Venezuela: Trying to Stay Afloat

By Michael McCarthy* and Fulton Armstrong

Venezuela Oil Maduro

Photo Credit: Democracy Chronicles and Charles Henry (modified) / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro continues to receive increasingly bleak economic news, and his modestly positive policy responses seem unlikely to help.  Oil revenues dropped 293 percent from 2014 (US$37 billion) to 2015 (US$12.5 billion).  The value of oil exports, which account for 95 percent of the country’s export earnings, has dropped to a 30-year low ($30 a barrel), accelerating a recession, paralyzing shortages, and soaring inflation.  The Central Bank reported that inflation reached 180.9 percent in 2015, and that the GDP contracted for the second consecutive year (5.7 percent).  Maduro blamed an “imperialist strategy in a petroleum war” aimed at destroying OPEC.  He also asserted that Venezuela suffered from an “international financial blockade” that – by obstructing the country’s efforts to refinance its debt – was intended to force it “to its knees” and to “take over” its wealth.

Several days after celebrating a Supreme Court decision reaffirming his authority to declare an “economic emergency,” which the opposition challenged last month, Maduro this week announced several modest economic measures aimed at stemming the slide.

  • He ordered a 60-fold increase in gasoline prices – dramatic-sounding but preserving Venezuelan gas (about US$0.23 per gallon at the black-market exchange rate) as one of the cheapest in the world – but the decision is significant as the first increase in about 20 years. An increase in 1989 triggered riots – the famous Caracazo that most analysts cite as the beginning of the end of the old order that Hugo Chavez toppled definitively when elected President in 1998.  In allusion to this past, Maduro said he “hoped people on the streets would understand.”  (Caracas-based consultancy Ecoanalítica estimates that the existing fuel subsidy costs the Venezuelan government US$12 billion a year.)
  • Maduro also announced a 37 percent devaluation of the bolívar – from 6.3 to 10 to the U.S. dollar – for official exchange rates used for the essential goods like food and medicine. The bolívar trades at about 1,000 to one on the black market, but the decreased subsidy implicit of the official rate for necessities is nonetheless significant.
  • Venezuela’s proposal for an OPEC freeze in oil production, in hopes of driving oil prices back up, drew supportive remarks from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran, but the scheme has lacked traction. Industry observers said one reason is that Tehran is eager to increase exports to regain market share as sanctions against it are lifted.
  • Maduro replaced economic czar Luis Salas – known as a hardline leftist – just five weeks after appointing him, and appointed in his place a more business-friendly economist, Miguel Pérez Abad, who had been serving as Minister of Commerce. Pérez Abad, whose appointment the President of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce described as a “friendly sign,” has publicly (and accurately) said that Venezuela must simplify its byzantine exchange rate system.
  • These changes come amid Maduro’s increasingly frank self-criticism about state corruption. He recently described a government food distribution company as “rotten” while calling for a restructuring of state-run food import and distribution outlets.

In a four-hour speech replete with foul language and insults against opposition leaders, the President argued that the measures are “a necessary action to balance things,” and he said, “I take responsibility for it.”  But his measures are piecemeal at best.  As opposition leaders have pointed out, he has not explained how he is going to pay Venezuela’s debt, obtain the foreign exchange to import sufficient amounts of basic goods, and guarantee food for the people.  With US$10 billion in bond payments coming due this year, the country has no clear path for avoiding default.  However painful for the population and politically costly for the government, measures such as gasoline price increases will have little impact.  The government wanted the opposition to share some of the costs for economic policy changes, but opposition politicians say that the gas price increase and devaluation are too little, too late. Most believe economic revival depends on dismantling the entire chavista system.  They are once again talking about removing Maduro through a referendum or other means – with one leader, Henrique Capriles, openly calling for a presidential recall, and another, Henry Ramos, the President of the National Assembly, calling for a constitutional amendment to cut the presidential term from six to four years.  The government’s measures suggest a welcome change from Maduro’s previous strategy of buying time through diversionary tactics.  However, the economic measures are likely to fail and, moreover, they increase the chances political temperatures will surge once again.

February 19, 2016

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.

Venezuela: Implications of the Opposition’s Landslide Victory

By Michael McCarthy*

Venezuela Elections 2015

Photo Credits: Nicolas Raymond and 2 dvx ve (modified) / Flickr and Wikimedia Commons, respectively / Creative Commons

Venezuela is just beginning to feel the shock waves of the opposition’s landslide victory and humbling defeat of President Nicolás Maduro’s PSUV.  Riding a wave of discontent with the Maduro government’s management of the economy and political repression, the opposition Mesa de Unidad (MUD) coalition won at least 112 seats in the 167-seat parliament, giving it a commanding two-thirds majority.  The MUD won the popular vote 56-41.  The political scenarios are wide open.  Some preliminary analytical judgments follow:

  • Maduro has accepted the election results, but serious questions remain whether he and his advisors will engage in the give-and-take necessary to make divided government work. He is restructuring his cabinet and has called on supporters to “relaunch” the Bolivarian Revolution.  He says he will strenuously oppose any amnesty law for imprisoned opposition members – a top MUD priority – and that he will “go to combat” if the opposition tries to remove him from office.
  • Despite its historic achievement, the opposition will face challenges to build sustainable unity. The MUD is a heterogeneous electoral alliance, and the hardline and moderate factions are likely to disagree about strategy – whether the time is ripe for pressing for Maduro’s resignation or for cultivating support from disaffected chavistas.
    • The opposition faces the challenge of demonstrating a commitment to what they have criticized most about chavismo – democratic inclusion.  If they want to put Venezuela back together, for example, the MUD will have to decide how to provide PSUV officials guarantees of political inclusion.
    • Passing an amnesty law for political prisoners and addressing the dire economic situation are high on the MUD’s unified agenda – and probably will remain part of a consensus platform.
    • Less clear is how aggressively the opposition will push its agenda from the National Assembly.  Most in the MUD are more closely aligned with the moderate strategy of former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, but others will want to push harder.  They may try to remove chavista-appointed Supreme Court judges likely to oppose Constitutional changes that would curtail Maduro’s powers.
    • The forced resignation of Guatemalan President Pérez Molina and the recent opening of an impeachment process against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff may embolden similar initiatives in Venezuela.
  • The country’s tarnished election system functioned better than many critics had predicted. The 74 percent voter turnout was eight points higher than the last legislative elections.  Reports of violence and irregularities were few.  The Armed Forces provided effective security at the polls, and behaved in a manner that suggests an interest in defending their institutional reputation.  The National Electoral Council (CNE) disappointed many by issuing an unprecedented call for voting centers to remain open even if there were no voters in line, and for delaying reporting the final results, but the voting process was clean enough.
  • Outside Venezuela, chavismo’s loss may be a setback from some leftists – but a relief for most others. Maduro’s defeat is a potential liberation from the albatross that the disastrous Venezuelan regime has become.  For most left-leaning leaders, chavismo had become a deeply flawed project that has, for several years, been toxic.
  • For anti-chavistas outside Venezuela (including some in Washington), the election results indicate that the way to overcome the catastrophe over which Maduro presided was not to threaten the regime with sanctions and encourage extremists in the opposition, but instead to push for the election to take place, with the most safeguards possible. There is precedent for Latin American dictatorships falling in elections that they put on the agenda and then could not stop.
  • Although Maduro’s saber-rattling along the Colombian and Guyanese borders failed to divert attention from his internal mess, his rhetoric of resistance to yielding power suggests the international community should keep an eye on him in case he tries again.
  • The Venezuelan victors should also understand the anxiety of their neighbors over the future of Petrocaribe and other initiatives. Venezuela under Chavez did an enormous service to the region by subsidizing oil in ways that helping governments achieve important social advances.  Long before Chavez, Venezuela used its oil wealth to support allies.  Such assistance is as important now as it has been for decades.

December 9, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

The Venezuelan Opposition: Can the Center Hold?

By Michael M. McCarthy*

Leopoldo Lopez (R) being escorted by the National Guard after turning himself in on February 18, 2014.  Photo Credit: Juan Barreto via Globovisión / Flickr / Creative Commons

Leopoldo Lopez (R) being escorted by the National Guard after turning himself in on February 18, 2014. Photo Credit: Juan Barreto via Globovisión / Flickr / Creative Commons

The leaked video of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López declaring a hunger strike and calling for a renewal of street demonstrations this Saturday threatens to reopen splits within the Venezuelan political opposition.  With Venezuela experiencing an economic crisis – the bolívar lost a quarter of its value on the black market last week and shortages of basic goods plague daily life – the opposition, a disparate group of 29 political parties organized under the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD), seems poised to score a pivotal victory in this year’s legislative election.  But López’s call to protests could renew divisions between those supportive of last year’s La Salida street demonstrations and the moderate camp, led by Governor Henrique Capriles, eager to punish the government at the polls for its poor management of the economy.

  • On May 17 the MUD held open primaries for 37 candidacies, and turnout (8 percent of all registered voters) exceeded expectations, despite very little media attention being devoted to the races. Capriles’s First Justice (PJ) and López’s Popular Will (VP) parties won 13 and 10 candidacies with 19.7 percent and 18.2 percent of the votes, respectively.  Regionally-based parties Democratic Action, strong in rural areas, and A New Time, strong in western Zulia state, performed well, with other small parties winning the remaining candidacies. The results consolidated the negotiating leverage of the PJ and VP as the MUD began internal talks about selecting the remainder of its candidates by consensus and campaign tactics – whether to use a tarjeta única ticket or let individual parties be listed on the ballot on voting day.  (The National Election Council has yet to announce the date.)

The López video, first leaked on government media outlets before going viral on social media late last Saturday, was forceful.  It emerged after news broke that López’s cellmate, VP politician Daniel Ceballos – the former mayor of San Cristobal, an epicenter of the street demonstrations last year – would be transferred to a public jail for common criminals where security guarantees are considerably weaker.  In the video, López mentions the U.S. investigation into chavista National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello for alleged involvement in narco-trafficking; condemns the “permanent repression of our rights”; and demands “the liberation of all political prisoners,” the “halt to persecution, repression, and censorship,” and the setting of an official date for the legislative elections, with OAS and European Union observers.  On Monday, a leader of López’s party endorsed his call for a rally on Saturday, and Lopez’s wife and spokeswoman declared that Venezuela is entering “a new stage of struggle.”

The countrys situation is palpably worse than a year ago, when López went to jail, but opening a new front is not what most of the opposition had in mind.  Capriles and the MUD have issued statements of support since the video leaked, and the MUDs Executive Secretary Jesus Chuo” Torrealba posted a call for unity on Twitter.  Going to the elections divided is a loss, he said.  Going to the street divided is suicide.  Will we learn?  Unanswered, however, is the question of the oppositions ability to avoid becoming bogged down in a leadership struggle just as the campaign season kicks off.  Oppositionists had finally found a political middle ground based on prioritizing the elections and the narrative of ordinary Venezuelans facing daily hardships to find food and other basic necessities.  However legitimate the oppositions fury at the governments repression and mismanagement, the call to the streets risks changing that narrative and diminishing prospects of opposition unity going into the election season. 

May 27, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

Venezuela: Globovisión Doesn’t Show Strong Pro-Government Bias

By Mike Danielson, Michael McCarthy, and Paula Orlando*

Photo Credit: CLALS and Rodrigo Suarez / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: CLALS and Rodrigo Suarez / Flickr / Creative Commons

A study conducted by CLALS has revealed that, contrary to popular perception in Venezuela, Globovisión – standard bearer in news television for the opposition’s political agenda until a May 2013 ownership change – does not exhibit a strong pro-government bias.  Our report, Bias or Neutrality? An Assessment of Television News Coverage in Venezuela by Globovisión, concludes that Globovisión’s framing of the issues has tended to be neutral, and that there was no significant bias in favor of the government or the opposition.  To examine the station’s performance during the first 15 months of new ownership (May 2013-August 2014) – the previous owners felt compelled to sell after mounting fines caused them to operate at a loss – the study examined content during four critical junctures: the 2013 municipal elections, street demonstrations in 2014, the international attempts to mediate Venezuela’s internal political crisis, and shortages of basic goods.  Using content analysis to examine coverage of government and opposition representatives, the favorability of the presentation and portrayal of prominent individuals and organizations, and the choice of issues and perspectives receiving coverage, the review concluded:

  • Non-partisan actors received most coverage (45.3 percent), and pro-government and pro-opposition partisans were equally likely to receive attention (28.4 and 26.3 percent, respectively).  Even in the instances that a small pro-opposition bias was found, pro-opposition voices received only slightly more visibility in terms of total on-air minutes – receiving 37.5 percent, while 33.6 percent went to pro-government partisans, and 28.9 percent went to nonpartisan actors.
  • Pro-opposition perspectives were favored in the periods focused on the municipal elections and street demonstrations, and coverage was more neutral when focused on the international dimensions of the crisis and the shortages of basic goods.
  • There was, however, a pro-government slant regarding story placement, as stories that were more favorable to the Administration of President Nicolás Maduro tended to “lead” as the first stories in a news broadcast.

Privately owned news media in Venezuela face numerous challenges to providing visibility and fair depiction to sharply different perspectives on enormously controversial events.  Although this report calls attention to the need to reassess the perception that Globovisión is strongly biased in favor of the government, notable holes in the channels news coverage suggest international concerns about press freedom issues in Venezuela remain justified.  For example, the case of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López received less attention from Globovisión than from international outlets such as CNN en español or NTN24.  Additionally, footage of former presidential candidate and Governor of Miranda state Henrique Capriles was shown 11 times in the studys sample, but Capriles was not an interview guest on any of the Globovisión programs.  President Maduro, on the other hand, appeared 42 times (beyond government-controlled network broadcasts called cadenas). In spite of Venezuela’s chronic political crisis and extremely difficult political circumstances and the related pressures on news media, Globovision coverage, on balance, was not significantly biased either in favor or against the government.

May 19, 2015

*Mike Danielson (Visiting Assistant Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University), Michael McCarthy, and Paula Orlando are CLALS fellows.  Click here to see their full report and here to see their interview with Voice of America.

Venezuela: Obama into the Fray

By Michael M. McCarthy

(l) President Obama, (r) UNASUR Commission Visits Venezuela. Photo Credits: Steve Jurvetson and Cancillería de Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

(l) President Obama, (r) UNASUR Commission Visits Venezuela. Photo Credits: Steve Jurvetson and Cancillería de Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The March 9 decision by the Obama Administration to sanction Venezuelan government officials – this time freezing the U.S.-based assets of seven of them – appears to be drawing Washington into a conflict it recently viewed as a problem for Latin America to solve.  Implementing the “targeted sanctions,” the U.S. government made the determination that Venezuela’s “situation” was a threat to its national security.  Such a determination is not unique – Washington continues to declare Colombian narco-trafficking a national security threat – but the language in this case is widely seen as inflammatory because the cited source of the threat is President Maduro’s government itself.

  • The action generated a predictably exaggerated reaction from Caracas.  Maduro, who faces an economic crisis with no end in sight and has approval ratings of 22 percent, took the sanctions as an opportunity to change the conversation.  He branded them as “hypocritical,” describing Washington as the “real threat” to world order and criticizing Obama as returning to Cold War-style tactics.  On March 14 the armed forces conducted hyped-up exercises to “counter” the U.S. threat and the day after Congress granted Maduro Decree Powers through an “Anti-Imperialist Ennabling Law for Peace” that lasts through the end of the year.
  • Reactions to the U.S. measure varied greatly among opposition leaders. Governor Henrique Capriles, the opposition’s candidate in the last two presidential elections, echoed the U.S. position that the sanctions are targeted against “the corrupt government elite,” rather than the country or the Venezuelan people.  Governor Henri Falcón, a former military officer who left chavismo’s ranks in 2010 criticized them as “disrespectful.”  The Mesa de Unidad coalition stressed that Venezuela is “not a threat to any country.”  Whereas more hardline opponents are behind the scenes happy about stepped-up U.S. involvement, the more moderate camps – including Capriles’s – appear puzzled about the timing because Washington’s actions effectively moved Maduro to the safer ground of defending sovereignty.
  • The sanctions ignited strong criticism from some regional players.  Nonetheless, they renewed UNASUR’s efforts to mediate, which had gotten off to an unpromising start in Caracas on March 6.  An emergency March 14 UNASUR meeting in Quito issued two declarations – one strongly rejecting the sanctions, even calling for Obama to rescind them, and another reiterating support for the UNASUR Secretary General Ernesto Samper’s pursuit of “the most open dialogue possible” in Venezuela.

The Obama Administration’s stated reasons for the sanctions – measures similar to those proposed in the “Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Law” last year – are not surprising.  Washington has watched with dismay as Maduro has cracked down on opponents, alleged U.S.-supported coup-plotting, and hemmed in U.S. embassy personnel and even tourists with increasingly tough limitations on their activities.  With the opening to Cuba ongoing, the Obama administration may have calculated it could try to appease conservatives in the U.S. Congress and endure a hit to its regional image for imposing sanctions.  Emboldened by UNASUR’s criticism of the sanctions and Europe’s unwillingness to follow Obama’s lead, Maduro will almost certainly continue efforts to play the anti-imperialist card for a while.  The U.S. has shifted the action back into the bilateral relationship, breathing new life into a previously closed chapter in the Venezuelan crisis.

March 16, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

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.

What does the New Year hold for Latin America?

We’ve invited AULABLOG’s contributors to share with us a prediction or two for the new year in their areas of expertise.  Here are their predictions.

Photo credit: titoalfredo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: titoalfredo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

U.S.-Latin America relations will deteriorate further as there will be little movement in Washington on immigration reform, the pace of deportations, narcotics policy, weapons flows, or relations with Cuba.  Steady progress toward consolidating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), however, will catalyze a shared economic agenda with market-oriented governments in Chile, Mexico, Peru and possibly Colombia, depending on how election-year politics affects that country’s trade stance.

– Eric Hershberg

The energy sector will be at the core of the economic and political crises many countries in the Americas will confront in 2014.  Argentina kicked off the New Year with massive blackouts and riots.  Bolivia, the PetroCaribe nations, and potentially even poster child Chile are next.

– Thomas Andrew O’Keefe

Unprecedented success of Mexico’s Peña Nieto passing structural reforms requiring constitutional amendments that eluded three previous administrations spanning 18 years, are encouraging for the country’s prospects of faster growth.  Key for 2014: quality and expediency of secondary implementing legislation and effectiveness in execution of the reforms.

– Manuel Suarez-Mier

Mexico may be leading the way, at least in the short term, with exciting energy sector reforms, which if fully executed, could help bring Mexico’s oil industry into the 21st Century, even if this means discarding, at least partly, some of the rhetorical nationalism which made Mexico’s inefficient and romanticized parastatal oil company – Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) – a symbol of Mexican national pride.  Let’s see if some of the proceeds from the reforms and resulting production boosts can fortify ideals of the Mexican Revolution by generating more social programs to diminish inequality, and getting rid of the bloat and corruption at PEMEX.

– Todd Eisenstadt

Brazil is without a doubt “the country of soccer,” as Brazilians like to say.  If Brazil wins the world cup in June, Dilma will also have an easy win in the presidential elections.  But if it loses, Dilma will have to deal with new protests and accusations of big spending to build soccer fields rather than improving education and health.

– Luciano Melo

Brazilian foreign policy is unlikely to undergo deep changes, although emphasis could shift in some areas.  Brazil will insist on multilateral solutions – accepting, for example, the invitation to participate at a “five-plus-one” meeting on Syria.  The WTO Doha Round will remain a priority.  Foreign policy does not appear likely to be a core issue in the October general elections.  If economic difficulties do not grow, Brazil will continue to upgrade its international role.

– Tullo Vigevani

In U.S.-Cuba relations, expect agreements on Coast Guard search and rescue, direct postal service, oil spill prevention, and – maybe – counternarcotics.  Warming relations could set the stage for releasing Alan Gross (and others?) in exchange for the remaining Cuban Five (soon to be three).  But normalizing relations is not in the cards until Washington exchanges its regime change policy for one of real coexistence.  A handshake does not make for a détente.

– William M. LeoGrande

A decline in the flow of Venezuelan resources to Cuba will impact the island’s economy, but the blow will be cushioned by continued expansion of Brazilian investment and trade and deepened economic ties with countries outside the Americas.

– Eric Hershberg

In a non-election year in Venezuela, President Maduro will begin to incrementally increase the cost of gasoline at the pump, currently the world’s lowest, and devalue the currency – but neither will solve deep economic troubles.  Dialogue with the opposition, a new trend, will endure but experience fits and starts.  The country will not experience a social explosion, and new faces will join Capriles to round out a more diverse opposition leadership.  Barring a crisis requiring cooperation, tensions with the United States will remain high but commerce will be unaffected.

– Michael McCarthy

Colombia’s negotiations with the FARC won’t be resolved by the May 2014 elections, which President Santos will win easily – most likely in the first round.  There will be more interesting things going on in the legislative races.  Former President Uribe will win a seat in the Senate.  Other candidates in his party will win as well – probably not as many as he would like but enough for him to continue being a big headache for the Santos administration.  Colombia’s economy will continue to improve, and the national football team will put up a good fight in the World Cup.

– Elyssa Pachico

Awareness of violence against women will keep increasing.  Unfortunately, the criminalization of abortion or, in other words, forcing pregnancy on women, will still be treated by many policy makers and judges as an issue unrelated to gender violence.

– Macarena Saez

In the North American partnership, NAFTA’s anniversary offers a chance to reflect on the trilateral relationship – leaving behind the campaign rhetoric and looking forward. The leaders will hold a long-delayed summit and offer some small, but positive, measures on education and infrastructure. North America will be at the center of global trade negotiations.

– Tom Long

The debate over immigration reform in Washington will take on the component parts of the Senate’s comprehensive bill. Both parties could pat themselves on the back heading into the mid-term elections by working out a deal, most likely trading enhanced security measures for a more reasonable but still-imposing pathway to citizenship.

– Aaron Bell

The new government in Honduras will try to deepen neoliberal policies, but new political parties, such as LIBRE and PAC, will make the new Congress more deliberative. Low economic growth and deterioration in social conditions will present challenges to governability.

– Hugo Noé Pino

In the northern tier of Central America, despite new incoming presidents in El Salvador and Honduras, impunity and corruption will remain unaddressed.  Guatemala’s timid reform will be the tiny window of hope in the region.  The United States will still appear clueless about the region’s growing governance crisis.

– Héctor Silva

Increased tension will continue in the Dominican Republic in the aftermath of the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision to retroactively strip Dominicans of Haitian descent of citizenship.  The implementation of the ruling in 2014 through repatriation will be met with international pressure for the Dominican government to reverse the ruling.

— Maribel Vásquez

In counternarcotics policy, eyes will turn to Uruguay to see how the experiment with marijuana plays out. Unfortunately, it is too small an experiment to tell us anything. Instead, the focus will become the growing problem of drug consumption in the region.

– Steven Dudley

Eyeing a late-year general election and possible third term, Bolivian President Evo Morales will be in campaign mode throughout 2014.  With no real challengers, Morales will win, but not in a landslide, as he fights with dissenting indigenous groups and trade unionists, a more divisive congress, the U.S., and Brazil.

– Robert Albro

In Ecuador, with stable economic numbers throughout 2014, President Rafael Correa will be on the offensive with his “citizen revolution,” looking to solidify his political movement in local elections, continuing his war on the press, while promoting big new investments in hydroelectric power.

– Robert Albro

Determined to expand Peru’s investment in extractive industries and maintain strong economic growth, President Ollanta Humalla will apply new pressure on opponents of proposed concessions, leading to fits and starts of violent conflict throughout 2014, with the president mostly getting his way.

– Robert Albro

Venezuela: Maduro versus Capriles, again

By Michael McCarthy*

Henrique Caprile / Photo Credit: ICP Colombia / Foter.com / CC BY-SA and  Nicolas Maduro / Photo credit: OEA - OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Henrique Capriles / Photo Credit: ICP Colombia / Foter.com / CC BY-SA and
Nicolás Maduro / Photo credit: OEA – OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Venezuela’s municipal elections on December 8 didn’t conclusively answer the single question on people’s minds:  Would the parties aligned under the leadership of President Nicolás Maduro or those under opposition leader Henrique Capriles win a commanding victory?  Attention centered on this question because Capriles had rejected the results of the April 14 balloting as fraudulent and this time called on voters to give a clear majority to his opposition “electoral bloc.”  Maduro came out ahead in last Sunday’s contest, with its complex ballot asking voters to choose mayors and councilpersons in 335 districts.  His alliance, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) plus left-wing parties, totaled 49 percent of the vote, and parties aligned with the opposition received 42 percent.

But Maduro’s crowing about a “great victory” that propels the Bolivarian Revolution forward with “greater force” and legitimates a “deepening of the economic offensive” rings hollow.  Some of the 9 percent of the vote that went to candidates identified as independents may lean toward him, but the PSUV aspires to be a hegemonic party, claiming a much stronger base, and some hardcore chavistas are complaining about the opposition’s resilience in major urban centers and victories in the capitals of three interior states, all chavista strongholds, including former President Chávez’s home state of Barinas.  In broad strokes, Maduro’s economic populism – attacks last month on so-called economic criminals and measures forcing stores to lower prices – gave him a late boost.  Polls indicate that, with annual inflation running at 54 percent, the move paid off.  Maduro’s blitzkrieg gave urban working-class voters a means to afford items ahead of Christmas and showed the radical base of chavismo his commitment to challenge crony capitalism.  The opposition failed to mount an effective counterattack.  Preparations next year for 2015 National Assembly elections will tell the staying power of this victory for Maduro and the effectiveness of his “economic offensive.”   Capriles, who offered a calm post-election speech, sounded confident of his strategic game, but some in the opposition are probably disappointed that they did not take more Chavista strongholds.

Even though the opposition didn’t win the global numbers game, its significant presence in city halls around the country gives it a position from which to build the outline of a governance model.  One important winner appears to be the electoral process itself, in which the technical machinery ran smoothly and no sustained allegations of fraud were made.  A second winner was governability.  Notwithstanding some bullying of Capriles campaign workers, no violence transpired during the campaign or on voting day, and both sides can claim victories.  Maduro’s triumphalist rhetoric confirms that Venezuelan politics is going to remain far from harmonious, but even a modicum of governability could go a long way as the country faces many tough, if not intractable, questions in the coming year and beyond.

*Michael McCarthy is Lecturer, Latin American Politics, at Johns Hopkins University, School for Advanced International Studies.

Venezuela Update: Confusion in Caracas…and Washington

Photo credit: INTERNATIONAL REALTOR / Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: INTERNATIONAL REALTOR | Foter.com | CC-BY

Three weeks after elections to choose Hugo Chávez’s successor, confusion still reigns in both Caracas and Washington.  The Venezuelan opposition has rejected the results of the election, which the electoral tribunal says Chávez’s handpicked man – Nicolás Maduro – won by only 1.8 percent.  Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles originally asked only for a vote recount – considered reasonable by many because of the narrow margin – but his lawyers upped the ante on 2 May when they officially demanded that the vote be invalidated and new elections be held.  Isolated incidents of political violence turned up the heat in Caracas, although the Götterdämmerung scenarios in the streets that some analysts predicted have not yet materialized.

Every major country of the hemisphere has recognized Maduro as President – except the United States.  (Canada wavered at first but seems to have moved on.)  Washington has invested millions of dollars in “democracy promotion” programs over the years and has provided Capriles and the opposition enduring political support in their efforts to beat Chávez at the polls and later to beat Maduro as his hand-picked successor.  Since the April election, the U.S. government has endorsed the opposition’s call for a vote recount.  So has the OAS, which offered experts to assist in the process.  But only Washington has said that while it is “working with” the Maduro Government, it doesn’t recognize its legitimacy.  The State Department spokesman dodged the issue repeatedly last week, and in an interview with Univisión broadcast at the conclusion of his visit to Mexico last Friday, President Obama himself refused to say whether his Administration officially recognized Maduro as President.  He left little doubt as to his real position, however, when he said that basic principles of human rights, democracy, press freedom and freedom of assembly were not observed in Venezuela following the election.

As AULABLOG pointed out on 23 April, the irony of the United States demanding a hand-count of the ballots is not lost on millions of Latin Americans who remember Washington’s performance in the 2000 Bush-Gore vote – and that it was a politically divided Supreme Court that made the final decision.  The tightness of the vote, Venezuelan electoral realities (past and present), and President Maduro’s over-the-top rhetoric – last week he again accused Washington of backing “neo-Nazis” allegedly trying to overthrow his government and accused a filmmaker of being a spy – make it hard for observers to argue that the elections are legitimate.  President Obama’s statements, including his remark that the spying charge was “ridiculous,” have been measured and continue a noteworthy shift since the near-hysteria about Venezuela during the Bush Administration.  But the fact remains that the U.S. Government’s posture on Venezuela – perhaps unique in its bilateral relations with Latin America since the Cold War – has made it once again the outrider and, among people who remember the Bush-Gore decision, the butt of many jokes.  Importantly, Capriles may be reading Washington’s stance as an endorsement of his own increasingly puzzling demands.  As our 23 April post suggested, Capriles ought to see himself as having a historic chance to lead, poised to challenge Chavismo easily at the polls the next time around.  Yet, like Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2006, he may be squandering an opportunity to present himself to the Venezuelan electorate as the responsible grownup in the room.

Chavismo Wins a Battle But the Tide May Have Turned

By Eric Hershberg

Inauguration of Nicolás Maduro | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Inauguration of Nicolás Maduro | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

President Nicolás Maduro’s inauguration last Friday marked a new stage in the contest between chavistas and the Venezuelan opposition.  Maduro’s surprisingly weak showing at the polls – winning by a meager 1.8 percent margin despite the huge (and abused) advantages of incumbency – plus tensions within his party and his own rhetorical excesses, suggest that chavismo without Chávez confronts challenging odds.  Chávez attracted more votes alive than he could in death, as his hand-picked successor could not match his patron’s appeal at the ballot box.  Looking forward, Maduro and the Partido Unido Socialista de Venezuela (PSUV) will be judged on the basis of their performance.  The road ahead will not be easy for Maduro, as the government  confronts growing economic and security problems, and his ineffective campaign may energize potential competitors from within Chavismo.

Henrique Capriles’s strong showing in the election bodes well for the opposition.  However, athough Maduro’s blanket reference to them as “fascists” is absurd, their apparent eagerness to use the vote recount – reluctantly agreed to by the electoral council hours before Maduro’s inauguration – to remove him from office could breathe life into his allegation that the opposition consists of  golpistas obsessed with taking power.  Overreaching could be their undoing, as it has been in the past.

Latin American presidents, through a UNASUR statement of support and participation in the inauguration, have endorsed Maduro’s ascendance to the Presidency.  Their strong interest, for a variety of reasons, is in a balance between continuity and change in Venezuela. Although there are signs that both Chile and Colombia wavered momentarily, South American governments overall were united in their preference for a chavista government, as this would favor both  internal and regional stability.The United States, on the other hand, has appeared timid.  Maduro’s accusations of U.S. attacks on him and the presence of Iranian leader Ahmadinejad at the inauguration made it impossible for Washington to send a senior emissary to the swearing-in.  Yet the evident absence of the United States, even after the UNASUR endorsement, was petty.  Through statements calling for a recount of 100 percent of the votes both the State Department and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations came across as unable to outgrow a grudge match with Chávez or to grasp that the American position would isolate Washington once again from prevailing sentiment in South America.

There were two winners in the Venezuelan election:  Maduro, who is now the elected President, and Capriles, who managed to secure nearly half the votes in the face of overwhelming odds.  The latter comes out ahead in the long run, but only if he manages his cards wisely.  Washington, meanwhile, seems still not to understand two things:  First, after Bush v. Gore, it will be at least another generation until Americans can say anything about how to count votes.  It was legitimate and appropriate for the OAS to demand a recount, as its record in election monitoring is impeccable.  Secretary General Insulza achieved the core objective of the Organization and should be recognized for having done so.  For the American government to have taken the position that it did suggests an inability to understand the consequences of the 2000 election in Florida for its credibility in election-related issues in the region.  Second, democratic change in Latin America is typically an evolutionary process.  This may be less satisfying to some policymakers who would prefer to see a foe’s outright defeat, but it may be better, for Chavismo’s enemies in both Washington and Caracas, than having their favorite step in at this particular time of high tensions.  If Capriles and his coalition can brand themselves as democratic reformists rather than golpistas, they have a good chance of coming to power when Maduro’s six-year term is exhausted, or even before, and if they convey a message of responsible opposition, key South American governments might well approve of an alternation in power the next time around.