March 10, 2014
Polarization in Venezuela
For the Herald
Economic problems, not politics, fuelling protests
The tense political situation in Venezuela is caused by the difficult economic conditions. More than ideological polarization, inflation explains the growing discontent with the Nicolás Maduro administration. Blaming the opposition — that has benefited, but has not caused the uproar against the government — or accusing the United States of trying to destabilize the Bolivarian government will not get President Maduro’s incapable administration off the hook.
The recent massive demonstrations against the government in Venezuela have not taken attentive observers by surprise. After the death of President Hugo Chávez, Maduro was swiftly sworn in as president in March of 2013. He won a contested election against opposition leader Henrique Capriles in April 2014, amid accusations of fraud and vote tampering. Despite Capriles’ unwillingness to admit defeat, Maduro was sworn in as constitutional president. Though the challenge of filling in the void left by Chávez’s death was admittedly difficult, Maduro did little to help position himself as a legitimate and respected leader. His continuous references to Chávez patently underlined the profound differences in personality, charisma and political skills between the late president and his hand-picked successor. Though Capriles — and the opposition in general — also erred in trying to challenge the legitimacy of Maduro’s presidency, Maduro seemed more concerned with discrediting the opposition than with implementing economic reforms to boost productivity, improve government efficiency, curb corruption and close the gap between the official exchange rate and the black market rate for the US dollar.
The rapidly declining value of the Bolívar Fuerte (the “strong” currency introduced by Chávez in 2007) both highlighted and deepened Venezuela’s economic woes.
Since losing the presidential elections and in light of the disappointing results in the municipal elections of December 2013, the Venezuelan opposition has been going through a crisis of its own. While some leaders contend that an unlevelled playing field and a pattern of election irregularities makes it impossible to win power by democratic means, others argue that any mechanism that brings back the memories of the opposition support for a military coup against Chávez in 2002 will backfire and strengthen support for Maduro.
After a surprisingly strong vote against Chávez in the 2012 presidential election and a close finish in 2013 against Maduro, Capriles has struggled to balance power between those eager to push Maduro out of power and those inclined to wait for the next election (or for an implosion within the increasingly chaotic ruling coalition). As he fails to consolidate as a leader who can guarantee a stable transition out of Chavismo, Capriles has failed to capitalize on Maduro’s falling popularity and on the growing discontent with the worsening economic conditions among Venezuelans.
When Maduro was declared president, despite the overwhelming evidence of electoral irregularities, Capriles launched a campaign to challenge the president’s legitimacy. Unfortunately for him, most Venezuelans chose not to join his quest. The high abstention rate in the April 2013 election indicated that Venezuelans were not paying as much attention to the political process as the opposition leaders needed to mount a civil society challenge. The little headway made in the municipal elections in December confirmed that people were not eager to throw their support behind the opposition.
However, the worsening economic conditions in recent weeks has further weakened support for the Maduro administration. According to independent accounts, inflation stands at more than 50 percent. The government’s efforts to control inflation via regulations and price controls have made the situation worse, as many goods are hard to find and an buoyant black market is emerging.
In trying to hide its own ineptitude, the government has blamed the opposition, the business class and even the United States for the economic woes. Moreover, the economic policies adopted as short-term solutions have simply confirmed suspicions that inflation is under control and, thus, have fuelled speculation about future shortages in the provision of other essential goods.
Though political motivations drive many people to protest, economic concerns make the difference between scattered street demonstrations and massive protests. In recent weeks, Venezuela has witnessed massive protests not seen since the first years under Chávez, over a decade ago. At the time, polarization and Chávez’s efforts to reform the political system helped split the nation. Today, economic concerns, fear of inflation and the perception that the economy will get worse in the coming months helps explain support for the protests.
The opposition is certainly hopeful that the discontent against the government will end up playing in its favour. But Venezuelans are protesting against the government, not in favour of the opposition. Thus, the government does little to make its case by blaming the opposition and drawing parallels between the protests today and the political polarization before the failed military coup of 2002. This time around, Venezuelans are protesting because the economic situation makes it difficult for them to make ends meet. Unless the government focuses on fixing the economy — rather than blaming the opposition — the protests will grow bigger and will threaten the stability of the Maduro administration.