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.

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.