Winds of Change in Venezuela? Chavismo Faces Its Greatest Electoral Test
Winds of Change in Venezuela? Chavismo Faces Its Greatest Electoral Test
People stand in line to register to vote and to update their voting centres for the July 28 presidential elections, in Caracas, Venezuela April 16, 2024. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 17 minutes

Winds of Change in Venezuela? Chavismo Faces Its Greatest Electoral Test

Venezuelans will cast ballots on 28 July. Polls indicate that a credible election would see the opposition prevail in the economically stricken South American country. Crisis Group spoke with chavistas to gauge how they respond to the possibility of losing power. 

After 25 years in office, chavismo, the political movement created by the late president, Hugo Chávez, appears to be facing a crushing defeat at the ballot box if a competitive election goes ahead. President Nicolás Maduro’s government is deeply unpopular in the wake of a prolonged political crisis and economic collapse that has triggered one of Latin America’s worst humanitarian emergencies and an exodus of more than 7.5 million Venezuelans. Opinion polls indicate that most voters want change in the forthcoming 28 July presidential election. The strategy adopted by opposition forces has also helped tilt the political balance in Venezuela. Instead of denouncing foul play and boycotting the poll as they frequently did in the past, all opposition parties have publicly stated that they intend to participate, come what may. Crucially, they have coalesced around a single candidate, Edmundo González, who is standing for the Democratic Unitary Platform after Maria Corina Machado, who won the opposition primary, was prohibited from contesting the presidency. 

In the face of such a tenacious challenge from an opposition seemingly buoyed by a wave of public support, what options are chavismo and the country’s leaders contemplating? In a series of conversations with Crisis Group, people at the heart of the movement described what they call its “hegemonic vocation”: namely, a will to stay in power even if doing so requires stepping up the authoritarian practices that the Maduro administration has deployed over the last few years. Aside from ideological motives, pragmatic and material considerations come into play: in effect, leaving power could incur enormous personal costs. But interviews with scores of chavista leaders and grassroots activists, including some who have broken with the government and others who occupy key positions within it, reveal that the group is far from homogenous. These divisions shape not only their understanding of the electoral race but also their views on how to respond to the threat of defeat. 

Inside Chavismo

Since its inception, chavismo has grouped together an array of political currents, from union workers to members of the military, nationalist ideologues to evangelical conservatives. Interest groups far removed from any clear ideology have also joined the movement in recent years. Some factions have a deep attachment to democracy, albeit with an emphasis on the importance of popular participation and electoral majorities rather than checks and balances and the separation of powers. Other parts of the movement can be quick to adopt more repressive stances or downplay respect for human rights. Chavista militants are also heterogeneous: left-wing activists and former members of traditional Venezuelan political parties coexist with businesspeople and parts of the military. The movement’s electoral base has evolved. Rural and poor voters overwhelming backed chavismo at firstespecially when oil prices rose to a peak during Chávez’s tenure and the president spent liberally on social programs and infrastructure, such as new health clinics in impoverished areas. But with the past decade’s crushing economic contraction, chavista supporters are now a minority in all social classes. 

Declining support in society and the diversity of those who do still back the movement lie at the core of the tensions and dilemmas that now mark the chavista project. While its leaders and activists have asserted from the start that they are committed to democracy’s expansion and citizens’ empowerment, they also claim that the movement can achieve its goals only by staying in power at any cost. That stance contradicts the democratic norms it supposedly embraces, even if these norms are often little more than a belief in popular legitimacy won at the ballot box. The contradictions in chavismo do not stop there. While the movement espouses socialist goals, individuals close to the highest circles of power have accumulated enormous wealth at a time when the vast majority of Venezuelans struggle to make ends meet. Critics denounce what they regard as ultra-liberal fiscal and labour policies, including keeping a tight cap on public-sector pay and pensions (now worth around $4 a month), which have helped curb hyper-inflation but strayed far from the movement’s original socialist credo. 

Chávez was a charismatic leader, able to give a cogent identity to divergent interests. But since his death of cancer in 2013, his project has gradually fractured, making it hard to predict with certainty how it will react in the face of electoral adversity. Perhaps the only thing sustaining chavismo's cohesion is the fear that an opposition victory would wipe it off the map. 

Can Chavismo Win the Election? Voices from Within

Chavistas themselves are divided regarding what they think will happen on 28 July. The movement’s social base is largely disenchanted, demobilised and fed up with its leaders. After years of hardship and disappointment, support for the government has dropped dramatically, especially in areas that had been its historical strongholds, such as poor urban neighbourhoods and rural states like Barinas, Portuguesa and Sucre. At first, disaffection translated into abstention and apathy; in contrast, now many former chavista voters actively support González. Indeed, dwindling support in old chavista bastions is fuelling much of the enthusiasm for him and the opposition.

Chavista local leaders and low-level officials who are in daily contact with their rapidly shrinking base are not optimistic about their electoral possibilities. “It’s hard to encourage people to vote”, said a grassroots activist. There is a lot of disappointment”. This feeling was widely echoed by other cadres at a chavista local assembly. “People are not going to vote for Nicolás”, affirmed a leader from a poor community in the west of Caracas. “I don’t think even those in the ‘structure’ will”, he said, referring to those with formal party positions. Some chavistas – at different levels of the movement  say it would in fact be a mistake to win at any cost, noting that leaving power could help chavismo reconnect with its base and reinvent itself ahead of a potential return to power so long as the movement is not persecuted. 

Mid- and higher-ranking officials ... believe that chavismo runs little risk of defeat.

Mid- and higher-ranking officials, on the other hand, tend to be more optimistic, believing that chavismo runs little risk of defeat. Generally isolated from the grassroots, such officials usually cross paths with the chavista base only when providing constituents with benefits, such as subsidised food packages, which are understandably enthusiastically received. Conversations with these officials reveal that they largely accept the government’s propaganda, which portrays “the people’s loyalty” to the movement as still strong. They are also convinced that voters will punish the vendepatrias (traitors) in the opposition, whom they blame for the crisis in Venezuela because of their collaboration with the U.S. government. Despite some recent relief, Washington has maintained a broad package of sanctions on Venezuela, most of which was introduced during former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at ousting Maduro in 2019. Such beliefs are generally shared within a bubble of the like-minded, and many mid- or higher-ranking officials appear ill disposed to opposing views and to debate with those who hold them. 

Finally, top leaders – politicians in the highest decision-making echelons and their close associates – seem to have a more pragmatic view. They recognise the declining support but believe chavismo can still win the presidential poll – which takes place in a single round – if it can get 30 per cent or so of the vote, abstention reaches over 50 per cent (which it has in the past) and the opposition vote splits among two or three candidates. The immediate question they are pondering is how to make sure that happens.

Changes in Strategy

The government had pinned its hopes of electoral victory in a reasonably competitive poll on economic recovery – generated in part by U.S. willingness to lift some sanctions – combined with division of the opposition vote and a boycott by more radical sectors of the opposition. (Some past elections have seen most of the opposition refuse to participate, citing the skewed playing field generated by Maduro’s control of all Venezuela’s electoral, judicial and security institutions.) To win over the doubters, chavista leaders have tried since 2021 to appeal to a broader audience. In recent years, Maduro has barely mentioned the hallmarks of chavista rhetoric – whether socialism or communal and popular power – stressing instead the importance of private investment and growth. The government has even abandoned the movement’s favoured colour, red, instead adopting a more neutral shade of blue. It eventually signed the Barbados agreement with an opposition delegation in October 2023, laying out a series of commitments to establish fairer electoral conditions. Senior chavistas also struck up a parallel set of private conversations with top U.S. officials on elections and sanctions relief, mediated by Qatar.

Despite the promises made in Barbados and Doha, officials proceeded to derail opposition efforts to rally behind one candidate, with the aim of preventing the poll from becoming a showdown between Maduro and a single opposition leader. Blocking the candidacy of Machado, who was chosen by a landslide majority in an opposition primary held in October 2023, was aimed at dividing the anti-incumbent vote, as was the decision to allow several minor opposition figures to register as candidates. This strategy was, however, thwarted by most of the opposition, which committed to participate in the election regardless of the ban on Machado, and to rally behind González, a retired diplomat who registered to stand in her place at the very last minute in April. 

Facing the prospect of a landmark defeat, the government has reverted to its old strategy of confrontation. It has dusted off references to Chávez, after almost a decade of progressively downplaying memories of his rule. The Maduro administration hopes to return to the polarisation that characterised Venezuela’s acrimonious politics between 2019 and 2022, when the opposition, supported by the U.S. and other countries, established an “interim government” and aimed to dislodge Maduro through sanctions, military uprisings and threats of foreign intervention. Chavismo responded to this pressure by remaining cohesive, despite occasional individual defections, and by evading sanctions through commercial partnerships with Russia and Iran, among others. The opposition’s failure, meanwhile, squandered much of its political capital. 

Top officials have repeatedly denounced the U.S. “criminal blockade” and suggested that González is a “candidate of the empire” who is complicit in the sanctions on Venezuela.

The Maduro government is once again trying to frame the campaign as a battle between chavistas, who embody the threatened homeland, and the U.S., which it argues seeks to subjugate the country with the support of local lackeys. Top officials have repeatedly denounced the U.S. “criminal blockade” and suggested that González is a “candidate of the empire” who is complicit in the sanctions on Venezuela. The argument that Venezuela’s economic collapse is the result of sanctions imposed by Washington provides the government with what it believes is justification for its mediocre performance and the economic distress felt throughout the country. By repeating this mantra, the government hopes to protect itself from a series of corruption scandals involving high-ranking chavista leaders and preserve the loyalty of the rank and file despite the daily hardships they face. The government has also argued that fair, competitive elections are not possible if the government is hamstrung by sanctions and unable to use funds in foreign bank accounts. In the words of a senior chavista leader, this situation is tantamount to “going into a boxing match with one hand tied behind your back”. 

Exploitation of tensions with the U.S. does not end there. According to Jorge Rodríguez, president of the National Assembly, while the Venezuelan government fulfilled its side of the Qatar-brokered deal by allowing González to run, the U.S. has broken its promises (the terms of the agreement between Washington and Caracas have not been made public). The Venezuelan government claims that Washington is in breach of the accord signed in 2023 in Doha, which supposedly included granting Caracas access to billions of dollars in frozen funds in accounts held abroad, as well as lifting most of the remaining sanctions on the country and criminal charges against its leaders, so long as the government held a competitive election featuring a mainstream opposition candidate. For its part, the U.S. argues that Venezuela has violated the terms of the agreement by blocking Machado, harassing political opponents and arresting civil society activists, likely a reference to the February arrest of Rocío San Miguel, a well-known human rights defender. The Maduro administration has sought to put the tensions between Venezuela and the U.S. at the core of the electoral campaign, while threatening, in a thinly veiled way, to take decisive action against González on the grounds that the U.S. has not honoured its pledges.

Winning the Election, Losing the Country

The prospect of an opposition victory looms large over the government’s strategy. Chavistas are convinced that any eventual opposition government would seek to persecute and intimidate them, either through domestic courts or via the criminal charges filed in the U.S. against leaders, including Maduro. Because of the prominent role opposition politicians played in the “maximum pressure” strategy and the way in which they have spoken about retaliation against those in power, many chavistas regard their political adversaries as violent, anti-democratic, criminal, unpatriotic and revanchist. They evoke episodes of violence at the hands of the opposition in recent years, such as the cases of lynching during the failed 2002 coup d’état and protests and associated violence in 20032014 and 2017. They also point to the state repression launched against left-wing movements in other Latin American countries, most recently Bolivia after its disputed 2019 election and Peru after the fall of former President Pedro Castillo in 2022. 

The spectre of persecution, repression and physical disappearance is spurring chavistas to band together and cling to power. “The costs of leaving power are very high”, said a leading government official, “so it doesn’t seem likely that we will get into a situation where we can lose it”. The strategy appears to be working: many chavistas, even those disenchanted with the government and ready to contemplate a handover of power, fear the opposition’s desire for vengeance is a danger to them. This anxiety helps the government rally support among people who are discontented with Maduro but view the radicalism of certain opposition figures with concern. 

Such fears have been fuelled by the prominence of traditionally less compromising figures at the helm of the opposition campaign. María Corina Machado, who was disqualified from competing in the election but is clearly influential in González’s bid for the presidency, built much of her prestige on the intransigent positions she has held for many years, especially during the “maximum pressure” strategy. One of her recent slogans is the promise to “bury socialism”. Some sectors of the government may have even tried to boost her standing, thinking that she would alienate more moderate parts of the opposition who would refuse to work with her. If so, the strategy backfired: the harsh treatment the government has meted out to her has transformed Machado into a popular icon and an authentic electoral phenomenon, even though she cannot formally run for office. Her central role ahead of the polls, in which she backs González but nonetheless outshines him on the campaign trail, has renewed fears of a vindictive crackdown on chavismo, if it were to lose power, and encouraged those who are inclined to block an opposition victory at all costs.

The Maduro Government’s Strategy

Hence, the critical question: would the Maduro government accept an opposition victory and an eventual transfer of power in 2025? The government’s ideal scenario would have been to win an election that was fair enough to be acceptable to Venezuelans, the country’s Latin American neighbours, the U.S. and other foreign states. Maduro could thus remain in power while gaining internal and external legitimacy, with a view to eventually obtaining a complete lifting of individual and sector-wide sanctions. But with the opposition united behind a single candidate and no real improvement in most Venezuelans’ living conditions, this possibility is looking more and more remote. 

It is highly unlikely that the government will run too high a risk of losing power by allowing a competitive election to take place when it believes its defeat is imminent. In other words, faced with the option of conducting elections deemed acceptable both domestically and internationally or further skewing the playing field to preserve its grip on power, the government would favour the latter. To make that happens, the government is willing to mix political cunning and more extreme measures: hindering the vote enough to guarantee that abstention will exceed 50 per cent (by using strategies such as changing the location of polling sites at the last moment and restricting campaigning, among others), handing out welfare benefits to get votes from the needy and, if necessary, disqualifying candidates who might jeopardise the government’s victory, possibly including González himself. The vote tabulation could prove turbulent: the heads of the election board, who are chavistas, might seek to withhold detailed results from opposition colleagues and the public. 

The government knows well the price it has paid in the past for elections that are not competitive, but it may hope that this time around will be different. Many foreign powers did not recognise the 2018 polls; in the aftermath, the U.S. and the EU imposed sanctions on Venezuela (the U.S. applied sectoral and individual sanctions; the EU’s were directed only at particular chavistas). But with just weeks to go before voters cast ballots and polls suggesting strong support for the opposition, the government almost certainly fears a genuinely competitive vote. Caracas assumes that the world may be reluctant to impose the type of measures it did before, given that the strategy of estrangement, sanctions and isolation deployed in 2019 failed to dislodge chavismo from power, and expects that the punishment the Maduro administration would suffer for blocking an opposition victory this time around would not be as severe. It also knows that the U.S. and other countries in the region would be wary of supporting any move that might worsen conditions in Venezuela and trigger a new wave of migration. 

If the government does lose the election (assuming the unlikely scenario in which it allows the vote to take place in conditions that would allow the opposition to win), Maduro and others will certainly be reluctant to concede defeat without robust guarantees as to their future. They would probably want personal safety, immunity from prosecution for all the movement’s members and the right to remain active in national political life. Venezuela’s top brass would expect pledges not to reshuffle the top ranks of the armed forces. Venezuela’s political system is largely zero-sum, handing huge power to those who win presidential elections, while losers must console themselves with at most minor political posts and very limited access to state resources. If chavistas were to admit and accept defeat, they may well not only demand the guarantees listed above but perhaps also seek some sort of power-sharing arrangement. 

Ensuring a fair poll will require doing everything possible to deter chavistas from sabotaging the process.

As the election approaches, ensuring a fair poll will require doing everything possible to deter chavistas from sabotaging the process. Some, if not all, of the senior figures in government may resist any threat to retaining power. To maximise the chance that cooler heads prevail in Caracas, foreign powers should try to create incentives for the government to refrain from thwarting the opposition’s campaign, including – potentially even ahead of the vote – lowering the costs that top officials and activists in the movement could face in the event of defeat. 

Colombian President Gustavo Petro recently announced he had crafted a proposal for a pact between government and opposition which would do exactly that, establishing a number of post-election guarantees for both sides. The plan, details of which have not been made public, appears to have also received support from Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who could play a crucial role in mediating a Venezuelan electoral crisis due to his friendly ties with both Maduro and Washington. While many chavistas agree that an agreement along these lines is necessary, they worry that any apparent readiness by the government to discuss these issues would be a sign of weakness that could trigger internal fractures and an electoral disaster. Chavismo’s strength has long proven to be its unity in the face of adversity. 

As the Maduro government faces what could be its greatest electoral challenge, the best way for foreign governments and the opposition to avert turmoil would be to prepare for intensive but discreet diplomacy that acknowledges the fears of those who may lose power. Though many Venezuelans clamour for sweeping political change, prospects of a competitive election are likely to darken so long as the stakes remain so high for the government and its supporters while the polls continue to point toward its defeat. Instead, the slender possibility of a peaceful election and a handover of power will depend on a balance that will be hard to achieve: a genuine battle for votes, combined with assurances from domestic political forces and foreign powers that the vote is not life-threatening to chavismo and its leaders.

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