Venezuela: What Country Will it Be?

Marco Teruggi economic and financial catastrophe that relentlessly devastated the Venezuelan population during the last few years seems to be easing, while the government of Nicolás Maduro encourages the return of the old entrepreneurial forms of accumulation. Harassed by the imperial powers, the recent elections revealed a decrease in the hard core of the Chavista hardliners and at the same time revealed the fragmentation of the opposition. From Caracas, a chronicle brimming with questions, about the country that mocks forecasts and closed conclusions.

“This was the richest country, here those who had the most money went shopping in Miami on Fridays, they bought apartments in New York”, says a Venezuelan to a foreigner while the plane lands at the international airport of Maiquetía. On one side is the Caribbean Sea, on the other La Guaira, its neighborhoods, the mountains and behind it Caracas. The visitor, a Mexican, listens to a part of the memories of what Venezuela was, a mythological reality of an oil-producing and mobile country.

The car climbs to Caracas, crosses from west to east, where the metamorphosis in development that this part of the city is undergoing is concentrated: new restaurants, imported products stores called bodegones, late model car dealerships, full shopping malls, streets with lights and new palm trees. There is money, you can see it. “You walk down the street and you don’t know where people get their dollars from, you have to see it won, it’s cool”, says a friend who welcomes me, while we drink some cold malts and the traditional Christmas bagpipes are playing.

The change has deepened in the last two years. Eastern Caracas, the epicenter of massive opposition protests in 2016, 2017 and early 2019, now shows images of opulence. No mobilizations are seen since February 2020, when they were already sporadic and diminished, just like Juan Guaidó, confined to social networks and in a small office. The militantly oppositional political subject was mostly disarticulated, let down by its leadership, affected by emigration, beaten, and, in some cases reconverted to the new moment of economic opportunities where words such as nationalization, price or exchange control disappeared.

That scenery changes a few meters away, when going down to the subway, state-run, free for those who cannot pay, with stopped escalators, candy sellers in each car, worn out clothes and shoes. There is the country that fell with almost no money, although, for the first time in several years, with a perception of possible improvement. “Hardly anyone works for two dollars anymore, from ten dollars up,” says another friend in Plaza Bolivar, the center of western Caracas and of visible political power. A few blocks away is the Miraflores Palace where Nicolás Maduro, against all odds, is still in office and is looking forward to the 2024 presidential elections.

Regional Elections

This year was the year of a change of stage in the conflict, which occurred in several steps and was consolidated with the election of last November 21. The first was the political failure of the opposition strategy of the “interim government”, the abstentionist policy at the polls and the narrative of increased sanctions and the “cessation of usurpation”. On that path the rapprochements began, which had a decisive advance in the conformation of a new National Electoral Council in May, voted by the National Assembly in December 2020, after an agreement between the government and the majority of the opposition.

The new Electoral Power, with three Chavista magistrates and two opposition magistrates, was followed in August by the dialogues in Mexico, which had among its results the announcement of electoral participation of the parties nucleated in the well-known G4: Voluntad Popular, a part of Acción Democrática, Primero Justicia and Un Nuevo Tiempo, absent in the polls since the 2018 presidential elections. Only some leaders, such as María Corina Machado, who maintains that the way out should not be electoral but of force due to the fact that she is facing a “criminal regime”, were left out and without strength.

The suspension in October of the dialogues in Mexico did not translate into the withdrawal of those reinserted in the electoral process. Less than ten days later, on October 28, the European Union (EU) Electoral Observation Mission arrived after 15 years of absence. The European presence, together with the Carter Center, the United Nations, as well as envoys from the Mercosur Parliament, and the participation of almost all the opposition, provided the election with a new political framework.

The results were subject to several interpretations. The map, seen in terms of governorships, granted a victory to Chavismo, which obtained 19 out of the 23 at stake – in Barinas there will be new elections after a controversial decision of the Supreme Court of Justice – and 215 out of the 335 mayoralties, with a majority in the capital cities. The third of municipalities won by the opposition, although it represented an advance, does not mean a turning point, due to the internal divisions that between 2018 to date were divided into several sectors: the diminished G4, a group of parties and leaders that opened dialogues with the government since 2019 now grouped in the Democratic Alliance, and a series of mayors gathered in Fuerza Vecinal.

The set of opposition lists obtained a greater number of votes than Chavism for the first time, with a difference of almost 600,000 voters. The ruling party, that is, the PSUV and allied parties, lost 300,000 votes with respect to the 2020 legislative elections, and nearly 1,700,000 compared to the 2017 regional elections. The decrease of the Chavista hard core, located at around 23%, emerged as one of the main data in view of the in-house analysis. The government preserves organizational strength, a national party machinery, territorial and popular anchorage, state domain, resource management and some communal expressions, such as the recent elected mayor Ángel Prado. Chavismo is also a deep-rooted political-social identity, particularly in the most popular sectors. How can it expand again its hard core and add new sectors? Some candidates tried with less red, more Tik Tok, in the search of bringing political disaffiliates.

The turnout was 42.8%, below the record of regional elections. In that number, the number of people outside the country must be calculated, which means that the electoral roll would not be 21 million but more or less 17 million, so the real percentage of participation could be considered higher. How many of those who are outside the country would vote? Their inclination, it can be presumed, would be mostly opposition. However, the percentage of voters remains low in the Venezuelan context, indicative of the political wear and tear of a prolonged conflict that impacts on the parties, their representatives, ideas, and on the social majority that Chavismo was able to build.

International failures

Washington affirmed that the elections were not free and fair, and granted new oxygen to Guaidó by inviting the “interim government” to the Summit for Democracy to be headed by Biden in December. Great Britain, coupled to the US after the Brexit, held the same position as the White House, as well as the Spanish government – influential in the Latin American agenda within the European Union -, who affirmed that the elections “have not met democratic expectations, even assuming an improvement with respect to previous calls”.

In its preliminary report, the European Mission, accompanied by a group of Euro-deputies, issued two conclusive lines: on the one hand, the performance of the National Electoral Council, which it described as “the most balanced electoral administration of the last twenty years”; on the other hand, it stated that, although “the Venezuelan electoral framework complies with most international standards”, there was a “lack of judicial independence, non-adherence to the rule of law, and some laws affected the equality of conditions, the balance and transparency of the elections”.

The declarations of these international actors left several elements of analysis towards the future. The US holds the key to the economic blockade and a probable capacity to influence the file opened by the International Criminal Court which will investigate whether the Maduro government incurred in crimes against humanity. The U.S. role in the dialogues in Mexico was and is also decisive, although publicly the State Department is not sitting at the table. The extradition from Cape Verde to Miami of Alex Saab, Colombian businessman appointed diplomat by the Venezuelan government, which unleashed the suspension of the dialogue last October, is framed in that board in which one should not ask about Guaidó but about the US.

What is the US strategy? Biden has the same term of office as Maduro (three years) and a series of actors with agendas that do not necessarily coincide, such as the Venezuelan/Cuban lobby in Florida that is pushing for the “maximum pressure” line to be maintained; the domestic oil lobby possibly interested in expanding investments in Venezuela; the map of priorities in the continent where there is a picture of instability and the election of Brazil looms; and the global framework of dispute with Russia and China which, together with other countries such as Iran, are central in the international scheme consolidated by the Venezuelan government. The question about the evolution of the Venezuelan conflict has a central part of its answer there.

The safeguard, for the moment, of Guaidó -questioned by his own allies- can be read in the context of the poor performance of the oppositions in the contest, where none of the competing sectors achieved a clear predominance over the others, deepening internal divisions. The possibility of a recall referendum against Maduro in 2022 does not seem clear, and the U.S. strategy is to move with several cards at the same time.

Just as well

In 2024 Chavismo will be in power for 25 years, 12 with Nicolás Maduro as president, almost the same time Hugo Chávez was in Miraflores. In the last years a succession of social shocks occurred that impacted millions of people: between 2014 and 2017 there were shortages of basic products for food, medicine and hygiene; in 2018 a hyperinflation, with peaks of 130,000%, accompanied by lack of water, electricity, gas, communications, gasoline, massive emigration, reduction of the minimum wage down to 1 dollar per month. The GDP, between 2013 and 2020, was reduced by 75%.

This uninterrupted succession of waves until drowning was articulated with chronic overthrow actions, ranging from classic coup attempts, with the entry from Colombia to Venezuela in 2019, to covert operations via armed groups. The conflict unfolded outside electoral channels, Chavism became entrenched and went through internal changes as a political force. Could the elections of last November 21 have contributed to a new democratic-electoral scenario? The hypothesis is yes, even with the fragilities and threats from various sides.

The current economic situation seems to indicate the braking of the fall, an inflation that was reduced to around 2,900% in 2020, the increase of remunerations in the private sector, where according to the Venezuelan Confederation of Industrialists, the current average income of workers and operators is $124.95 per month, $253.68 for professionals and technicians and $523.59 in the case of managers. The hardest hit sector is that of state workers and retirees, representing close to 10 million people, with salaries that may vary from 5 or 10 dollars per month, now with compensation in the work places, close to the equivalent of 20 or 30 dollars.

The situation in Caracas cannot be extrapolated to other parts of the country. “There you have ten dollars and you are a millionaire”, says with a sad laugh a friend who returns from her region to Caracas, where there is a lack of electricity and gasoline. How does one live? An engineering of remittances, salary, subsidized food, bonuses, homemade enterprises and daily scraps.

The way out of the economic labyrinth has been focused, for several years, on the attempt to build agreements with the private sector. Maduro recently highlighted the progress of an “unimaginable rapprochement with business sectors”. “I am a socialist, I do not go around with a double discourse, but I believe in a productive socialism, a Chinese style socialism”, said the now elected PSUV governor of Táchira, Freddy Bernal, during his campaign in the border state, after having the support of business and cattle raising sectors.

A translation of these approaches is reflected in the growth of national food production, or the investments that are multiplying in Caracas, where a shared universe is being built between traditional and emerging businessmen, linked to the government, which form ways of life and horizons of common interests. Are private capitals entering the services in the hands of the State, such as electricity, water, telephony, oil? How many? In what modality? Who are they? The process of private investments occurs in a confidential manner due to the blockade, as announced with the Anti-Blockade Law approved in 2020 by the National Constituent Assembly. Economic changes occur behind the curtain.

The current situation can be maintained for a longer period of time. The continued crisis has become stable, with few protests, marked by transformations seen in the use of the dollar as the currency that marks prices and dominates forms of payment, a greater circulation of money that is perceived in the east and west of Caracas, the exposure of the wealth of the privileged, a return of certain keys of pre-Chávez times that coexist with narratives, experiences and transformations initiated since 1999. And a society that in nearly seven years went through mourning, economic collapse, political confrontations, resilience, resignations, reinventions. Venezuela escapes many forecasts and closed conclusions.

Now I see it from the plane that flies away leaving behind the coast of La Guaira, where fishermen’s boats and pelicans can be seen at an hour when the houses smell of freshly brewed coffee.