| The upcoming elections are unlikely to ease political tensions as Ellner explains Prensa Presidencial | MR Online The upcoming elections are unlikely to ease political tensions, as Ellner explains. (Photo: Prensa Presidencial)

Venezuela’s presidential elections: Maduro plays hardball but there are drawbacks

Originally published: Venezuelananlysis on March 18, 2024 (more by Venezuelananlysis)  |

It is no secret that the Washington establishment is as enamored with Venezuela’s presidential candidate María Corina Machado as she is with the United States. In one example, the day after the Biden administration partially lifted sanctions against Venezuela last October 17, Antony Blinken warned that the measure would be revoked if by November 30 President Maduro did not lift a government ruling prohibiting Machado from running for president. The threat was averted by an eleventh-hour announcement that Machado could appeal the prohibition to the nation’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice. A few days later Machado turned down the offer.

The candidacy of Machado, who calls Maduro a narco-dictator and says she prefers him alive in order to send him to jail, combined with the ruling against her running for office, spells trouble for a nation beset by political violence over the last 20 years.

Machado was elected presidential candidate for the opposition in primaries held last October with an alleged 92 percent of the vote, though that figure was questioned by the runner-up candidate Carlos Prosperi. The presidential elections are slated for July 28 and Maduro, who has governed Venezuela since 2013, will run for reelection.

The mainstream media and pro-establishment pundits limit their electoral predictions to two scenarios: Maduro loses, or he engages in electoral fraud. For some, regardless of the outcome, cheating is a forgone conclusion. Geoff Ramsey of the Atlantic Council commented “I don’t think the international community is under any illusion that this election is going to be perfectly free and fair.”

This either-or forecast belies multiple factors that work to the opposition’s disadvantage. The governing party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), is well organized and disciplined, unlike Machado’s makeshift Vente Venezuela party. More important, the divisions and mutual animosity within the opposition, and the distrust of Venezuelans toward politicians in general may translate into widespread electoral abstention. Finally, Machado’s own supporters and Venezuelan public opinion in general oppose much of what Machado stands for, particularly her embrace of shock-treatment style neoliberalism.

Luis Vicente León, a leading pro-opposition pollster, reported the day following the opposition’s primaries that about 70 % of those who voted for Machado oppose her refusal to negotiate with the government and her support for the sanctions. He adds that support for her is more “emotional” than anything else.

Maria Corina Machado, the neoliberal “outsider”

In December 2021, Machado’s Vente Venezuela broke with Juan Guaidó, Venezuela’s self-proclaimed president, and declared “it’s time for the opposition to constitute a new direction.” Machado asserted that Guaidó’s parallel government’s “lack of transparency and disconnect with the people and with the United States” had produced “indignation.”

With these harsh words, many Machado followers and some pundits began to paint her as a maverick. El País called her “an isolated politician” and added that she is “fiercely against the moderate sector of the opposition, whom she has long accused of playing into the hands of the regime.”

Yet Machado is hardly an outsider. Ever since her claims of electoral fraud in the 2004 recall election against President Hugo Chávez, Machado has avidly supported all the opposition’s regime-change attempts that have ended in fiascos. In an unlikely encounter for an outsider, Machado, representing the National Endowment for Democracy-funded ngo SUMATE, met with President George W. Bush in the White House in 2005. In 2014, Machado was on the podium next to the right-wing firebrand Leopoldo López when he initiated the abortive 4-month protests known as the guarimba with insurrectional aims. Most telling, 10 days before the opposition’s October primaries, López’s Voluntad Popular withdrew its candidate and threw its support behind Machado.

Machado is far from being an “isolated politician.” She is in the same radical right camp as Voluntad Popular, which is also the party of Juan Guaidó, now a virtual pariah.

Machado’s branding as an anti-politics politician makes sense. The polling firm Datincorp reported that 63% of those surveyed affirmed that “a new president unrelated to Chavismo and the current opposition should emerge from the 2024 presidential elections.” Along the same lines, pollster Oscar Schemel pointed out that “an outsider is the greatest danger for Chavismo.”

Machado’s right-wing candidacy follows a political trend throughout the region. In the 1990s neoliberal candidates such as Alberto Fujimori, knowing that neoliberalism doesn’t win elections, hid their intentions and followed a “bait and switch” strategy. But over the last decade, with the acute polarization of Latin American politics, rightist pro-U.S. leaders have edged out centrist ones to face progressive governments. Now right-wing candidates are more open about their plans for a radical shakeup of the welfare state. Even so, many far-rightists put forward some populist proposals designed to divert attention from the unpopular measures they advocate. Rafael Uzcátegui, general coordinator of the NGO Provea, pointed to such a strategy in Venezuela, stating “in her role as a national consensus candidate, Machado is in the process of invention and construction.”

Nevertheless, Machado is an extremist in many ways. She and her advisors see massive privatization as a vehicle for economic recovery. Her proposal to create an Agency of Energy and Oil represents a throwback to the early years of the petroleum industry in the 1920s. Her system of school vouchers and elimination of equality for the social security system forms part of what she calls “popular capitalism,” a term used by Thatcher and Pinochet. As if this wasn’t enough, her main education advisor pledges to make all Venezuelans bilingual in English.

Even more extreme is Machado’s strategy for reaching power through confrontation. Her insistence that popular mobilization coupled with pressure from foreign powers will convince Maduro to back down and allow her to run for president would appear to be a recipe for violence. The 25-year history of Chavista rule is spotted with the calls for regime-change civil disobedience resulting in confrontation and violence.

This scenario was illustrated by the declaration of the ex-mayor of Caracas and Vente Venezuela leader Antonio Ledezma that the only way to register Machado as a candidate is through “civil disobedience.” He also called for talking to military officers which he claimed was “normal” and not conspiratorial. In doing so, Ledezma invoked the Constitution’s Article 350 which had previously been interpreted by guarimba organizers as justifying the right of rebellion.

The Secretary General of the nation’s historically largest party Acción Democrática, Henry Ramos Allup, called Ledezma’s statement “ridiculous.”

The strategy of reaching power through confrontation and disruption promises to set the stage for right-wing repression that often accompanies the implementation of the unpopular, radical brand of neoliberalism that Machado advocates (remember Pinochet). The same dynamic was at play in the coup that briefly overthrew Chávez in April 2002, as the then editor of NACLA Fred Rosen and I noted at the time. We wrote that coup leader Pedro Carmona and his allies attempted to achieve “a clean break with the populist past… They were rebelling… not on behalf of ‘democracy,’ a claim that could credibly be made by some of the populist anti-Chavistas, but on behalf of their class interests” (NACLA, July-August 2002).

The political side of Maduro’s strategy

The presidential elections will be about Venezuela’s economic adversities, but also about the opposition’s weaknesses, which Maduro has done much to deepen.

The opposition has attempted to oust Maduro by diverse means, as it did with Chávez in his early years in office. After each regime-change attempt (such as in 2015 when the opposition gained control of the National Assembly) opposition leaders announced Maduro’s imminent removal. Now Machado, Guaidó and other anti-Chavistas recognize their (in Guaidó’s words) “ingenuousness” and the President’s staying power. They attribute Maduro’s survival to his ruthlessness and anti-democratic behavior.

In contrast, some on the left praise Maduro’s skill in withstanding all the destabilization schemes. Veteran leftist Eligio Damas, author of over 3000 articles in the critical leftist website Aporrea, told me “Maduro’s leftist critics fail to consider that compared to him, Chávez had it easy, both politically and economically. Maduro is politically astute, otherwise he wouldn’t have lasted in power.”

Indeed, Maduro has proved to be a formidable strategist. Several major moves of his set off controversy as to their constitutionality but turned out to be masterstrokes. In 2017 Maduro called elections for a Constituent Assembly which the opposition claimed needed to be ratified first in a national referendum. Maduro refused but the call was a resounding success. It abruptly ended the 4-month bloody guarimba street protests, whose singular aim was to oust Maduro. In a matter of days, the Assembly scheduled gubernatorial elections which the opposition parties opted to participate in, rather than continue the guarimba.

While Maduro’s Constituent Assembly call in 2017 had solid legal arguments for and against, a second maneuver was less convincing from a constitutional viewpoint, but was equally effective in combating an insurgent opposition intent on regime change by any means possible. In 2020, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) recognized dissident leaders of Acción Democrática (AD), Primero Justicia (PJ) and Voluntad Popular (VP) as the legitimate representatives of their respective parties. With the support of the Chavista deputies (who refrained from demanding any leading positions in return), the heads of these newly led parties had mustered 84 votes and were able to replace Guaidó as president of that body. Guaidó’s supporters went off to form what became a parallel internet-based national assembly but his claim to being provisional president of Venezuela (which rested on his being president of the National Assembly) lost all credibility.

Undeniably, the TSJ’s ruling flouted the constitution. The Academy of Political Science denounced the TSJ’s “illegalization and intervention in the principal parties of the opposition” as violating the legal rights of political parties.

A third equally controversial move, which from the outset divided the opposition, was the ruling by the pro-Chavista National Controller Evis Amoroso last June that Machado was ineligible to run for office, citing her support for U.S. sanctions. Amoroso told me “Machado with her support for a U.S. invasion committed treason, but the controllership as an administrative body could only refer to that indirectly.” He added that the treason accusation will have to wait until her case goes to court.

The two largest parties of the opposition (AD and PJ), among others, reacted to the Controller’s ruling by proposing a strategy of playing by the rules of the game, as defined by the government, and avoiding divisive positions in order to unite the opposition, a policy that had been a resounding success in the 2015 National Assembly elections. Machado, however, snubbed the proposed strategy by refusing to abandon her presidential aspirations and her polemical positions.

The government’s official recognition of the dissident-led AD, PJ and VP in 2020 also set the opposition off against one another. The mainstream leaders accused the dissidents of accepting government bribes and called them “scorpions” (alacranes), a stigma that continued to sour relations and impeded agreements between the two blocs.

Luis Parra, the PJ dissident who became president of the National Assembly in 2020, pointed out three years later “time has proven us correct.” During that time span, most opposition leaders ended up abandoning positions that the dissidents had criticized, particularly electoral abstention and support for the Washington-imposed sanctions.

The positions of the dissident opposition parties are as far, if not farther, from those of María Corina Machado as they are from Maduro. The AD dissident party, which is running its own presidential candidate against Machado, is headed by long-time political leader Bernabé Gutiérrez, who has called Machado’s party “ultra-rightist.” He claims that most of the leaders of the radical right “are operating from the comfort of their self-imposed golden exile.” Gutíerrez adds that Machado and other members of the radical right promote abstentionism which leads to “total chaos,” in the process giving Maduro a free pass by providing him with an excuse for his failed policies. In 2020 Washington imposed sanctions on Gutiérrez, along with the other main dissident opposition leaders, for having “undermined democracy in Venezuela.”

On the economic front

Maduro’s economic reforms favoring the private sector have gone hand in hand with the political strategy of neutralizing and dividing sectors of the opposition. Francisco Rodríguez, the principal advisor of Maduro’s main rival in the 2018 presidential elections, told me in Washington that after the 2018 elections “Maduro began to abandon his misguided policy of alienating businesspeople and that helped win over some in the opposition to the idea of dialogue.”

A major argument for abandoning the policy of ongoing government-decreed wage increases, which were rapidly eaten up by inflation, was put forward by Maduro’s top economic advisor and national deputy, Jesús Faría. “To increase salaries,” Faría advised, “it is necessary to increase productive capacity,” which largely rests on lifting the U.S.-imposed sanctions on Venezuelan oil. The Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV)—which ironically Faría’s father was an historic leader of as well as being a labor leader—denounces the policy as amounting to the “pulverization of salaries.”

As part of its economic strategy, the Maduro government has opened the nation up to much-needed capital from abroad, particularly in designated “Special Economic Zones” (SEZ’s) in which legal requirements are lifted to attract investments. The PCV and others on the left claim that the government has taken a neoliberal turn. But Maduro and his advisors make clear that the bulk of the investments for the SEZ’s will come not from the U.S. but from China and other BRICS nations.

For María Corina Machado, the idea of the SEZs is taken from the “totalitarian Chinese model.” Ex-national deputy and member of Machado’s Vente Venezuela Luis Barragán added that the SEZs are a “rudimentary mechanism for the exploitation of the nation’s remaining strategic resources by criminal mafiosos.”

On his trip to China last September, Maduro toured one of China’s famous SEZs and signed an agreement establishing ties between the SEZs of both nations. At the same time, he appealed to the Chinese government to back Venezuela’s request for membership in BRICS, which he hailed for “accelerating the de-dollarization of the world.” During Maduro’s stay, the Chinese granted Venezuela the privileged status of “All Weather Strategic Partnership,” the first Latin American nation to receive it. Referring to the post-Mao reforms in China that some on the left view as backtracking from socialism, Maduro stated:

The experiences of China over these 40 years… have served as an inspiration for us.

Others close to Maduro are also inspired by the success of China’s economic model. Before joining the Chávez camp in the 1990s, Maduro belonged to the pro-Chinese Liga Socialista party, which disbanded after Chávez came to power, but its leaders came to occupy a disproportionate number of positions at different levels of the Chavista movement. The Liga’s last secretary general and former guerrilla Fernando Soto Rojas, who Maduro highly reveres, views Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping all favorably in spite of the glaring differences between them and denies that China can be labeled capitalist. Perhaps the maximum expression of the current Chinese model is the term “revolutionary bourgeoisie” (a concept defended by Lenin, Stalin and Mao) employed by Minister of Agriculture Wilmar Castro Soteldo, participant in the Chávez-led 1992 abortive coup.

Maduro’s friendly relations with private capital have neutralized former foes. The business associations Fedecámaras which spearheaded two regime-change attempts in 2002-2003, now lashes out at the U.S. sanctions, claiming that 17.5 % of their harsh impact has been felt by businesspeople. Former Fedecámaras president Ricardo Cusanno objected that businesspeople face difficulties in opening a bank account abroad, “for the mere fact of being Venezuelan.”

The downsides

Maduro’s economic strategy of concessions to the private sector, as with his political strategy designed to achieve stability and weaken the “disloyal” opposition, has had mixed results. The hyperinflation of 2,960 in 2020 has been reduced, but still increased 686% in 2021 and 187% in 2022. On the other hand, the long lines at supermarkets and scarcities of many staples are now something of the past.

The government’s anti-corruption campaign is also a mixed story. A crackdown against corruption in the state oil company PDVSA in March 2023 led by the Chavista Prosecutor General Tarek William Saab included arrest orders against 61 supervisors, businesspeople and government officials and the impounding of assets. The two kingpins of the corruption rings were Rafael Ramírez and Tareck El Aissami. Ramírez, known as “PDVSA’s tsar,” consolidated his control of the company and micromanaged it by allying himself with ex-members of the pro-establishment AD and COPEI parties. The episodes beg for discussion and self-criticism. Ramírez belonged to Chávez’s inner circle and El Aissami to that of Maduro and both were long-time leftists born into leftist families. Thus the corruption cannot be written off as the work of an opposition’s fifth column. These episodes beg for discussion and self-criticism.

The root of the problem of PDVSA, like that elsewhere in the public administration, was the lack of institutional checks. This shortcoming was best illustrated by the fact that for ten years Ramírez simultaneously occupied the presidency of PDVSA and headed the Ministry of Petroleum, whose function is to oversee the company. The current PDVSA head Pedro Rafael Tellechea is also Petroleum Minister.

Another minus for the Maduro government is that its same tactic to divide the opposition is now being used against the Communist Party (PCV), the nation’s oldest party. Last year, the TSJ turned over the official leadership of the PCV to 7 government allies, but only two of them had actually been party members. The government’s justification was the party leadership’s failure to hold internal elections.

In criticizing the TSJ’s ruling, political analysis Luigino Bracci, a critical supporter of Maduro, stated that the Chavistas don’t want “leftist votes to be fragmented or dispersed into several small parties in the upcoming 2024 presidential elections.”

One other minus for the government which will also influence votes in the upcoming election is the erosion of long-standing labor conquests, especially the system of severance payment and collective bargaining. Rodolfo Magallanes, who teaches political science at the Central University in Caracas, told me “once these benefits are wiped off the table they’re going to be hard to restore.” The same can be said of the partial dollarization of the economy, in which prices of goods are now posted in dollars, thus undermining general acceptance of the bolívar.

U.S. intervention: where does it lead?

Whatever way you look at it, U.S. intervention has undermined Venezuelan democracy.

The governor of the state of Anzoátegui Luis Marcano told me that there’s no way the 2024 presidential elections can be democratic. “The voter is going to feel a gun pointed at their head. Vote for Maduro and the sanctions remain.”

Washington’s Venezuelan policy has hurt its own professed or real goals in other ways. Since the early days of Chávez, Washington has favored the opposition’s radical right wing, not so much the opposition as a whole. The U.S. has gone from Leopoldo López to Guaidó and now to Machado. The first two are discredited. All polls indicate that Machado is popular with the opposition’s rank and file, but her program for Venezuela, her confrontational approach and her pro-U.S. discourse are not.

Opposition pollster Luis Vicente León points out that the $15 million bounty offered by the U.S. for Maduro’s capture makes it unlikely that he will easily give up power. Added to that is Machado’s rhetoric in which “if Maduro loses he, his wife, his son and those surrounding him will go to prison.” León asks, under those circumstances “would you go into the ring” to compete in fair elections?” León adds that the only way to resolve this predicament is through negotiations, an option that Machado flatly rejects.

Elections are supposed to resolve conflicts, albeit temporarily. The upcoming ones in Venezuela are unlikely to do even that.

A slightly different version was published in NACLA (Spring 2024 edition)

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