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…

When in Caracas, don’t act like those in charge

Yesterday I attended an event at the Inter-American Dialogue entitled “What’s in Store for Venezuela?” that happened to coincide rather closely with the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ) in Venezuela throwing out Henrique Carpiles’ lawsuits alleging fraud in the April 14th elections and then fining him for having the temerity file them in the first place. That the court threw out the lawsuits is hardly surprising, though the ferocity with which they did so perhaps is. I highlight this because both speakers, Javier Corrales of Amherst University and Dan Restrepo of the Center for American Progress, felt it was a positive sign that the opposition in Venezuela has not abandoned democratic politics, while fretting that other governments in the region were not committed to supporting democratic politics in the region. Meanwhile, Francisco Toro argues that the TSJ ruling marks the effective end to democratic politics under chavismo and that the future of the opposition depends on its ability to function in a non-democratic world. I actually agree with all three of them. The abject failure of the Inter-American system to stand up to the democratic erosion in Venezuela over the last decade and a half has left Venezuela’s democratic opposition totally isolated and empowered chavismo to become ever more openly autocratic.

As in any situation like this, the eventual solution will have to be domestic; no one can impose its will on Venezuela to force it to become more democratic. That said, Latin American governments have largely either tacitly approved of Venezuela’s democratic backsliding or actively encouraged or rewarded it. For example, Venezuela has been accepted into Mercosur thanks to Paraguay’s suspension as a result of impeaching its president in a hasty, but legal process. All of this happened during the middle of a presidential campaign in which the opposition was practically barred from the airwaves while Hugo Chávez abused his power to invoke cadenas to take over the airwaves for hours at a time to campaign. More tacit approval can be seen in the non-reaction of Latin American governments this January when the TSJ ruled that the legally mandated presidential inauguration could be postponed while Chávez was in Cuba receiving treatment for the cancer that eventually killed him. Similarly, when Chávez died and Nicolás Maduro inherited the presidency before the April 14th special elections, despite a clear constitutional mandate (article 233) that the temporary presidency pass to the head of the National Assembly, governments around the region said nothing. And these are just a few examples from the past year I could mention, notwithstanding the dozens of other instances.

Any criticism of how the Inter-American community has reacted to the deterioration of Venezuelan democracy must be tempered by acknowledging that the existing democracy promotion framework is overwhelmingly biased toward incumbent executives. Part of this is due to the fact that the impetus for developing the framework was the return to democracy of most of Latin America in the 1980s following two decades of near constant military intervention in countries across the region, mainly in the form of coups. Moreover, both within the Organization of American States (OAS) and in nearly every other regional grouping with a democratic mandate, it was executives who designed the mechanisms designed to protect democracy, and unsurprisingly, they designed mechanism that help protect incumbent executives much more than democratic systems of government as a whole. This means, for instance, that only the executive has authority to summon the OAS in the event of a constitutional breakdown. Hardly much of a safeguard against an over wielding executive.

It is therefore hardly surprising that leaders from around the region have been reluctant to embrace Venezuelan opposition forces, both National Assembly members and Capriles. Many presidents, both from the right, and more commonly in recent times, from the left, have looked to amass as much power as possible, often blurring the lines between the different branches of power in a way similar to what chavismo has done in Venezuela. The current status quo suits all current presidents quite nicely whereas embracing the Venezuelan opposition’s cause necessarily means upsetting that system and, potentially, exposing oneself to the risk that democracy promotion will mean protecting separation of powers and rule of law rather than incumbent presidents. Combined with the fact that a number of presidents in the region openly sympathize with the chavista government, or have significant constituencies within their governing (or, in Michelle Bachelet’s case, her campaign coalition) who do and the lack of response makes sense.

This leaves the opposition in Venezuela in a terrible place. On the one hand, they face a government that controls all the levers of power and is increasingly less restrained—either by arrogance, or more likely desperation—by any need to conceal its authoritarian tendencies, and therefore impervious to legal challenges. On the other hand, it receives minimal support from the region’s other governments, despite their professed commitment to democracy, leaving it with no means of legally coercing a change out of the chavista government via outside pressure. However, elevating a leadership more comfortable operating outside a democratic, legal framework, as Toro seems to suggest, risks winning the battle against chavismo at the expense of losing the war to save Venezuelan democracy. Those types of leaders might be effective at bringing down the chavista state, but are also the types of leaders disposed to becoming authoritarian once in power.

During the Q&A at the event yesterday, Javier Corrales was accused of being too optimistic by one of the attendees. I will confess, despite everything I have just written, I remain optimistic that the strategy Toro seems to have become resigned to will not be necessary. I am deeply pessimistic about the state of the Venezuelan economy, and bullish on the idea that oil prices are likely to stagnate over the next few years, which will, as Corrales mentioned, force the chavista government, which has heretofore relied on ever rising prices, to deal for the first time with the politics of economic adjustment. I do not believe that Maduro possesses the political talent to navigate that type of challenge, nor do I believe that Venezuela has the institutional capacity to do so. In short, despite lacking a legal avenue to challenge chavismo, the opposition may still be best suited to maintaining its current strategy because the chavista state is so fragile that it’s likely to collapse on itself in the face of any serious economic challenge. It’s a cynical type of optimism, but surely better than the alternative.

A Small Quibble

I just wanted to comment briefly on Javier Corrales’ piece on Nicolás Maduro, the man Hugo Chávez has named as the PSUV candidate for president if he is forced to step down and elections become necessary. In general, I think he captures extremely well how Maduro would be different as a leader than Chávez and the challenges that he would face. What is striking about the piece, however, is the complete absence of any discussion of Maduro’s relationship with Cuba and the importance of those ties to him being named successor.

It’s hardly a secret that the Venezuelan government under Hugo Chávez has become extremely close to its Cuban counterpart over the past 13 years. Venezuela is often considered the new benefactor that, after a bit of delay, replaced the Soviet Union in supporting the Cuban state. Venezuela’s famous Barrio Adentro social program is essentially staffed by Cuban doctors paid for in kind by Venezuelan oil which the Cuban government is able to sell on the open market for a huge profit. Additionally, ALBA the economic integration club created in opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas was formed in Havana by Venezuela and Cuba before being joined by like-minded governments elsewhere in the region. Since Chávez was diagnosed with cancer, he has received treatment in Cuba despite having access to what is considered to be better quality care in Brazil. In this relationship, Maduro—who has been Foreign Minister since 2006—has long been believed to be the preferred choice of the Cubans, perhaps due to his civilian background and beginnings as a radical labor leader as opposed to the more nationalist chavistas who have come from the military like Diosdado Cabello. It is, therefore, striking for there to be such a large omission in Corrales’ piece since his relationship with Cuba likely played at least some role in his selection by Chávez and would certainly play a large role in his actions as president should he win election. As Francisco Toro explains, besides being great at staying in Chávez’s good graces, being part of the pro-Cuba faction of chavismo is among the only things anyone really knows about him.

A General Drug Problem

As it now appears a near certainty that Hugo Chávez will either soon resign the presidency or die as a consequence of his second recurrence of an unspecified pelvic cancer, it seems like a good time to give my two cents on the situation. I have already mused on this topic before, back when Chávez was first being treated, and I largely think things will play out in the way that I predicted; chavismo will certainly outlast Chávez and chavismo sin Chávez will have difficulty staying unified in much the same way that peronismo has splintered over the past five decades. I am certainly not the only person who has made that analysis of this situation but I have noticed that few people are discussing the impact of the military in this whole process, particularly in a situation where Chávez dies before an election for his successor can take place and the opposition wins that election.

In that situation, I see a chance of instability coming from the military because of the reported close ties between high ranking chavista officers and the rampant and growing drug trade flowing from Colombia through Venezuela en route to the US and Europe. In this context, the election of an opposition president in what amounts to a snap election (it would have to occur within 30 of Chávez permanently leaving office of dying) would put these officers in a serious predicament. Corruption is bad enough, but is so pervasive in Venezuela at this point that it would be nearly impossible for an incoming government to deal with even a fraction of those involved amid the other problems it would be facing in its first chance at governing in half a generation. Involvement in drug trafficking, on the other hand, is a much more serious type of corruption than skimming money from government contracts or the oil sector. These officers have far more to lose from the end of chavismo than many of its other beneficiaries, and in the short span between Chávez leaving, the election and a hypothetical president from the opposition taking office, they would have very little opportunity to cover their tracks or escape with what they can (particularly since fewer foreign governments would look sympathetically toward them). In such a situation, it’s not difficult to imagine how a few might attempt to block the new government as a form of self-protection, perhaps while claiming to be defending the revolution from the opposition and the incompetent civilian wing of chavismo that had just betrayed it by losing.

All that said, I don’t see this situation playing out. By naming a successor and so pointedly stipulating that the letter of the constitution should be followed, Chávez has indicated that he is more concerned with prolonging his movement than remaining completely in control until the moment he dies. It seems likely to me that he will, to the extent his health allows, step down with time enough to ensure that Nicolás Maduro—his anointed successor—gets elected. Even if he does die before then, I still believe that chavismo has the resources of the state behind it to a degree that it can win a fair enough election (i.e. not blatantly fraudulent enough to risk more than condemnation from a bunch of countries that chavismo disdains anyway) even without Chávez there to campaign. Beyond that point, with the economy on the brink, crime pervasive and the general unpopularity of non-Chávez chavistas, I see little chance that chavismo can win a subsequent election without becoming increasingly overtly authoritarian. By that next election, at least, those with the really dirty hands will have had time to prepare.