themselves against the government of Venezuela. The Lima Group emerged as a multilateral alternative to the discredited Organization of American States to besiege Maduro and promote his overthrow. They were thus a fundamental component of the identifiable international enemy of Chavismo, along with countries from the European Union.

The political shift in almost all of these countries has erased the Lima Group from the map, and with it, another clear opponent.

The Economic War. After Chávez’s death in 2013, the business sector joined in on the effort to overthrow Maduro. They had done so before in 2002, when they supported the coup (the de facto president was Pedro Carmona, leader of the business guild Fedecámaras) and participated in the oil lockout. On this occasion, now pitted against Maduro, large industrialists and retailers played a leading role in the economic war that unfolded at that time, resulting in widespread scarcity, rampant inflation, long queues to buy basic goods, and a substantial decline in the caloric intake among the population. The government at that time had a clear antagonist in the private sector, and it made efforts to use it to rally the masses.

Currently, the climate is diametrically different. The government is experiencing a kind of honeymoon with the business sector, and the issue of shortages has largely been resolved (although inflation, largely speculative, remains a challenge). As a result, it would be difficult for the government to stigmatize the business sector as an opponent.

The media war. In a not-so-coincidental alignment, the media was a partner in all the aforementioned efforts. During key moments, such as the coup attempt and the oil lockout of 2002-2003, the media played a prominent role. However, in the long run, the government turned the tables in the media war. The old conventional media outlets such as newspapers, radio stations, and television channels have largely dwindled, resulting from both their political defeat by Chavismo and the challenges faced by their business models on a global level. Today, the government can no longer argue that it must contend with an adversarial media machinery as a rallying cry against its opponents.

What is the government looking for? At the beginning of 2023, the Maduro government faced the above-described scenario of lacking a unifying factor and, at the same time, a severe crisis resulting from the lack of resources to meet the growing demands of the public labor sector, which has very low incomes in bolívars amidst a de facto dollarized economy.

The relative decrease in the importance of the blockade-sanctions factor brought to the forefront, in dramatic terms, the issue of inefficiency, bureaucracy, and corruption in key areas of the domestic economy, particularly in state oil company PDVSA.

In this context, the government is executing what appears to be a strategy aimed at attacking multiple fronts simultaneously, beyond the express purpose of combating corruption. Indeed, the government seeks to find a new unifying enemy, address the problems in the oil sector, and alleviate social pressure on the most vulnerable by sanctioning those who have displayed shameful acts of ostentation and extravagance.

It is obvious that portraying corruption as everyone’s common adversary will not resolve the issue of low salaries in the public sector, but it offers an incentive for those who have criticized the odious inequality that has been observed between the elites (officials and businesspeople) and the majority of workers.

The government is betting that measures against these elites will renew the loyalty of broad sectors of Chavismo that have been distancing themselves from the core and moving towards neutrality and depoliticization, where they may be captured by an opposition candidate, especially one that can seem like an “outsider.”

Raising the flag of fighting against corruption in the state administration also harks back to Chavismo’s origins, as a movement that rose up against the highly corrupt administrations of the bipartite democracy that held hegemony in Venezuela between 1958 and 1998.

It is a risky bet, and its success will of course depend on the concrete results of the judicial processes against those accused. The roulette wheel has only just begun to spin.

Clodovaldo Hernández is a journalist and political analyst with experience in higher education. He won the National Journalism Prize (Opinion category) in 2002. He is the author of the books Reinventario (poetry and short stories) De genios y de figuras (journalistic profiles) and Esa larga, infinita distancia (novel).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by José Luis Granados Ceja for Venezuelanalysis.