Maduro’s Rocky Start and the Future of Chavismo without Chávez

David Smilde

I did an interview with Al Jazeera’s “Min Washington” program yesterday regarding the challenges and future of Chavismo without Chávez. I would put it up on the blog but it won’t air until next week and then will have Arabic voice overs. Here is a summary of what I said.

The first issue we talked about was Maduro’s rough first month and what it means for Chavismo after Chávez. I suggested that indeed it has not been easy. The election was closer than anybody thought it was going to be, with approximately 6% of the electorate switching from Chávez to Capriles between October 2012 and April 2013. Since then Maduro’s numbers have only worsened with majorities of the Venezuelan population disagreeing with the National Electoral Council’s (CNE) decision to not do a full audit, and some polls suggesting that Henrique Capriles would win if new elections were held. The optics of the April 30 violence in the National Assembly (AN) were terrible, and the government’s video trying to blame it on the opposition only turned tragedy into farce.

What is incredible is that Maduro’s rocky first month has come without really beginning to address the significant political and economic challenges Venezuela faces. There has been no talk of the communal state-something that is important for the left part of the coalition. And only in the past week have Venezuela’s economic issues come to the fore. 

The Maduro government is sitting on a lot of oil and has a lot of income so it is not as if it is going off the fiscal cliff. However, it does have a serious foreign exchange problem. The currency is dramatically overvalued, increasing dependency on imports. At the same time, the government’s operative foreign currency reserves are critically low, meaning they cannot approve all of the dollar requests they receive. Thus, they are forced to choose between three undesirable options: deplete reserves, devalue the currency, or permit shortages of basic goods. Maduro devalued the currency in February, and it almost cost him the election. Now it seems like he has chosen to permit shortages. 

This rocky start does raise questions regarding just how sustainable “Chavismo without Chávez” really is as a project that can sustain a broad consensus. Indeed, it now seems weaker than many of us thought it was before Chávez’s passing. I attribute this to two basic reasons.

First, in his second term, with the move to a discourse of socialism, Chávez adopted a model of politics and governance that deemphasized accountability and transparency as well as institutional solidity of any kind. The missions, participatory organizations, the proliferation of ministries, and the PSUV itself were all developed with big pushes that emphasized revolutionary commitment and constant change. Chávez was able to keep this hypertrophic project together through charisma and resources, but it is not clear that anyone else will be able to. Within the movement and the government, people complain that there is neither a sense of who is in charge nor in what direction they are headed.

The second reason is that in recent years the Chávez project developed a discourse predicated upon the idea that they were a clear and ever growing majority. At this point, it is very difficult for anybody within the government to do or say things that suggest otherwise, and this explains some of the Maduro government’s miscalculations.

In the hours and days after his squeaker of an election win, Maduro’s statements towards the opposition and the citizens that voted for it were not based on recognition and reconciliation but were belligerent and dismissive. An unknowing observer would have thought he had won by 15 percentage points not 1.5. 

The CNE’s decision not to do a complete audit (i.e. one that doesn’t just verify the correspondence of paper ballots and electronic vote count but which includes the voter lists and the CNE’s lists of incidents and fingerprint mismatches) would make sense if there had been a clear margin. But after a close election, following a campaign in which the abuse of public resources and institutions in favor of Maduro was evident to all, it has seriously weakened him and will permanently allow national and international opponents to question his legitimacy as president. 

And denying the opposition the right to speak in the AN unless they recognized Maduro’s legitimacy only reinforced an image of a government that does not respect pluralism, freedom of speech, and legal principles. 

Despite all of these problems, it is important to remember that Maduro is not actually weak and vulnerable. His government controls all institutions and has a lot of income at its disposal. He actually has the margin to flail around for a while and still be safe. The opposition’s next opportunity to try to replace him is not for another three years when they can organize for a recall referendum. 

I don’t think this means we are in the presence of the “slow death of Chavismo,” as one famous novelist has repeatedly suggested. The figure of Hugo Chávez and what he stood for will not be forgotten soon, and I expect it to be an important basis of political mobilization in Venezuela and elsewhere for decades to come. However, at this point, it is hard to imagine Chavismo as currently configured recovering the 60% majorities it has had in the past. Of course, we are only one month into the Maduro administration and a lot can change over the coming years.

The opposition has been running political circles around Chavismo in the past month, setting the agenda and gaining ground with every government misstep. They have been able to take accusations of irregularities and hypothetical scenarios in which voter intimidation, double voting, and assisted voting could account for the 1.5% margin, and make them stick, because the CNE has not used the information it has at its disposal to debunk them. Listening to public discourse and people on the street, one gets the sense that the opposition has the advantage.

But the opposition has its own history of overplaying its hand, and the speed with which its lead figures have begun to declare that they are the new majority in Venezuela is worrying. Everyone understands political rhetoric, but it is not unlikely that some of the key figures actually believe what they are saying and will act accordingly. They seem to think that continuing to maneuver on the issue of election irregularities nationally and internationally is going to somehow bring them to power. Indeed, it has worked for them so far, and it is hard to argue with success. But at a certain point they will have to move on and give people a reason to support them.

The last issue the interviewer asked about was whether these difficulties could undermine the changes in the region’s international relations that Chávez is credited for. I suggested it would not for several reasons, the most important being the declining influence of both the US and Venezuela in the region.

Chávez was an important catalyst in the region’s turn towards greater independence from the US and integration among Southern nations. However, in recent years other countries have become important actors in this regard. Furthermore, other left experiences have shown themselves to be more sustainable than Venezuela’s. Put differently, in recent years Brazil has emerged as a much more viable leftist governing project and a more important leader of regional integration and autonomy than Venezuela. 

And while Chávez was an important catalyst and Venezuela an important leader at a certain stage, other factors were just as important. The US focus on the Middle East, its loss of international prestige as a result of the war in Iraq, and its economic difficulties have made it less important in the region, while China has increased. Thus, Chávez’s regional legacy is not dependent on the success of Chavismo without Chávez.