Elections in Venezuela have created a majority government for the opposition — finally. But is this the end of days for the legacy of Hugo Chávez?
Elections in Venezuela are over, and the results appear to have provided a strong boost to the heretofore fractured opposition: a significant majority in the parliament of that very troubled nation. It appears, based on first returns, that the combined opposition forces have won at least 99 of 167 seats, with potentially more to come. Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver and the country’s current president, is widely seen as ineffectual and totally lacking in either the drive or clever political instincts of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer in 2013.
It was evident that the growing dissatisfaction with Chávez’s legacy programs would spill over into an electoral defeat, sealed by the tumble in oil prices to around $40 a barrel. The break-even point for Venezuelan oil is at least four times that, and the lack of consumer goods, tumbling black market price for the bolivar, and jailing of charismatic opposition leader Leopoldo López have all contributed to the election outcome.
Surveys showed the opposition leading the Chavismo party by nearly two to one going into the election, and no level of electoral fraud, intimidation, and manipulation of the media could have generated a winning result. More than 80 percent of Venezuelans think their nation is moving in a dangerous direction, and the country has had to endure the highest levels of street violence in the world with more than 25,000 murders last year. Moreover, GDP is forecast to fall more than 5 percent next year, with triple-digit inflation.
But today, Venezuelans awoke to a dramatically different political landscape — one in which the opposition, after so many years in the wilderness, now has a power base from which it can realistically hope to chip away at the power of the Chávez base. That said, the task will be formidable: President Maduro firmly controls the courts (well packed with Chavistas), the military (the general officers are all essentially political appointees), and the bureaucratic organs of government — from the national oil company to the ubiquitous welfare agencies.
So what happens now? And what is the role of the United States?
Election results are still flowing in, and we cannot be sure of the final tallies. There will almost certainly be attempts to manipulate the votes and reduce the margin of victory. International observers will need support in order to ensure this does not happen; we can be sure that the Maduro regime will do all it believes it can get away with to limit the power of the opposition. There will be a significant level of turbulence ahead.
In terms of the United States, first the country should do all it can to support López, who has been in jail since February 2014 and was sentenced to nearly 14 years for his role in last year’s protests by a clearly biased court. Prior to his incarceration, he was the mayor of the Chacao district of Caracas and leader of the Popular Will party. His moving letters and articles from the Ramo Verde prison are an inspiration to the opposition.
As he said recently, writing for Foreign Policy from jail, “When I turned myself in to a government that actually accused me of using ‘subliminal messages’ to incite violence, I knew that this would be my fate. Venezuela’s current regime has always gone to great lengths to neutralize my engagement in politics, along with the engagement of so many others. Even as I sit in a small jail cell in Ramo Verde military prison, I do not regret surrendering to an unjust government in the name of democracy.” This Orwellian decision is a clear violation of human rights and rule of law, and the United States should stand against it alongside American allies in the region in very public condemnation.
Second, the entire system of “democracy” in Venezuela is under significant attack by the Maduro regime, and the United States should join its voice with other nations and organizations, especially in the Americas, to condemn this. Despite the recent parliamentary elections, there are still many candidates who are barred from running for office based on nonsensical charges, including other popular opposition leaders. The government’s ban extends to 10 highly visible opposition politicians, including two former state governors, Manuel Rosales and Pablo Pérez Álvarez, and other opposition leaders in addition to López, including María Corina Machado and Carlos Vecchio. Another group of political actors are either incarcerated or under house arrest like the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, and the former mayor of San Cristóbal, Daniel Ceballos. The United States must call for their release and fair trials.
Third, and perhaps counterintuitively, Washington needs not to emerge as a singular critic of Venezuela. The United States should be part of the chorus, not the cheerleader. President Maduro has consistently been able to paint the United States (or, as both he and his mentor, Chávez, styled it: the “evil empire”) as the font of all of Venezuela’s problems. With Chavismo now under pressure from these electoral results, he will instinctively lash out at the United States. Thus, Washington’s voice needs to be part of a larger chorus from the region, led by the Organization of American States, former presidents like Colombia’s Andrés Pastrana, and other national government officials like the newly elected centrist president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri.
Our collective message should be simple: The vast majority of the more than 30 nations in the Americas, both north and south, are now democracies — a huge improvement over the 1970s and 1980s, when most were run by military juntas. We cannot afford to slip backward in a nation as important as Venezuela. These elections are an important step forward and deserve our support.
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