When socialist Nicolás Maduro eked out last April’s special presidential election in Venezuela, I wrote: “Even if Maduro won, he lost.”
Maduro defeated the opposition candidate – the same challenger Maduro's mentor Hugo Chávez had trounced just six months earlier by an 11-percent margin – by only 1.6 percent of the vote. Maduro’s lame performance shook the socialists’ claim that Chávez’s revolution would be just as dominant without Chávez, who had died of cancer in March after ruling Venezuela for 14 years.
But now, in fairness, I can only say the same thing about President Maduro’s opposition. Despite the prizes it won in last Sunday’s municipal elections – including the mayoral seats of major Venezuelan cities like Maracaibo, Valencia and the district of Caracas, the capital – it did not deal Maduro and his United Socialist Party (PSUV) the big blow it had advertised. On the contrary, Sunday’s voting not only brought Maduro back from the political dead, it gave him new strength.
“The revolution,” Maduro shouted Sunday evening as the results came in, “has once again defeated the counter-revolution!”
The PSUV coalition – better known as los Chavistas – captured as many as 257 of Venezuela’s 335 municipalities. The opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), took as few as 53. The Chavistas also held on to Libertador, the most important municipality of the capital, Caracas, which was considered a key test.
Because the MUD had billed the elections as a referendum on his presidency, “Maduro comes out as a winner,” says Natalia Brandler, a Venezuelan-born political scientist at the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy. "The opposition won some important symbolic victories like Maracaibo, but the government can present a map of Venezuela that is painted [socialist] red.”
The only red the opposition had forecast was Maduro’s political blood. Since taking office in April, he’s made one misstep after another, from his goofy claim that Chávez had appeared to him as a bird giving him advice, to blaming massive power outages in recent months on a “fascist electricity coup” – part of what he calls a right-wing “economic war” against Chávez’s leftist revolution.
Inflation has leapt to 54 percent, thanks largely to the government’s untenable currency and price controls. Basic goods like rice and toilet paper are in chronic shortage. Venezuela’s violent crime rate is South America’s worst. The country has the world’s largest oil reserves, but output at its state-run oil monopoly keeps dropping.
All Maduro’s opponents had to do was step aside and let him slip on the mango peels. Even his Chavista rivals were reportedly sharpening their knives.
Then, in the weeks before Sunday’s elections, Maduro found some political footing. Taking a page from Chávez’s authoritarian playbook, he made inflation magically (if only temporarily) disappear by ordering soldiers into retail stores. They enforced his deep price cuts on consumer goods like plasma TVs as he exhorted Venezuelans to “leave nothing on the shelves!”
That triggered looting at a number of electronics outlets. But the populist Hail Mary pass worked – in part, admittedly, because Venezuelan business does have a notorious reputation for bloated profit margins – and the opposition was caught flat-footed.
TILTED PLAYING FIELD
Granted, it was caught on a grossly uneven playing field – especially when it comes to getting the message out. The Chavistas continue to gut opposition and independent media in Venezuela. Those that survive are often cowed by “anti-defamation” laws that mean jail time for “insulting” government officials. Maduro, meanwhile, can frolic on ubiquitous state-run TV as regularly as if he were Skyping with relatives, while keeping opposition figures like Capriles off the airwaves.
Still, says Brandler, the Venezuelan opposition has to move beyond criticizing bad Chavista policies to more convincingly detailing its own platform. “The opposition has a stronger base today,” she points out. “So what are they going to do with it? How are they going to unite and organize people against a government that has a hegemonic control of the media, total control of the institutions of the country?”
“I’ve done a lot of research in the barrios of Caracas,” Brandler adds, “and I’ve heard people who are very disappointed [with] Chavismo. But they do not see the opposition as an alternative.”
Not that millions of Venezuelans didn’t turn to that alternative on Sunday. The cities the opposition did win were major prizes: Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city and its oil capital; the industrial hub of Valencia and the tourist mecca of Mérida. And on a Sunday that Maduro had cynically proclaimed “Loyalty to Chávez Day,” a MUD candidate won Barinas – Chávez’s hometown.
What’s more, analysts like Brandler argue that while MUD candidates won only 43 percent of the popular vote, Chavistas and their allies failed to reach 50 percent – meaning a majority actually went to non-Chavista parties. Said Capriles, who insists only vote fraud kept him from defeating Maduro in April: “Venezuela is a divided country. No one owns this country.”
Maybe not. But Sunday’s results may well embolden Maduro and the Chavistas to tighten their control of Venezuela and turn it further leftward. Because even if the counter-revolution won, it lost.
The Latin America Report is sponsored by Espírito Santo Bank.