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Venezuela: a catastrophic gridlock

Pro-government supporters congregate during the closing campaign ceremony for the upcoming Constituent Assembly election in Caracas yesterday.
By Pablo Stefanoni
For the Herald

If some form of agreement between the sectors does not emerge, the future could not be darker

The crisis hitting Venezuela does not seem to offer any easy way out. If Nicolás Maduro won narrowly in 2013, his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) suffered a stunning defeat. An enabling majority of the National Assembly fell into the hands of the opposition, thus giving rise to a predictable conflict of powers. The movement created by Hugo Chávez cannot stand power-sharing and the opposition sought to oust the president via an impeachment process lacking any constitutional basis. But it is true that the recall referendum which it subsequently sought (a mechanism which can be found in the Constitution) was halted by a government-controlled Supreme Court.

During those years, the opposition alternated between those who sought to evict chavismo via the ballot-box and those who consider that that is never going to be allowed to happen and therefore want to take to the streets. Both have been proved right at various points. The “La Salida” offensive — which ended up with Leopoldo López sentenced to over 13 years in prison — showed up the limits of the street “guarimbas.” Meanwhile, the electoral success of 2015 showed the ballot-box route promoted by Henrique Capriles to be yielding fruit. But soon afterwards a Legislative Assembly devoid of any real power restored the street as the main battleground. And thus we arrive at the most recent protests — in the words of the sociologist Fabrice Andreani, the most massive, transcending class and continuing until now.

Although still mistrusted in low-income neighbourhoods, the results of 2015 and the current protests show that the opposition — grouped in the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD, in its Spanish acronym) — have succeeded in breaking through glass ceilings which have been denying them electoral triumphs since 1999.

Maduro’s current problem is that he lacks a majority. Having the “people” on their side is the last refuge of national and popular governments — generally with little time for institutional rules which seem to them conservative limits on the profound changes which their countries need. But a plebiscitary style of governance presupposes the need to win elections and that is now beyond Maduro. If that were not so, it would suffice to order a recall referendum and win it. That is what Chávez did in 2004, following the abortive coup of 2002 and the oil strike of 2003. And as Evo Morales also did in Bolivia in 2008 against the autonomist opposition headed by the landowning élite of Santa Cruz. But today, Maduro would be out on his ear and that is why he has blocked not only any recall referendum but also regional elections and even some union voting, as within the PDVSA state oil company.

Endogenous

While the government attributes all its problems to an “economic war,” it is evident that many of these problems are endogenous to its way of managing the economy. In a critical context — with inflation that will top 700 percent this year and a steep recession — Maduro must increasingly look for support from the military, who control the state at strategic points. He must also guarantee impunity for an institutionalised corruption taking full advantage of the multiple exchange rate. All you need to do is to get hold of dollars at the cheapest official exchange rate (supposedly reserved for the import of essential items) via overbilling or fictitious invoicing and change them on the blue market. While the lowest official exchange rate is 10 bolivars, the parallel market demands more than 9,000, thus far surpassing an intermediate official rate of 2,500. A good chunk of the business activities of the “bolibourgeoisie” is linked to this “window of opportunity” for corruption, alongside other deals like trafficking petrol to Colombia. Now the “bolibourgeois” area is being joined by the “bolichicos,” who mainly made their fortunes out of the government’s electricity project contracts.

So-called “21st-century socialism” never worked very well but years of oil windfalls could paper over the difficulties in “sowing” petroleum and constructing a productive system capable of supplying the domestic market with its most immediate needs. The early Chávez combined a sort of “third way” economics with a kind of Nasser-cum-Perón politics while invoking participatory democracy. As from the frustrated coup of 2002 he evolved toward “socialism” but along general lines his movement embodied forms of “paradoxical democratisation” peculiar to populism — taking power away from the élites and thus creating tension with the institutions, accompanied by chaotic economic experiments. The Constitution which Maduro now wants to replace corresponds to the pre-socialist phase — it was approved in 1999.

Calling a Constituent Assembly looks like a manoeuvre to wrongfoot the opposition. It is true that the government could take advantage of a Constituent Assembly with powers above the established order to redesign the political system and turn it, for example, into a sort of “communal democracy.” Indeed the assembly’s delegates will be elected by a questionable liberal/communal/corporativist system not envisaged by the 1999 Constitution. But it is not clear whether Maduro today is strong enough to make very radical changes. We have already seen him pull back when the Supreme Court tried to strip the National Assembly of all powers.

Of course, he could always take a leap into the dark but that would lead to enormous uncertainty and possibly civil strife.

A route of normalisation

The ideal way out would be agreeing to democratic normalisation, organising the overdue elections, isolating both the coup-mongering elements in the opposition and the more adventurous chavista supporters and limit the opposition’s thirst for payback (which is not a minor problem), giving shape to a minimal economic plan to protect social rights and restore the production and distribution of essential goods. Perhaps other Latin American governments could contribute to that instead of joining the generalised hysteria regarding Venezuela. Unfortunately, that outlook today is very weak — figures like Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary-General Luis Almagro have overacted their alignment with the opposition and abandoned the diplomatic language which their position should impose.

By the same token, much of the left — especially the populist and ex-Communist strands — have militantly lined up behind the Venezuelan government, repeating often hollow clichés and concentrating all their rhetoric on the reactionary character of the opposition or imperialist interference. Without doubt, some of the opposition represent a reactionary right, even linked to sinister figures like former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, but that does not cover them all. There is a legitimate discontent in much of the population, there are centrist sectors — while they are faced by a government which comes across as authoritarian yet chaotic — expressing itself in a very decadent way when measured against what the Bolivarian revolution once meant for the popular classes.

And so there is a catastrophic gridlock. The opposition banks on rifts appearing within the Armed Forces — “the only thing to negotiate is Maduro’s exit,” they repeat — while the government steps up the repression and introduces a police state. For now only a small sector identified as “critical chavismo” advocates this intermediate way. But it is probable that more negotiations are going on under the table than we are aware of, as we saw with the transfer of Leopoldo López to house arrest.

If some form of agreement does not prosper, respecting the popular representation of each sector, the future could not be darker.

Pablo Stefanoni is the Editor-in-Chief of the New Society magazine.

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