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.

After Chávez?

Photo by:     UKBERRI.NET Uribe Kosta eta Erandioko agerkari digitala | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: UKBERRI.NET Uribe Kosta eta Erandioko agerkari digitala | Flickr | Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s solemn appearance on national television on December 8 may have marked more than his departure for a fourth round of cancer treatment in Cuba.  His designation of Vice President and former Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro as his successor in the event he could not continue his duties indicated an initial farewell from politics as well – with wide-ranging implications in- and outside Venezuela.  Chávez asked “with all my heart” that his supporters elect Maduro to continue the Bolivarian revolution in the event of his death or inability to continue his mandate, with a clear eye to the constitutional requirement for emergency elections to be held within just 30 days should the president die or become incapacitated within the first four years of the term.  On Tuesday, Maduro announced that the president was recuperating after a six-hour procedure in Havana.  He did not declare a sure and speedy recovery but rather asked for Venezuelans’ prayers.

Speculation about the domestic scenario, including struggles within the ruling party, is intense.  Maduro’s most frequently mentioned rival to succeed Chávez is Diosdado Cabello, who was also alongside Chávez as he made the announcement last week.  While Maduro and Cabello both have had years of government experience and demonstrated political loyalty, questions remain about whether they – or anyone else – could replicate Chávez’s connection with poor voters and keep their weak political party together.  Informed speculation about the long-term impact on the region, if the succession stumbles, ranges from predictions of a cutoff of subsidies and subsidized oil, that would destabilize Cuba, Nicaragua and others to, among those who never saw Chávez as effective regionally, shrugged shoulders.

An even greater unknown is how well the opposition would do in the event of a snap election.  It is far from certain that these forces would re-unite around former candidate Henrique Capriles so shortly after he lost the October 2012 election.  The new system of primary elections that produced the single candidate last year would be difficult to replicate so quickly.  With both the ruling and opposition parties vulnerable to tensions and splits, a scenario of instability could easily result.  If Chávez’s health permits, he could conceivably resign the presidency and oversee elections that, although probably skewed, will help maintain the institutional order. If Venezuela is indeed on the brink of a succession process, the fortunes of both Chavismo and the opposition, and indeed of the Venezuelan population, will depend in large part on the capacity of both sides to maintain unity around alternative candidates for the Presidency.

ALBA’s Low Expectations for U.S. Election

Discussion of the U.S. election in  the countries roughly aligned under the banner of the “Bolivarian Alliance” (ALBA) – Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina – generally reflects their own polarized domestic politics.  In Venezuela, comparisons between the two countries electoral campaigns were common.  Washington-based commentator Moisés Naím suggested that Romney could learn from Venezuelan Presidential candidate Capriles’s empathy and inclusiveness in order to unseat Obama.  Andrés Correa ripped President Obama, saying he needs to take Chávez more seriously and needs “an atlas and a compass so he can figure out where he is and come to understand that the United States has more connections with Latin America than with any other part of the world.”  In a column that appeared in several countries, Argentine Ricardo Trotti praised the civic spirit of the first U.S. Presidential debate, and took Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández to task for not engaging in debates.  “The fear of debating implies a fear of democracy,” he wrote.  In Nicaragua, former education minister Humberto Belli Pereira made a similar point in La Prensa, as did a commentator in Bolivia’s El Deber.

Mitt Romney’s criticism of Obama as being naïve about the pernicious influence of the “failed ideology” of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Castro brothers attracted wide coverage throughout the region – with predictable reactions from each side.  In ALBA countries, opposition media evinced skepticism of Obama and appreciation for Romney’s promises to take a hard line against Chávez, and pro-government outlets portrayed the Republican as a loose cannon who trumpets Manifest Destiny and military options.  Chávez’s reference to Romney as “crazy” during the primaries set the tone for some media.  On Aporrea, a popular pro-Chávez online forum, one commentator said he preferred Clinton Eastwood’s empty chair to either Romney or Obama.  In Argentina, Martin Kanenguiser wrote in La Nación that his country could only “tie or lose” in the U.S. election, particularly in regard to the Argentine relationship with international financial institutions.  The 2011 elections in Argentina, followed by the U.S. 2012 contest, have contributed to a sour atmosphere for bilateral relations, noted Leandro Morgenfeld in Marcha.

That the U.S. election has become polarizing illustrates the challenges the new U.S. administration will face in 2013.  If Romney wins and follows through on his rhetoric, he might please hardliners in the U.S. and opposition groups in ALBA-aligned countries, but relations will become even more bitter.  If Obama is re-elected, those opposition groups will continue seeking support for their own agendas and pressure from Washington on ALBA governments. However, the dearth of high level attention would likely continue in a second Obama administration, leaving bilateral relationships to stagnate.  More likely, the real choice in U.S.-ALBA relations will be between empty rhetoric and deafening silence – while further exposing the limits of U.S. influence in the region.

Venezuelan Elections: Chávez Wins, but Confirms Country’s Divide

Henrique Capriles Radonski and Hugo Chávez | Venezuela’s Globovision | Flickr | Creative Commons license

Following a tense day of voting on Sunday, incumbent Hugo Chávez has won the Venezuelan presidential elections.  With 90 percent of the ballots counted, Chávez had approximately 7.4 million votes (about 54.4%) while opposition candidate Henrique Capriles won 6.15 million votes (44.9%).  The president won every state in Venezuela except Táchira and Mérida, and secured a majority of votes in Zulia State, traditionally a bastion of support for the opposition.  Turnout was nearly 81 percent, a very high figure, and thousands of Venezuelans cast their ballots at consulates and voting centers abroad.  As of yet, there have been no allegations of voter fraud or post-electoral violence and both candidates appear to have accepted the result.  A delegation from UNASUR “accompanied” the vote and has affirmed that the electoral process was legitimate.

Chávez will embark on his third consecutive presidential term in January 2013 and, health permitting, will remain in power until at least 2019.  The ruling PSUV has a sufficient majority in parliament to ensure that Chávez will be able to legislate comfortably.  However, should Chávez’s health prevent his completing the term, the PSUV lacks an obvious successor who could carry forward with the Bolivarian Revolution.  Regardless, the Chávez agenda faces huge challenges, particularly with an economy rife with distortions and a security situation spiraling out of control.

While Capriles and the opposition were defeated at the polls, his candidacy galvanized an opposition that is far better organized and more united than at any point since Chávez’s  rise to the Presidency 14 years ago.  The 6.15 million votes Capriles received was the greatest number ever for a losing candidate in a presidential Venezuelan election, and kept Chávez’s margin of victory within single-digits.  Clearly, a large segment of the population opposes further expansion of the Bolivarian Revolution.  It remains to be seen whether a united opposition can complicate Chávez’s efforts to move Venezuela further down the road to his brand of socialism.   

Uncertainty in Runup to Venezuela Elections

Photo: Venezuela elections 2012 | by World Development Movement | Flickr | Creative Commons

Polls in anticipation of Venezuela’s presidential election on October 7 yield, not surprisingly, wildly different results.  A survey by Datanálisis puts President Chávez ahead of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by nearly 15 points, and Consultores 21 predicts a much tighter race and places Capriles on top with just a narrow margin.  Both Chávez and Capriles have declared that they have the support of the majority of Venezuelans.  Chávez insists that he needs to complete his “Bolivarian Revolution.”  Capriles has vowed to tackle everyday issues, such as rising crime and violence, and has pledged to liberalize currency controls and promote investment in agriculture.  Both predict dire consequences if they lose.  Chávez contends that “civil war” will break out, and Capriles insists that a Chávez victory would take Venezuela one step closer to becoming “another Cuba.”

Polling data are notoriously unreliable wherever elections are not strictly about choosing a government but, to some citizens, are perceived as involving a change in the underlying regime.  For many Venezuelans, both pro- and anti-Chavista, the balloting in October is precisely about regime continuity or change.  The surveys undoubtedly reflect that this may indeed be a transcendent election in Venezuela.  This unreliability further complicates analysis of what happens after the election: how both sides would respond to a razor-thin margin of victory or to a decisive verdict.  In the latter circumstance, the losing parties would seem to have no option but to relent, but the challenge would be no less daunting if Capriles wins and has to effect a smooth transition.

The Obama Administration, for its part, has tried to keep its distance from the Chávez government – except for the occasional counternarcotics cooperation – and overall has avoided interference in the electoral process.  But persistent tensions in the relationship make it hard for Washington to assert neutrality in the elections.  Capriles, in an interview with the Miami Herald, criticized the Obama administration for caring little about Latin America, saying “I think the bureaucracy ate him up.”  Capriles urged the U.S. to establish a “relationship of equals” with Latin American nations.  Such criticism most likely reflects a desire by Capriles to appear independent of Washington, but should he find himself in the Presidency, it may take on a life of its own – and he may join most of the region’s leaders in regretting U.S. aloofness toward the region.