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Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela’s Elections
Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela’s Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Venezuela Is Falling off the Map
Venezuela Is Falling off the Map

Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela’s Elections

Uncertainty over President Hugo Chávez’s health deepens Venezuela’s fragility ahead of presidential elections in October and sparks fears of instability.

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Executive Summary

Uncertainty over President Hugo Chávez’s health adds to Venezuela’s fragility in the run-up to October’s presidential election. Amid deep polarisation, his illness overshadows the campaign, while the personalised nature of his rule, weakened institutions, and high levels of criminal violence bode ill for stability even beyond the polls. Brazen violation of the constitution would probably require army support, which not even the president can bank on; regional powers, too, would eye such action warily. But with much at stake, upheaval, even a violent political crisis, remain dangerous possibilities. Political leaders should condemn violence and pledge publicly to respect the constitution – whatever lies ahead. Venezuela’s partners in the region should press for international observation and signal clearly they will not condone unconstitutional acts.

The coming months could prove to be Hugo Chávez’s toughest yet. The opposition is united behind a presidential candidate. Its youthful contender, Henrique Capriles – like Chávez – has never lost an election. His moderation, a far cry from opposition tactics of the past, should resonate with swing voters. Moreover, elections in Venezuela, despite Chávez’s narrowing of political space, are not easy to rig. The opposition has won before and in the most recent, the 2010 parliamentary elections, its share of the popular vote matched that of the ruling party.

But a presidential contest against Chávez is a different matter. Under normal conditions, he would likely win. He is a formidable campaigner and still enjoys strong emotional ties to many Venezuelans, especially his poor base. He also has loyal institutions and a powerful state media machine, and openly uses the public purse for campaign purposes, notably by dispensing largesse through social welfare programs. Even opposition loyalists admit a healthy Chávez in full campaign swing would be almost unbeatable.

However, the president faces not only Capriles, but also cancer, which could pose a graver threat to his reign. Only his doctors and close family know the prognosis, but the illness has already required extended absences for treatments in Cuba and has thus far kept him off the campaign trail. The ruling party, with no clear succession mechanism or obvious heir – certainly none that could easily defeat Capriles – is jittery: Chavismo would be in trouble without Chávez. Many around him have much to lose, and while the party maintains public unity, speculation about infighting and jostling for influence behind the scenes is rife. The recently-appointed Council of State, a body of top presidential advisers, could possibly become a mechanism through which to negotiate succession if Chávez’s health fails, but its creation does not appear to have calmed nerves.

The president’s sickness threatens not only his party but also October’s vote and even the country’s stability. His rule is highly personalised, with power concentrated in his office and checks and balances steadily eroded. Institutions are ill-equipped to manage a transition or contain conflict. Politics are polarised, society divided. The proliferation of weapons and of pro-government armed groups offers opportunities for stoking violence. Indeed, sparks have already hit the campaign; shots were fired at an opposition rally in Cotiza, a Caracas suburb in early March. The president’s fiery rhetoric does little to discourage such incidents.

Many in Venezuela, including in the Capriles camp, stress a major breakdown of order is unlikely. Chávez has always rooted his legitimacy in the ballot box and promises to accept the result in October. The electoral authorities are, perhaps, more resistant to his meddling than other institutions. The opposition swears there will be no witch hunts if it wins; if it loses, it appears to have little stomach for a fight, particularly if the vote is clean. Many citizens are tired of confrontation. While senior generals are loyal to the president, with the defence minister suspected of ties to drug-trafficking, the armed forces’ middle and lower ranks would not necessarily follow them into blatant violations of the constitution. Nor would regional powers condone a power grab or welcome Venezuela’s slide from flawed democracy into turmoil or dictatorship.

But Chávez’s illness takes Venezuela onto unknown – and unpredictable – terrain. At stake is not only his rule but also a model of governance that many Venezuelans perceive to serve their interests. One scenario, were the president or a late stand-in defeated, would see the ruling party seek to force the electoral authorities to suppress results or itself stir up violence as a pretext to retain power by extraordinary means. A second, especially if the president’s health should decline rapidly, would have it delay the vote – perhaps through a decision by the partisan judiciary – in order to buy time to select and drum up support for a replacement. Either scenario could stimulate opposition protests and escalating confrontation with government loyalists.

The prospect of upheaval thus cannot be discounted. Political leaders, especially the president, should tone down their rhetoric and condemn any violence. Venezuela’s constitution, passed by Chávez himself, provides for all contingencies, and all political leaders, authorities and the armed forces should pledge publicly to adhere to it.

Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 26 June 2012

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, pictured in the centre, attends a military parade in Campo de Carabobo, Venezuela, on 28 December 2016. Miraflores Palace/via Reuters.

Venezuela Is Falling off the Map

Beset by relentless hyperinflation, collapsing public services and increasingly dictatorial rule, Venezuela is at risk of becoming a failed state. The best hope for change lies with neighbouring countries, which must sustain pressure to find a solution.

Incoming U.S. President Donald Trump’s first foreign-policy surprise could pop up just a few hours’ flying time south of Miami. A tense political standoff between an increasingly desperate population and a dictatorial regime in Venezuela worsened in early January after the opposition-led parliament withdrew recognition from President Nicolás Maduro, who is ruling by decree. Talks between the government and opposition have broken down, and the regime is throwing yet more opposition leaders in jail and threatening to close down the legislature.

This week, the government began issuing bigger bank notes in response to hyperinflation – however even the largest of these, the 20,000-bolívar note, is worth only about US$5.30 on the black market. Many Venezuelans have to carry around stacks of cash for basic transactions.

People have been shouting about disaster in Venezuela for so long, it is difficult to know when the sky is actually falling. However, if the country continues to degenerate into a failed state, it will have serious implications for the region – including the spread of organised crime, uncontrolled epidemics and mass migration.

People have been shouting about disaster in Venezuela for so long, it is difficult to know when the sky is actually falling.

The crisis has been years in the making. Yet as recently as 2011, Venezuela had the second-highest per-capita GDP in Latin America. A decade-long oil boom, which ended in 2014, saw around US$1 trillion pass through the hands of its avowedly socialist government. As much as a quarter of that may simply have been stolen. Most of the rest was either given away to allied regimes or squandered on white elephants, populist programs and handouts with, at best, short-term impact.

Today, Venezuela is one the poorest countries in the region. Its economy may have shrunk by as much as 18 per cent in 2016 alone. Annual inflation, which the government has not even reported for the past year, is heading for four figures.

The consequences are stark. As many as one in twelve of its citizens admits to searching for food in the garbage. Public services, including hospitals, are collapsing and even basic antibiotics and blood-pressure pills are unavailable. As if that were not enough, violent crime kills over 20,000 people a year in this country of 30 million, and whole swathes of the countryside are effectively under the control of organised crime, often with the complicity of security forces.

I have been living in, and reporting on, Venezuela since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999 and set about dismantling representative democracy, for which he had a deep disdain. A two-party system established after the end of the last dictatorship in 1958 had already crumbled. Poverty, inequality and corruption were rife. The former army officer, who had attempted a coup in 1992, went on to win election after election on a promise to put things right through “participatory democracy”. But today they are immeasurably worse for most Venezuelans. Many friends, especially young professionals, have left. A diaspora, estimated at a million-and-a-half people, is scattered across the globe. Almost everyone I know has been a victim of violent crime. Some friends and acquaintances have been kidnapped or murdered. Few people go out at night. Daily life is plagued by blackouts, water-shortages, bread queues and the nagging fear of being unable to get treatment if a family member falls ill.

The region – and that includes the U.S. – needs to hold the Maduro government to its international commitments on democracy and human rights.

Venezuela is falling off the map. Seven international airlines have pulled out altogether because of exchange controls, others have slashed flights and most tickets must now be paid in dollars. It’s virtually impossible to make an overseas call, except by internet. And the internet is among the slowest in the world. Just to pay its foreign debt the government is having to sell off or pawn state assets, and has cut imports by more than two-thirds.

Maduro blames the country’s woes on an “economic war” waged by his opponents, in collusion with the U.S. But independent economists have warned for years of the consequences of government profligacy, corruption and rigid price and exchange controls. A year ago, a disillusioned electorate handed control of the National Assembly – the country’s legislature – to the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance. But the Maduro government used its control of the Supreme Court to simply annul parliament’s constitutional powers. The electoral authority, also in the hands of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), has blocked an opposition attempt to trigger a recall referendum against Maduro – which would have been a democratic, constitutional solution.

Vatican-led talks, initiated in late October, broke down almost at once after the government reneged on commitments to free political prisoners, agree an electoral timetable, restore the powers of parliament and allow in humanitarian aid. When Vatican secretary-of-state Pietro Parolin demanded that Maduro keep his word, the government accused him of overstepping the terms of the Pope’s facilitation mission.

Venezuelans know they have to fix their own problems. But the region – and that includes the U.S. – needs to hold the Maduro government to its international commitments on democracy and human rights. Without a transition back to the rule of law, mediated by outsiders, the country is headed for collapse. Venezuela’s neighbours must provide greater support, as well as serious pressure, to find a solution to the crisis. The government shows no sign of being interested in genuine negotiations, but the region can no longer afford to look the other way.