Shadow Government

The Walls Are Closing in on Venezuela’s Chavismo

The end of the revolution is nigh.


In what just may be the longest train wreck of the 21st century, the movement known as chavismo is on the brink of another major crisis as Venezuelan voters head to the polls on Dec. 6 to ostensibly elect a new legislature. Ostensibly, because Venezuelan governments under the late authoritarian President Hugo Chávez, and today his loyal, but hapless, successor Nicolás Maduro, have developed a habit of turning sure electoral defeats into “surprising” victories.

By any objective measure, chavismo — a blend of political and economic centralization and virulent anti-Americanism — has made a wreckage of the country. Venezuela suffers the world’s highest inflation rate, estimated at upwards of 200 percent, while the IMF expects the country’s economy to shrink by as much as 10 percent this year. Plunging oil revenues due to the collapse in international prices have gutted government spending. As one analyst told the Financial Times, “Venezuela is running on fumes. The current oil income is insufficient to allow the country to pay its debts, fund its imports, and service its foreign bonds.” Violent crime, smuggling, and corruption are staples of daily life.

It is with no exaggeration that the Miami Herald headlined the pre-election environment as one of “scarcity, mistrust, and chaos.” The turmoil has taken its toll on Maduro’s legitimacy and popularity. The polling firm Datanalisis reports the opposition maintains a 30 percent lead over the ruling party for the upcoming elections, while a Venebarómetro poll found that the government’s approval rating dropped from 50 percent in 2013 to 20 percent this past September.

And things continue to get worse for Maduro. Last week, two nephews of his wife were arrested in Haiti and flown to the United States to face charges they conspired to ship 800 kilograms of cocaine to the Unites States. Those arrests follow a Wall Street Journal report last May that U.S. law enforcement agencies are investigating high-ranking members of the Venezuelan government, including National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, for their suspected roles in drug trafficking and money laundering.

On the international front, the Maduro government is facing increasing international scrutiny over its lack of commitment to free and fair elections. Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro sent an extraordinary 19-page letter to Venezuela’s electoral council stating, “There are reasons to believe that the conditions in which people will vote … aren’t right now as transparent and just as the [electoral authorities] ought to guarantee.” Almagro also noted, “unfair electoral advantages in the governing party’s use of public resources in the campaign, access to the press, confusion in voting cards and the disqualification of some opposition political figures.”

At the same time, more than a 150 elected legislators from the United States, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Peru signed an open letter urging the Maduro government to allow credible international observation of the elections and to release all political prisoners.

Indeed, last month, Brazil announced it would not participate in a feckless, Venezuela-friendly UNASUR electoral observation mission after Venezuela rejected the delegation leader, a former Brazilian defense minister and judge, and denied Brazil’s request to monitor pre-election conditions to ensure a level playing field.

So what does all this mean for December’s election?

First, given chavismo’s long-standing refusal to grant the opposition any legitimacy, the likelihood it will accept an opposition-led National Assembly is virtually nil. Although Maduro has claimed that he will accept the results of the election, he also has said his party will win “by whatever means possible,” adding that “[he] will not hand over the revolution,” but rather “proceed to govern with the people in a civic-military union.”

While it may be too brazen to declare victory outright in the face of so much public dissatisfaction with the ruling party (although nothing is impossible under chavismo), the government is capable of all manner of dirty tricks to vitiate the powers of a legislature led by the opposition. For example, the outgoing assembly could grant Maduro the power to rule by decree for the foreseeable future. Another option would be for Maduro to contrive some “national emergency” where it becomes “necessary” to cancel the elections.

The bottom line, however, is that the Maduro government will not escape these elections with whatever is left of its legitimacy intact. A government “victory” will be seen as manipulated; conceding defeat and then gutting the powers of the legislature will accelerate the growing regional intolerance of its undemocratic behavior; and cancelling the elections outright will likely send thousands of Venezuelans into the streets in protest.

For months now, chavismo has been careening towards some sort of denouement. December’s legislative elections could be the trigger. It may be that (shamefully) no leaders of sitting governments have to date spoken out about the untenable situation in Venezuela (in contrast to dozens of former presidents and regional commentators who have), the trend line is such that regional governments will soon have no other choice than to confront the deteriorating situation there. The Obama administration, for its part, has clung to a policy of accommodation with the Maduro government that is way past its expiration date. It’s time all regional governments recognized that a passive approach to the spiraling crisis in Venezuela is ironically contributing to the instability that everyone claims they want to avoid.


José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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