The Small, but (potentially) Important Role of Foreigners

Regarding my post from yesterday, a Venezuelan friend told me that he felt that I overplayed the role of foreign actors in the current post-electoral crisis in Venezuela. Looking back, I think he is absolutely right. However the country comes out of this, it will be Venezuelans who have the final say, and that’s absolutely how it should be. That said, I would like to clarify the role I think other states and international organizations can play in these scenarios and I why I think it’s so unfortunate that so many key players are choosing to back Nicolás Maduro while downplaying the protests of the opposition (which at this point are merely a call for a full recount in an extremely close election).

The important caveat that has to go with this is that the chavista government wants to be seen internationally as legitimate. As such, having other states and prominent international organizations recognize Maduro as the president elect is an important prize to them. Moreover, in a highly contentious post-election climate, having credible outsiders support your position can be important to domestic legitimacy. I think this is particularly important to Maduro right now as a he resists opposition calls for a recount. The fact that Brazil, Spain, Unasur and the OAS have all recognized him implies that they all believe that the votes were properly counted and therefore calls for a recount are superfluous and perhaps just being a sore loser.

Domestically, I think this can play an important role in shifting support away from the opposition’s demands for a recount. Not everyone who voted for Capriles necessarily believes that he won, and many were certainly people who had previously voted for Chávez. That they preferred Capriles to Maduro doesn’t mean they are strongly supportive of him. As such, if ostensibly credible third parties are saying the election was legitimate, they will be willing to accept that Maduro won and he will be better able to weather this storm without giving in. Conversely, if those actors were willing to hold off on recognizing Maduro and instead diplomatically encourage dialogue (i.e. reach an agreement on a recount), it would lend that same third party credibility to the opposition argument, and might even pull some soft chavistas who might have considered voting for Capriles before voting for Maduro to favor a recount.

I think this was the important role the international community played in Peru in 2000. By refusing to legitimate what had happened, they lent credibility to those opposing Fujimori and limited his options for action until he finally decided it wasn’t worth it and fled the country. The case against Maduro now is far less clear in Venezuela right now than it was against Fujimori in Peru then, but anything that might weaken opposition resolve even a little is a benefit to the government when the margin is so narrow.

And all that said, there’s also this.


The mask slips off

Sunday’s presidential election in Venezuela turned out to be quite surprising. Despite Nicolás Maduro’s tremendous monetary, communication and mobilization advantages over Henrique Capriles, he was only able to achieve a modest victory. This even despite the type of high turnout levels I, and others, thought would doom Capriles. Even more surprising, Maduro initially indicated he would allow a full recount of the results. Unfortunately, that proved fleeting and by Monday afternoon, Maduro was rejecting any need for a recount and explicitly called those demanding a recount golpistas (coup plotters). Moreover, as protests have sprung up across the country, and with a large march planned in Caracas tomorrow, Maduro has taken an even stronger tone, saying he would use a mano dura (hard hand) to stop the protest.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s foreign minister enthusiastically congratulated Maduro on his victory and pointed to it as a triumph of democracy that will further aid in regional integration. Cristina Kirchner also has announced plans to attend the inauguration and Unasur appears to be backing Maduro as well.

A Venezuelan friend on Twitter today commented that Venezuela now is like Peru in 2000 when Alberto Fujimori attempted to extend himself in power through electoral fraud and failed. I wish I could say I agreed, but the situation is quite different this time. For one, Fujimori’s candidacy was clearly illegal except through the most partisan reading of the constitution, whereas Maduro’s is wholly legal (even if his role as interim president was not). Second, the irregularities in Peru were far more obvious than those in Venezuela. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is no regional body that appears willing or capable of even the half-hearted mesa de diálogo that the OAS set up in 2000. I wrote several months ago about the weakness of the OAS in all but the most egregious of constitutional violations and I don’t see how, with at least five member states certain to support Maduro (Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Brazil and Argentina) as well as several others who likely will, that anything will happen.

The next few days will be exceedingly important. Seven people have died already in protests (with at least one being chavista) and with the government appearing to threaten violence against future protests, it could get much worse. Perhaps Maduro will agree to a recount that will establish with certainty that he won. More ominously, this may prove the moment when the mask fell off completely and Venezuela lost all pretense of being a democracy at all.

No se den por vencidos, pero…

I had an interesting lunch today with a few Venezuelans from the Inter-America Development Bank and another gringo (who just sounds Venezuelan when he speaks Spanish) discussing the election this weekend in their country. We talked about a lot of interesting things, including hypotheticals about a post-Capriles victory world, but I was intrigued by their ideas on how abstention could play into Capriles’ favor in the election.

On one side, the thinking goes, is the fact that many chavistas are really that only in the sense that they supported Chávez the man and not any specific chavista governing philosophy. Therefore, with Chávez gone, they will be less enthusiastic and may even be reluctant to support Maduro since Chávez’s popularity did not carry over to his government or ministers (of whom Maduro was among the most prominent). On the opposition side, the idea is that with Capriles running again, and Chávez gone, the opposition will be fired up at the chance for victory and will turn up in basically the same numbers as in October, when there was a strong belief they could actually beat Chávez.

I’m less sold on the latter argument than the former, personally. While opposition turnout will certainly be higher than it was in December for parliamentary elections, I don’t know if the opposition is as fired up as they were in October. It’s impossible to know the extent to which opposition supporters have decided that this election is essentially rigged against them and won’t bother voting, but it seems certain it will mean somewhat lower turnout than in October.

So what if Capriles supporters turn out in exactly the same numbers as they did in October? How much chavista abstention* would be necessary for the 6.6 million votes Capriles won then to equal 50% of the votes cast? Since the registration list will be the same as in October, we know there will be just short of 18.9 million registered voters in this election. We also know that 1.89% of votes were blank or invalid in October and will assume that it will be about the same as last time. Assuming third party candidates don’t win even the .58% they combined for in 2012, this leaves Capriles and Maduro competing for 98.11% of those 18.9 million potential votes. For Carpiles to win with 6.6 million votes this time around would therefore require turnout be no higher than 71%, or 9 points less than it was in October.

This is obviously possible. However, it remains a tall order to expect 1.7 million people to stay home rather than voting for Maduro. In a regular election, I think Capriles could make up that ground, but a mirco-campaign with no funding and almost no access to the media is a different story.

*This could also include switching sides from voting chavista cancelling out opposition abstention.

Why I kind of hope Maduro wins

On April 14, Venezuelans will head to the polls for the second time in just over five months to elect a president. This time, the choice is between current de facto president and anointed chavista dauphin Nicolás Maduro and Henrique Capriles Radonsky, the opposition governor of Miranda state and second-time candidate. While it’s obvious to anyone who has read anything else I’ve written que no soy ningún chavista, I have to admit that part of me hopes that Maduro wins, if only because, considering the state of the Venezuelan economy, it could be worse for the opposition (and in a longer-term sense, the country as a whole) to win now and be holding the reins when things fall apart.

The Venezuelan economy over the last 14 years has gone from being a semiproductive mess of patronage and government intervention suffering through low oil prices to a massively unproductive mess of even more patronage and government intervention buoyed, tenuously, by high oil prices. The combination of those factors has come to mean that, according to UN Comtrade, Venezuela’s oil exports account for more than 96% of its export earnings. A web of restrictions and onerous regulatory requirements exacerbate this as well as a currency so overvalued that a 45% devaluation in February still leaves the official dollar rate nearly four times as high as the black market. Even the engine of the Venezuelan economy, the oil sector, is creaking and in need of serious reform. A decade of being used as a political machine in addition to an oil company has taken a serious toll on PdVSA, whose production, even by its own admission has fallen each of the last three years, while total production in the country is stagnant. Simply put, the economy is overwhelmingly biased against non-oil sectors while the oil sector declines; a recipe for serious problems.

This only scratches the surface of the problems facing the economy. It seems unlikely that there won’t be some sort of reckoning between now and 2018 when the next elections are scheduled to take place and equally unlikely that even the most devoted reformer (which I’m not sure Capriles would be even if he had the political capital of a resounding victory) would be able to untangle the mess in time. The potential for the opposition to finally win back power after 15 years only to inherit the crisis chavismo created could be disastrous. Voters tend to vote on recent economic performance and many will remember the Chávez era as one of relative plenty. If winning now means that chavismo (and I’m off the opinion that sooner or later some charismatic politician will appropriate Chávez’s movement) gets to blame the opposition for the mess chavismo made, it could be better for both the country and the opposition if Maduro wins and has to deal with it.

This type of strategic interest feels more cynical than I think it actually is. I don’t believe chavismo capable of the reforms necessary to save Venezuela’s economy and I don’t think the opposition can push them through except if chavismo has been discredited. In effect, it’s the least bad option out of many terrible options.

Lula the Overrated

For the second consecutive election in Venezuela, former Brazilian president Luis Ignácio Lula da Silva has filmed an ad in support of the PSUV (chavista) candidate for president. Setting aside the gross hypocrisy of Nicolás Maduro constantly assailing the opposition for being foreign agents while prominently displaying a foreign leader’s endorsement on his campaign website, I think it casts into relief the degree to which Lula the president and Lula the person are different, and how both get way more credit than they deserve.

Lula is often depicted as the face of a sort of moderate left which governs democratically and within a market framework, but still with a strong sense of social justice. This sits in opposition to both the traditional Latin American left and the populist left typified by Hugo Chávez, which were distrustful of democracy and antagonistic to market-based economics. Despite initial fears by many, Lula, who had previously run for president on a much more radical platform, did govern in a democratic way and largely sought to improve on the reforms implemented by his successor, most notably with Bolsa Familia, a conditional cash transfer program credited with reducing poverty dramatically. During his presidency, the economy grew rapidly and the country’s democratic institutions grew stronger. All of that said, Lula’s economic performance is often exaggerated and his commitment to democracy and human rights abroad has not been robust.

During Lula’s time in office, the Brazilian economy did grow rapidly, even weathering the global financial crisis. However, much of that was due to factors outside of his control, and it may have served to prevent necessary reforms which are hampering growth now under his successor. Specifically, the period after 2003 was a good time for nearly every economy in Latin America, mainly as a result of the rapid growth in China. Chinese demand for resources pushed up commodity prices, delivering a boom for producer countries. For Brazil, this was particularly the case with soy beans and iron ore. This all happened after a decade of significant, if incomplete, pro-market reforms under Fernando Henrique Cardoso. During his presidency, Lula failed to make any significant reforms to improve Brazil’s notoriously sclerotic labor markets or significantly improve investment in infrastructure and education, creating severe bottlenecks in the economy which are even threatening Brazil’s preparations to host the 2014 World Cup. Growth under Lula was impressive, but much of it was due not to his policies but to solid pro-growth policies in China.

On human rights abroad, Lula has been too willing to let ideology determine his response. For instance, in 2010, imprisoned Cuban dissident Oswaldo Zapata Tamayo died as a result of a hunger strike while Lula was in the country. Rather than condemn Cuba’s treatment or even (understandably) simply refuse to comment, Lula instead compared Zapata Tamayo to a common criminal in Brazil. This was particularly galling because of the time Lula himself spent as a political prisoner during Brazil’s last military dictatorship.

Similarly, on democracy, Lula has been quick to step to the defense of leftist presidents while seemingly oblivious to eroding democratic norms by those same presidents. For instance, when Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a coup by the legislature, judiciary and military, Zelaya ended up taking refuge for month in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa after sneaking back into the country, and Brazil refused to recognize the newly elected president. This is not to say that the Brazilian government was wrong to support Zelaya (the US and every other country in the hemisphere did as well), simply that their support was overwhelming and unequivocal. This stands in contrast to Lula’s decisions to endorse Chávez and now Maduro. The Venezuelan constitution (whose convention was convened by Chávez and was written overwhelmingly by chavistas) is worth less than the paper it’s printed on, Maduro is acting president despite the fact that the constitution explicitly says someone else should be, and the institutions of the state are openly being used in the campaign while the opposition is limited to a handful of minutes of airtime per day. Despite all this, Lula felt it his duty to express his support for a de facto president running in a free, but certainly not fair election.

Lula, without a doubt, deserves the popularity he enjoys in his native country. Saying he could have done better does not change the fact that millions left poverty during his presidency. Sadly though, in supporting first Chávez and now Maduro, Lula seems determined to ensure that his pretty successful model is not replicated elsewhere.