Venezuelan Elections: Economic Crisis Turns Up the Heat on Chavismo

By Michael M. McCarthy*

A faded legacy. Photo Credit: Julio César Mesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

A faded legacy for Chavismo? Photo Credit: Julio César Mesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

Twenty-four long months since their country’s last national election, Venezuelans head back to the polls to elect a new National Assembly on December 6 in a tense political climate – with no promise that the government will respect the opposition’s near-certain victory.  All 167 seats in the unicameral body will be up for grabs in a race polarized between Chavismo’s pro government coalition and the Mesa de Unidad Democrática opposition coalition.  Thanks largely to a rapidly deteriorating economy, the government’s approval rating decreased from 50 percent in 2013 to 20 percent in September, according to the national Venebarómetro poll.  A range of polls in September indicated the MUD is poised to win either a simple or “qualified” (60 percent) majority.  Observers generally agree that the main measure of success for Chavismo is preventing the MUD from obtaining a two-thirds majority, and that blocking a qualified majority would be a major triumph.

For ordinary Venezuelans the campaign is overshadowed by the massive economic crisis.  Skyrocketing inflation, severe shortages of basic goods and services, and reduced social assistance programs are contributing to tensions on the street, where the campaign is not as present as in years past.  Nevertheless, heavy turnout is still expected – 66 percent of eligible voters participated in the last National Assembly elections in 2010, and pollsters report a strong intention to vote.

  • The MUD has shaped its campaign around leveraging the vote as a mechanism for punishing economic mismanagement and restoring some institutional balance to a political system that barely reflects opposition voices at the national level. Skepticism of the National Electoral Board, which rejected the MUD’s request for international electoral observation by the OAS, EU or UN, has increased.  Slashes to budgetary support for opposition governors and mayors, while the government channels funds to unelected parallel state and municipal authorities, make supporters wonder whether a victory will be fully respected.
  • The government refreshed its slate of candidates by promoting generational and gender diversity, but stalwarts, including current National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello, remain prominent. The party is distributing last-minute pork to mobilize voters, and it’s working the system’s rural bias – each department is automatically allocated three deputies – where strong government presence gives it a strategic advantage.  Strikingly, the Chávez legacy has become a liability for President Maduro because the former President was much more charismatic and economic conditions were considerably better during his tenure.

The Maduro administration seems to have run out of diversionary moves after exaggerated external threats from Colombia and Guyana faded.  It is also on the defensive after the Rousseff administration, Maduro’s most powerful diplomatic partner, expressed unhappiness about Caracas’s opposition to its choice of a Brazilian political heavyweight to lead UNASUR’s “electoral accompaniment mission.”  The President has also been set on back on his heels by intensified international criticism of the trial and conviction of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who, according to a state attorney who worked the case, was sent to jail for 14 years on fraudulent charges.  Regardless of the outcome on December 6, the direction of the country is highly uncertain.  Maduro has said he’ll accept the results “whatever they are,” but he has also said “we have to win, by whatever means possible” (como sea and cualquier manera), and that if the opposition wins “I will not hand over the revolution” but rather “proceed to govern with the people in a civic-military union.”  In the next couple weeks, the government may still try to throw the opposition off course, but the MUD does not seem interested in renewing street protests – more violence is unlikely to advance its objectives. Neither do its leaders seem confident that a renewal of talks on rebuilding democratic institutions will help.

November 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: 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.