On December 6th Venezuelans headed to the polls and handed a blow to the legacy of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution. But, contrary to what the majority of media outlets are reporting, while it was damaging to the Revolution, chavismo was not dealt a death blow. The opposition, known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), won a two-thirds majority, a landslide victory with 112 parliamentary seats, while the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) only won 55 seats. This puts the opposition in a position to roll back the socialist programs which make up the chavismo policy agenda and to submit President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s successor, to a referendum aimed to oust him from power.
After the results were announced, President Maduro said, quoting Chavez, “the counterrevolution triumphed yesterday… for now”, implying that the election was a short-term setback and that chavismo would ultimately triumph. MUD ran a very shallow campaign saying they were afraid of violence and human rights abuses, especially after the murder of opposition leader Luis Manuel Diaz on November 25th. The sentence, in early September, of Leopoldo López to more than 13 years of prison (another prominent opposition leader arrested in February 2013), did help to underlie Maduro’s iron fist with the opposition. Many argue that MUD was not sincerely concerned about violence, or human rights abuses, but that they wanted the economic troubles most Venezuelans face to be their campaign advertising.
It is very telling that MUD did not run on policy issues but on the failures of the Maduro government to build a healthy economy. The MUD ran on the campaign slogan of “change” without specifying what exactly they would change. Thus, the election was more about the harsh economic problems that Venezuelans face than a real referendum on chavismo’s policies. There are plenty of legitimate reasons that Venezuelans have to be unhappy with the state of affairs in their country, and yet embracing the opposition’s without knowing its true political agenda is likely to make things more uncertain, and probably worse, for most Venezuelans.
Chavez’s initial victory was a response to the fact that poverty had nearly doubled in Venezuela between 1981 and 1994 as a direct result of the country’s internal and external debt and the adoption of Washington Consensus’ neoliberal policy prescriptions, which ended up shrinking the capacity of government to help people and redistribute the immense wealth of a petro-state. Again, it has been the economic situation what has changed Venezuelans’ mind.
After the November 27th victory of right wing presidential candidate, Mauricio Marci, in Argentina and the MUD’s success in Venezuela, many in the media are proclaiming the death of the Latin American left. Are the leftists in trouble? Yes. But Maduro could also be right to see this as a temporary setback only due to a struggling and weak economy. Maduro is left with enough power to preserve chavismo, the Bolivarian Revolution and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, but he has to work harder if he wants to preserve the likelihood of winning the next presidential election in 2018.
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First and foremost, with one of the highest inflations in the world (up to 158.1 % for 2015, according to the IMF), with a GDP down by -10% (by far the worst performance in the region) and a huge discrepancy between the official currency rate ($1 US = 6.9 bolivars) and the black market rate ($1 US = 800 bolivars), these economic imbalances need to be urgently addressed. This is easier said than done, but now that PSUV has lost the parliamentary elections, Maduro may consider adjusting the official exchange rate as well as attempting to raise the minimum wage. While he did not want to do this before, as it would have been perceived as a major defeat in what Maduro calls the “economic war” against Venezuela, now may be the time. With Venezuelan oil barrel at $34, the margin of maneuver is scarce. But if oil prices pick up and the economy improves, by 2018 nobody will focus on this “defeat”. PSUV should also focus on reinvigorating the grassroots aspects of chavismo, deteriorated since the premature lost of the Revolution’s charismatic leader, whose huge popularity was a continuous source of legitimacy.
One could argue that, because chavismo has been at the forefront of Venezuelan policy for the last 17 years and that Maduro only won the presidency after Chavez died, the election results were more of a rebuke of the Maduro presidency than a rejection of chavismo per se. Could it be possible that Venezuelans aren’t rejecting labor unions, literacy programs, and other social programming, but rejecting high inflation and basic goods shortages?
If the President and his allies are unable to make progress on the country’s economic woes, then Maduro is unlikely to win a reelection bid in 2018, let alone survive a referendum. But if they are able to get back to the roots of chavismo and make progress on hyperinflation (which is impoverishing people) and the massive difference in value between the bolívar official and black market rate (which is dividing the society between those who have access to dollars and those who have not), then there is hope.
And if the MUD attempts to reverse the social programs of chavismo too quickly, it could quickly weaken their support as well. Many in Venezuela argue that, because its heterogeneous ideological composition, the MUD was unable to put together a policy agenda, and only relied in the ruinous economy and the opposition’s crackdown, performed by a non independent judiciary. Polls have shown that the majority of the country (about the same amount as the margin by which the MUD won on December 6th, -i.e.56 % against 40 %) supports the social missions which are chavismo’s key social policy instruments: raising the minimum wage, stabilizing food prices, guarantying basic social services.
This highlights that Venezuelans do not believe in solely relying on the market, but have now reacted to a catastrophic economic situation and want to see some improvement. Venezuelans have rejected neoliberalism before, and surely they will do so again. For 17 years, in the face of both adversity and prosperity, they have shown that they want a country that provides for the many, not just for the few. But chavism is running out of time and much will depend on how Maduro deals with this unprecedented situation of having a parliament fully controlled by the opposition. “The bad guys have won”, he said, after conceding defeat. The “good guys” have now a last chance to prove that, by bringing back prosperity and social justice to the people, the left isn’t dead yet in Venezuela.