Un “Hail Mary” criollo

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On Monday, the head of the Consejo Nacional Electoral in Venezuela, Tibisay Lucena, finally announced that December 6th as the date for this year’s parliamentary election after months of delays. While the CNE delayed its announcement over the past few months, many of the rumors that sprung up had implied that the election would occur much earlier than that–September of October being the most commonly speculated–and as such, the later date has inspired a new round of speculation. Most obviously, December 6th is the same date that Hugo Chávez was elected way back in 1998. This will certainly be a point of emphasis in the chavista campaign as it tries to overcome what is likely to still be an economy in crisis (a music video campaign ad for PSUV released this week prominently features Daniela Cabello–the daughter of Diosdado–and mentions Chávez repeatedly without a single reference of any sort to Nicolás Maduro).

While I think the symbolism of the date is important, and definitely not a coincidence, the more important factor is that the date is about as far back as they could reasonably push it back while still promising an election this year and this illustrates an important tension for the government. On the one hand, barring some sort of miracle, PSUV seems bound to lose any passably fair election by a landslide, thereby losing control of the National Assembly, which could actually become a real check on executive power. So the government has every incentive to not risk an election. On the other hand, chavismo, for all its obviously authoritarian behaviors, still tries to maintain the veneer of being a democracy. This has allowed the region’s leaders to ignore many of the worst abuses in the country (and even to make excuses for them). When the government won every election, this wasn’t an issue. Chavez could always claim electoral legitimacy, even as he decimated the country’s democratic institutions, and that was sufficient for a region that’s never been big on institutions anyway. Skipping an election altogether is something brazen enough that countries like Brazil and Chile would no longer be able to turn a blind eye to the democratic breakdown, yet winning an election is nearly impossible without the kind of massive fraud that would bring a similar opprobrium on the government.

Pushing the elections back is essentially a Hail Mary play for the government. They know they have to have an election this year, or they might start facing external pressure from governments they can’t easily label as fascist. But they also know they can’t win an election this year the way things are going. So the fallback plan is to push the elections as far into the future as possible and hope to raise enough money to inject into the economy to at least slow the economy’s contraction, all while hoping that oil prices recover. This, combined with what will likely be more blatant violations of election laws and quite a bit of voter intimidation as well as outright fraud might be enough to keep the election close enough that the gerrymandering that gives chavista areas more representation will keep the election close enough to maintain a majority.

Is this likely to work? Probably not.

Venezuela’s options for raising money at this point are very limited. While the Chinese did recently sign an agreement for $5 billion in new investments in Venezuela, it appears that there are restrictions on how that money can be used. Moreover, the headline figures announced compared the actual investments often differ dramatically. Beyond that, the government is limited to selling off some refineries and allowing PetroCaibe countries to pay off debts at a discount, but these are all one-off injections that are relatively small compared to the money being hemorrhaged as a consequence the economy’s cornucopia of economic distortions and will make the country’s finances even more dire afterward than they are now. Oil prices could recover, of course. But the general consensus is that prices will remain in the $60-80 range for the next year at least, so it would likely require some sort of supply shock like a war to really push prices up in the next 6 months.

The one saving grace for the government, is that the only body that will be allowed to monitor the elections in any way will be Unasur, which has hardly shown itself willing to criticize even the government’s most blatant democratic violations. This is further buoyed by the fact that they will not be doing a formal election observation mission, but rather an accompaniment, which is confined to the day of the elections and is largely ceremonial. Safe to say, there will be a lot of room for electoral jiggery-pockery. The question is how much will be necessary to tip the scales of the election compared to the amount that will be too much even for Unasur (and especially Brazil).

Like most Hail Mary attempts, this one seems very likely to fail. But when they succeed:

Of course, I’ve heard that October and November are prime impossibly stupid and unrealistic coup plot-discovering season…

Lo maduro tiende a pudrir

It’s been a dispiriting few days for Venezuela’s democrats. The opposition’s chances of sufficiently proving the illegitimacy of the election are diminishing by the day as the government pulls a successful bait and switch. More ominously, the shallow veneer that remained of a functioning institutional democracy is quickly disappearing. Opposition representatives in the Asamblea Nacional (AN) have already been stripped of their right to speak on the floor for not recognizing Nicolás Maduro’s victory by Diosdado Cabello, and yesterday, several prominent members were apparently physically assaulted by chavista representatives, allegedly while Cabello watched laughing.

If that is what really happened (and I believe it probably did), it represents the effective dissolution of the AN, which was the last branch of government not completely controlled by chavistas. With both opposition and government rallies planned for today, it’s increasingly likely that the Maduro take on chavismo will be more violent and openly authoritarian than the original version.

That said, I don’t believe this is a tenable situation for the Maduro government, despite having the support half the country and the full machinery of the state on its side. Most importantly because Venezuela’s political realm, for all its faults, has been roughly democratic for the last 54 years. Punto Fijo may have been corrupt and elite-centric, but opposition was still possible (just look at Hugo Chávez). Similarly, for all of his authoritarian leanings, Chávez still permitted a real opposition to exist against him. Whatever steps he took to debilitate the opposition, it was still there and still had a voice, albeit a small one. After so many years of more or less freedom of expression, I don’t believe the broad polity will accept a traditional authoritarian government for long. Moreover, I am extremely dubious that the military has the stomach for any major violent repression.

Beyond that, Maduro has to contend with Venezuela’s crumbling economy. Increased production in the US and elsewhere, coupled with slowing growth in China, weak growth in the US and Japan and a severe recession in Europe is pushing down the price of oil. Considering the damage already inflicted on the economy by 14 years of chavismo, the Venezuelan economy is fragile and unlikely to be able to weather a sustained period of slightly lower oil prices (an economist friend thinks as high as $70/bbs, I think perhaps even higher). Few governments successfully weather major economic downturns, and a weak, incompetent one like Maduro’s is especially unlikely to do so, especially because the entire political economy of chavismo has left him virtually no room to maneuver.

When I wrote before the election about why it could be better for the opposition if Maduro won, I did not expect such a rapid shift toward blatant dictatorship. While disturbing, it may prove his undoing, particularly if the Venezuelan economy slides into recession. Sadly, this still means things probably will have to get worse there before they get better.