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.