Venezuela’s unlikely rescuers: the US and Cuba?

By Jean Daudelin

Given the scale of its problems and the “quality” of its government, Venezuela could have collapsed into a civil war years ago. It did not. The restraint shown by the opposition and especially the fact that most weapons were on the Chavista side kept the lid on the pot.

The crisis is now deeper than ever, with deadly department stores’ looting now joining crippling shortages of basic necessities, increasing unemployment, the world’s highest inflation rate, stratospheric levels of corruption, disintegrating public services, crumbling infrastructure and terrifying levels of criminal violence.

At the same time, the government’s quasi-monopoly of violence is breaking down. President Nicolás Maduro’s control over the military and party militias has always been partial with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, in particular, keeping a much-purged and corrupt military for himself. There are rumbles, however, both on the party militia side and within the military. Without surprise, the regimes’ much used but long unruly street gangs’ loyalty is less assured than ever. When it comes, in other words, the violence will start from within Chavista ranks.

Continue reading

Venezuela: Dark Present, Darker Future

By Jean Daudelin

Venezuela is in bad shape. Daily demonstrations, barricades and fights with the police are adding yet more chaos to the country’s economic mess and violent crime wave. But if you assume that things can’t get worse, just wait. Here is a grim, and unfortunately quite likely scenario.

The political dynamics in the country are intractably poisoned. The two sides are deeply entrenched while hatred, not rivalry, rules. Even the start of a dialogue is made difficult by the internal divisions that plague each side, with radicals on both sides ready to denounce compromise as treason. Leopoldo Lopez, the now jailed opposition leader that led the early demonstrations in Caracas, has become the face of the street protests and he wants nothing less than President Maduro’s resignation. This leaves no room at all to manoeuvre for Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate in last year’s elections. In the government’s aggressive campaign against the “fascist” opposition, the President, Nicolas Maduro, tries not to be outdone by National Assembly, President Diosdado Cabello, who has been keeping some distance since the very night of the Maduro’s disastrous and razor-thin electoral victory.

Continue reading

Why Venezuela matters for Brazil

Some may have been surprised by the swiftness with which the Brazilian government recognized the victory of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. Along with Venezuela’s closest allies, from Cuba and Argentina to Bolivia and Ecuador, Brazil congratulated Maduro Sunday night, even before the chavista-dominated National Electoral Council even declared him president-elect, early Monday morning. Why would Brazil, which has in fact been the target of Venezuela’s claims to regional prominence under Chavez, be so keen to secure the sympathy of his successor?

Ideology played its part, with Lula himself openly rooting for Maduro’s victory and the knee-jerk leftism of the  Workers’ Party (the PT’s) core constituency predictably pushing for the a quick and strong affirmation of solidarity, especially once the United States had expressed reservations.  As Paulo Sotero has pointed out, however, most leaders of Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party were to stay the very least measured in their praise of Chavez[1] and the disputed election provided an opportunity to play out the global “seriousness” that the country’s elites, right and left, so strongly strive for.

Continue reading

Venezuela’s soon-to-be coup-maker? Meet Diosdado Cabello

As Hugo Chavez’ health was declining, discussions about his succession focused on a small group of individuals, two of whom dominated the field. One was Nicolás Maduro, a long-time follower of Chavez who had been President of the National Assembly, foreign minister and most recently vice-president. The other one was Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer—he joined Hugo Chavez in a military coup attempt, in 1992—governor, government minister and President of the National Assembly since January 2012. While Maduro had little power of his own and was largely dependent on Chavez, Cabello had built on his close relationship with the military and he was seen as a force of his own within chavista ranks, in spite of the many accusations of corruption that have followed him over the years. In the dramatic press conference Chavez held before leaving for his last journey to Cuba, he put an end to the speculations and told Venezuelans that his chosen successor would be Maduro. Cabello complied and, once the leader was gone, he very publicly embraced Chavez’ designated heir.

During the campaign itself, Cabello was given little space while Maduro himself—along with Chavez’ ghost, regularly brought in through birds and tweets—completely dominated the party’s public presence. Cabello may have been working on his own power base in the background but, clearly, Maduro was trying to fully exploit the Great Man’s unction to consolidate his position within the party. He blew his chance however, barely squeaking through with a still contested advantage of 270,000 votes.

Continue reading

Nicolás Maduro’s Disastrous Elections and the Coming Chaos in Venezuela

Nicolás Maduro had all the cards in his hands: personally and very publicly anointed by Chavez himself and free to use all the resources of the state to promote himself, he was running a two-week campaign in the wake of the massive outpouring of grief that followed the death of the country’s most popular politician ever. No wonder he was universally seen as a shoo-in. The opposition, still reeling from an 11% -margin defeat barely six-months old and with little time to organize or raise money, could only hope for a miracle. It almost happened.

Maduro’s utter lack of charisma, his claim to have seen portly Chavez appear to him as a cute little bird and to have received tweets from the Chavez himself were rightly seen as crass and demeaning attempts to exploit the quasi-religious fervor in which the late leader was held, and they no doubt played a role in his disastrous performance. But the results should probably be traced to the dreadful situation in which a decade of Chavismo has placed the country. Without Chavez himself to whip the crowds, and in spite of the very real impact that his programs were having on the poorest everyday life, the utter emptiness of his legacy showed starkly: stratospheric homicide, common crime and corruption levels, the highest inflation rate in Latin America, incompetent public administration, declining oil production with the world’s largest reserves, crumbling transportation infrastructure, regular and sometimes extended electricity blackouts, and so on. The inability of his successors to move early enough to embalm the great man—decomposition was too advanced—should stand as the eternal symbol of their incompetence and disorganization. Chavez’ hyperactive and constant presence, epitomized by his weekly hours-long “Allo Presidente,” television show, had been propping up a chaotic and unsustainable “model,” and when his death put an end to the telenovela, reality came back with a vengeance.

Continue reading

Empty stardom: Hugo Chavez’s international legacy

[Published in The Globe and Mail on March 7, 2013, as “In Latin America, little use for the Chavez brand of socialism.”]

Hugo Chavez was a global star. A photogenic and rotund figure with a warm personality, his aggressive self-promotion and bombastic attacks against the United States have made him famous around the world. With his friend Lula from Brazil, he has given Latin America a visibility the region had not enjoyed since the Castro-Guevara duo ruled the waves in the 1960s and 1970s. A self-declared revolutionary trying to sell his ways as “socialism for the XXIst Century,” Chavez has been spending much of the country’s oil wealth on social programs at home, which made him immensely popular among poor Venezuelans. He has also used Venezuela’s oil revenues to build a broad coalition in Latin America and the Caribbean and his diplomacy has courted any world leader willing to denounce Yankee imperialism. While alive, he really made his mark on the world. What of all this will survive him?

The Chavez “model” was about spending money: on food, education and social services. Producing that money was not really part of the picture and the whole endeavour would quickly have run empty without Venezuela’s oil wealth.  Lacking investments, even the oil sector is now struggling and the rest of the economy is in shambles. The country’s massive energy resources, however, could easily draw foreign interest and relaunch domestic production, sustaining further social spending. As a model for a country that does not have the same riches—and that means almost everybody on the planet—there is not much of use in Hugo Chavez’  version of socialism.

Oil was also the honey that held together his “Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of the Americas” (ALBA). Most of its members were small oil-dependent countries from the Caribbean and Central America and for them, Chavez death is tragic. Most severely threatened is Cuba, which was getting some 10 to 13 billion dollars a year—for a country with a GDP of about $70bn—in subsidized oil and credits from Venezuela. Haiti’s annual support, worth $400million, is also at stake, as are the checks going to Nicaragua, Dominica, Surinam, and so on. The rationale for the whole program was tied to Chavez’ personal pretentions to regional leadership. Devoid of his charisma and soon to confront strong pressures to keep together a fractious domestic coalition, his successors are likely to put much of this money to domestic use.  Neither Argentina, nor Bolivia or Ecuador, the next largest and richest members of ALBA, are in a position to provide glue money. Without much of a joint agenda, it is hard to see a real future for that coalition.

Aside from the predicament of ALBA’s retinue of oil-dependent states, could Chavez’ death mean trouble for the region and beyond? The consolidation of what is really a new regime in Venezuela will likely be messy. The country is already the most violent in South America, drug trafficking, corruption and nepotism are rife, and Chavez had done little to consolidate political institutions that would exist without him. Political uncertainty, in turn, will not help the economy. The United States, Colombia and Brazil have significant trade with Venezuela. With about 1 million barrels a day, Venezuela is the US’ fourth largest source of oil. Colombia and Brazil have large trade surpluses with the country and find there a welcoming market for their manufactured exports. Instability, moreover, could perhaps trickle over the long and poorly controlled borders they share with Venezuela. In a worst-case scenario, deepening corruption and violence could lead to the emergence of a large, rich and messy narco-state at the northern tip of South America.

While the new leadership, whose qualities were not given much space to show, could get the country back on track, these are causes for worry. Not about oil, however: if Venezuela exports much oil to the US, it imports a lot gasoline from there as its refining capabilities are meager. Dependence here is a two-way street and there is much more to lose for Caracas in this game. The risks of political instability and criminalization are much more serious and their management the real challenge for external actors. The US would be ill-advised to get too closely involved, however. Brazil and Colombia, with more at stake and, especially for Brazil, much more access and local credibility, will be best placed to lead an international effort at containing the potential ripple effects of Venezuela’s difficult times, and to help along the process of de-polarization that the country will now need to go through. Canada, which has little at play in this all game, should probably content itself with a supporting role.

Jean Daudelin

© 2013 The Globe and Mail Inc. All Rights Reserved.