Venezuela: Racing to the Bottom

By CLALS Staff

VenezuelaThe casualty figures from last Wednesday’s confrontation between government and opposition groups in the streets of Caracas – three dead, several dozen injured and many thousands angry – are clearer than the solutions to Venezuela’s current crisis.  The airwaves immediately flooded with the usual accusations of who provoked whom.  The protest leaders – who have shoved aside the opposition’s more moderate standard-bearer, Henrique Capriles – blamed toughs within the pro-government “colectivos.”  President Maduro blamed “small fascist groups” for the violence.  He has accused protest leader Leopoldo López of trying to orchestrate a coup, and a court is charging him with murder and “terrorism.”  López denies the coup-plotting, but he does state forcefully that, under the campaign slogan of “La Salida,” he wants to put millions in the streets to force Maduro to step down.  Failing that, he’s building a base from which to launch a referendum to remove Maduro when the Constitution allows in 2016.

As always, both sides in the dispute claim to have the support of “el pueblo” and to seek only to promote the people’s interests.  The people did speak, albeit by a small margin, in favor of Maduro in last April’s presidential election, but the opposition – especially the boisterous faction that’s orchestrating the current protests – has never officially acknowledged his legitimacy as president.  Maduro’s ad hoc reactions to Venezuela’s increasingly dire economic situation, including policies that he boasts are going to make the “bourgeoisie squeal,” appear desperate and counterproductive.  Confusing audacity for leadership, Maduro has signaled that if López and his followers want to take to the streets, he’s ready to accept the challenge.

Venezuelan politics has long been characterized by a vicious cycle in which each side strives to provoke the other into making mistakes that injure itself – and each side can’t resist rising to the provocation, fueling a downward spiral.  Maduro and the opposition hotheads have found soul mates in one another – feeding on each other’s extremism – and it’s happening just as Capriles and other opposition moderates were making progress in a decade-long effort to redefine political dynamics in the country.  Maduro’s tough talk and López’s battle calls for massive protests, for salida, and for recall referendums are reminiscent of 2002‑04, when Chávez grew steadily stronger as he survived a coup, a national strike, mysterious bombings and other clandestine operations by foes, a recall referendum and more.  For a young (42 years old) Harvard-educated man from the wealthy end of town to think that he can best Maduro in the streets shows the sort of questionable judgment that gives a little credibility to government allegations that his provocations are part of a bigger, externally directed plan.  The U.S. State Department spokesman insisted on Thursday that it “is absolutely not true” that Washington is interested in “influencing the domestic political situation in Venezuela.”  Whatever the merit of the allegations and denials,  Venezuelan elites on both sides of the deep divide seem ill-prepared to find a better way of doing politics.

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  1. Daniel Levine

     /  February 17, 2014

    Hugo Chavez and the movement built around him rose to prominence and gained power with promises to end corruption, end abuse by police and army (the reaction against the use of the military during the 1989 Caracazo (and earlier events) was severe, to promote truly independent institutions (including the judiciary). and political reform. What have these years brought? Continued corruption, with new variations and new beneficiaries, continued and extended repression and violations of rights, epidemic criminal violence, destruction of independent institutions including the judiciary but extending to those that manage elections and others with escalating pressure on independent sources of news, information, and education, new heights (or lows) of mismanagement leading to high inflation, disinvestment, scarcity, visible decay of infrastructure and basic public services. Initiatives for political reform, centered most recently on the comunales, turn out on closer inspection to be mostly arrangements for top down control.

    A negative panorama
    It all makes one weep

    Daniel Levine

  2. Paolo Luers

     /  February 17, 2014

    “Questionable judgment “? What we saw in the streets of Caracas and other towns in Venezuela tells a different story: without Hugo Chavez and with Maduro being unable to motivate his own people, the chavista movement has lost it’s control of the streets, even in some of the poor barrios. Leopoldo López is a very sophisticated organizer, so he is the first in the opposition camp to understand that they have to change from electoral to more aggressive ways of confronting the regime. Don’t underestimate this guy, and don’t underestimate the unity shown by him and Capriles and others, playing different roles and different styles of leadership.

  3. Daniel Levine

     /  February 17, 2014

    I think, frankly, that the writer of your blog is seeking to be “balanced” and therefore
    gives us a six of one half dozen of another view. But balance is not the same thing as objectivity which depends on facts.. Real objectivity depends on facts.

  4. Eric Hershberg

     /  February 18, 2014

    Dan Levine is correct in speculating that when CLALS staff drafted the blog post we intended to put forth a balanced assessment. We always try to do that, and my sense is that it is especially worth doing in this instance, since so much that is broadcast over the internet, on the streets and in press conferences by both Chavista and anti-Chavista commentators is hysterical in tone and lacking in dispassionate analysis. I suppose that one way of reading what we came up with is that in seeking balance we put forth a “six one way a half dozen the other” sort of argument, but that wasn’t the intent and we don’t take the view that “objectivity” prevents one from taking sides.

    A review of recent AULABLOG posts turns up a good many cases – most, I think – where we aim to be objective about particular conflicts or disputes but conclude in our italicized third paragraph “punch line” with strong assertions about which side is getting it right and which is getting it wrong. Here, the point that we intended to make was that both the Maduro administration and the Lopez-led segment of the opposition are getting it wrong. They are escalating confrontation in ways we’ve seen before and that don’t serve the country (or the opposition’s goal of removing the incumbents from office) well. In that sense, yes, we said that one was six and the other was a half dozen, but it’s not that we took that approach in order to maintain balance and objectivity.

    I agree with Levine’s characterization of what brought Hugo Chavez to prominence and power and also what his regime has effected, but one could add other things to the list of accomplishments. In particular, one could add that Chavez and his followers have repeatedly won elections. This is important, because if the opposition aspires to reverse the negative panorama that Levine concludes “make one weep,” then in my view the single most important thing it has to do is to win at the polls. That is not going to be easy: the government has a strong base of popular support, and has no reservations about abusing the rules. But sometimes one has to play on a tilted field. The Chileans used the plebiscite to unseat Pinochet, and in 2016 the Democrats will try once again to retain the White House despite measures intended to disenfranchise minority voters in battleground states across the U.S. Our piece implied that Capriles has become increasingly cognizant of this reality, and that Lopez’s followers are undermining his progress. That is our interpretation, and I welcome Paulo Luers’ warning to us that it is a misreading. We shall see.

  5. Daniel Levine

     /  February 18, 2014

    We disagree about the role of balance, and its relation to objectivity. As to elections, i of course acknowledge that elections have been won in Venezuela and i for one have always acknowledged the legitimacy of President Chavez as President whether or not i like his government. They won elections. yes that is absolutely so, and that provides legitimacy. But one also needs to ask about the conditions of these elections, the playing field, the nature of electoral institutions. But the answer is really not so simple as ” go win elections”.. it is also important to note the steady decline in the independence of electoral monitoring institutions, the steady erosion of what one might term a level playing field. The conditions of information factor in here as well, as does the violence. The suggested parallel to the US is really not appropriate given the real conditions

  6. Jon

     /  April 10, 2014

    Daniel Levine quite spectacularly misses the point of this blog post, which is to point out the ways in which (time and time again) the Venezuelan opposition are often their own worst enemies.

    As Eric observes, the reasons why the opposition repeatedly failed to unseat Chávez cannot be reduced to corruption or vote-fixing.

    Levine wants to have it both ways: admitting (because it is unarguable) that election after election that chavismo won were substantially free and fair, yet continuing to carp nonetheless. It all makes one weep.

    All the more thanks, then, to AULA for providing, even in this brief analysis, a welcome corrective and healthy dose of realism.


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