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…

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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.

How Protected is Latin American Democracy?

With the potential for another presidential election looking likely in the near future in Venezuela, looming elections in Ecuador, a recently completed election in Mexico and the contested impeachment of Fernando Lugo in Paraguay earlier in the year, the potential for a contested result and fraud or some other constitutional irregularity is always a possibility. The question for many is: what could be done if something along those lines were to happen?

In theory, the Organization of American States (OAS) has a mechanism for dealing with extra-constitutional events in member states through the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Article 20 authorizes any member state to request the convocation of the Permanent Council “in the event of an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state.” The Permanent Council, if unable to resolve the situation diplomatically can then suspend the member state according to Article 21.

In practice, this really only can work in the event of a coup, and even then only with limited success and requiring a lot of coordination outside of the OAS regarding sanctions and other mechanisms. Even then deposed presidents have not even been considered by the OAS (Bucaram in Ecuador), were returned to power before the Permanent Council could convene (Chávez in Venezuela) or were never returned to power despite the state being suspended due to a determined de facto leadership (Zelaya in Honduras).

Moreover, this process is really only effective in dealing with unconstitutional removals of sitting presidents and is virtually powerless to deal with constitutional overreach by the presidents themselves. This is largely because the OAS is an executive-centric organization. The legislative and judicial branches have little recourse to petition before the General Assembly or Permanent Council, much less individual citizens or opposition groups within member states. In this way, situations of erosions of the constitutional authority by the executive are only indirectly by the OAS. Good examples of this can be seen in Venezuela, where the constitution that Hugo Chávez’s supporters and ratified in 1999 is routinely violated by the president in ways both subtle and overt. Similarly, it was widely believed that municipal elections in Nicaragua in 2009 were rigged in favor of the Sandinistas, but little was done and Daniel Ortega comfortably won reelection early this year.

In these cases, and others, the executive responsible is the only one from his or her country with the ability to bring these abuses before the OAS. Even if another member state attempts to bring these issues to the forefront, the climate of the OAS has become so polarized that it is nearly impossible to get the kind of mobilization necessary to initiate diplomatic attempts at restoring constitutional boundaries, let alone mustering the two thirds majority necessary for any member state to be suspended.

Since the end of the Cold War, other regional organizations have begun making democracy an important factor in determining membership, including Mercosur (Mercado Común del Sur) and the newly formed Unasur (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas). In theory, these groups might be able to twist arms better than the OAS either because of the economic benefits that come with being a member (Mercosur) or due to the lack of stigma associated with US domination (Unasur). Unfortunately, the recent impeachment of Fernando Lugo in Paraguay in a hasty process that, while within the letter of the law was certainly not done within its spirit, bodes poorly for the effectiveness of these organizations. Despite being suspended from Mercosur and diplomatic efforts followed by suspension from Unasur, the decision was upheld domestically and Lugo remains out of power. Moreover, the suspension of Paraguay removed the lone obstacle to Venezuelan ascension into Mercosur. Notwithstanding the fact that Venezuela is actively in opposition to the stated economic goals of Merocsur, it further indicated that respect for democracy refers only to having elections and an elected, if not democratically governing executive.

The unfortunate reality in Latin America these days is that there is little in the way of regional institutions that can protect and strengthen democracy. There is no framework that can address threats to democracy from over-powerful executives and, even in clear situations such as coups like in Honduras, there is little that the OAS or any other regional organization can do if the new government is committed enough. Compared to the past, Latin America has never been more democratic, but the preservation and strengthening of those democracies against real domestic threats will have to be done by the citizens of those countries except in the most grievous instances.