Caracas Connect: December 2013

 Elections, Decree Laws, Economic Warfare, Intervention By Daniel Hellinger, Webster University


Elections, Decree Laws, Economic Warfare, Intervention

On December 8, Venezuelans went to the polls to elect a total of 335 mayors and 2,435 municipal council members.  In the election, the government of President Nicolás Maduro and his ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) running in coalition with the Communist Party and some other smaller partners, faced off against the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), led by Henrique Capriles Radonski. Maduro narrowly defeated Capriles in last April’s presidential election to replace Hugo Chávez, who died in March.

The elections took place in the midst of an intense political battle between the government and major retailers and wholesalers, with each blaming the other for recent price hikes and shortages. Maduro used emergency powers granted by the National Assembly to force major price reductions on goods ranging from basic foodstuffs and sundry goods to major appliances.

Election Win for Maduro and PSUV, but Opposition Fares Well in Large Cities

During the Chávez years, the popular president would routinely attempt to make local and state elections a referendum on his own rule.  The April election results and Maduro’s low approval ratings reversed that trend, with Capriles defining these elections as a referendum on the Chavista president. That strategy appears to have boomeranged.

With nearly all votes counted, the PSUV was falling just short of 50 percent of the overall vote, but was leading the MUD by nearly seven percentage points. The Chavista party (the PSUV) won more than 255 of the 335 mayoral races. The MUD won 75 municipalities (a handful were still too close to call). However, the MUD did have some significant victories. It held onto the Caracas metropolitan mayor’s office, though by merely 0.8 percent of the vote. It also scored significant wins in Maracaibo, Maturín, Valencia, and Barquisimeto. The opposition also won Barinas, Chávez’s home city.

Although votes were cast for local officials, observers have focused on the overall, national result. By morning it was clear that Maduro’s PSUV and its allies had won a surprisingly comfortable majority, 54 percent of the national total.  The PSUV itself won 49 percent over the vote versus 43 percent for the MUD.  “They [the MUD] did not achieve their objective of a protest vote against Maduro,” pollster Luis Vicente Leon, aligned with the opposition, told Reuters.

The results throw into doubt the prospect that the opposition will be able to obtain sufficient signatures to force a recall election in 2016, cutting short what would remain of Maduro’s five-year term. The defeat could encourage serious divisions within the MUD. Some extreme factions called on Capriles to call for protests, as he did in April.  However, Capriles did not question the outcome, though he reiterated complaints about government abuses of incumbency.

While far below the 80 percent who voted in April, the turnout, at 59 percent, was impressive for a local election. The lone opposition representative on the National Electoral Council (CNE) called the turnout “historic” for a municipal election.

As expected, the opposition did well in the country’s largest municipalities, and the PSUV did better in smaller and more rural ones.  However, the sizable margin of victory for the government exceeded just about everyone’s expectations.  Up to the final week of the elections, most polls were predicting that the MUD would surpass the Chavista coalition. Most did identify a substantial tilt toward the PSUV as the campaign came to a close, though few foresaw a solid national majority for the left.

David Smilde, who writes regular commentary for the Washington Office on Latin America and lives much of the year in Caracas, thinks the opposition has yet to develop a positive program to offer Venezuelan voters. He told National Public Radio, “They have this discourse that they’re the majority and the government is illegitimate. So, they think if they can just go out and campaign against the government, people are going to vote for them. But it’s going to take more than that.”

Implications for Maduro and Capriles

The opposition, as expected, did well in some of the most populous municipalities.  The MUD once again triumphed in Petare, the massive barrio on the east side of greater Caracas, but the PSUV won in four populous barrios of Caracas where Capriles had defeated Maduro in April. The MUD took the crown jewels – the country’s five largest cities, but the PSUV carried the crown.

The biggest victory for the opposition was that of Antonio Ledezma, the incumbent mayor of the overall Caracas metropolitan area (which includes five municipalities). Ledezma won with 50.8 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the narrowness of the victory may be a blessing for Capriles, weakening the credentials of a potential rival for leadership in the MUD.

Among the opposition candidates who won in larger municipalities, the results might be most beneficial to Henri Falcón, a former Chavista and governor of Lara state. Falcón was one of three governors (Capriles was another) who survived a wave of PSUV victories in 2012 gubernatorial elections, and his party’s candidate won the mayoral race in Barquisimeto.

Some political scientists inclined toward the opposition think that Capriles will retain leadership of the MUD.  They point to its success in larger cities and the fact that the opposition, despite failing to win the total national vote, increased its vote total over that of the local elections in 2008.  However, there is little doubt that the results took some of the luster off his reputation after having come so close to winning in April. Falcón and other sectors in the MUD will be watching how Capriles fares in 2014 – a year when Venezuela finally has no election scheduled, after having gone to the polls 19 times in the last 14 years.

Like anywhere else in the world, local elections in Venezuela are influenced by parochial issues and the particular candidates running in each location. Furthermore, each of the two major coalitions must contend in some cases with challenges from independents or candidates of smaller parties.

Divisions cost the PSUV more races than they did for the opposition.  The former lost 15 races, including important ones in the eastern city of Maturín, an oil producing region, and in El Vigia, an important Andean community and Chavista bastion in earlier elections. The MUD lost mayoral races in the capitals of three states because of divisions.

Economic and Political Warfare

In advance of the election, President Maduro acted to force businesses to cut prices, accusing the bourgeoisie of attempting to sabotage the economy in advance of the vote, and as part of a wider effort to destabilize the government. Capriles called for nationwide protests against the measures, but only about 5,000 people (according to the Miami Herald, a U.S. newspaper that sides with Venezuela’s opposition) showed up at Plaza Venezuela to march with the opposition leader. Even higher estimates (“tens of thousands”) of marchers given in some other news sources did not come close to size of protests in April.

Luis Vicente León, the Datanálisis pollster, predicted just before the election that Maduro’s moves had likely improved his standing and PSUV prospects for the elections.  León told the Buenos Aires Herald, “Maduro is raising his profile, he is taking action, putting a face on those to blame and lowering prices for now. It’s another Maduro.” One respected poll, Keller, had shown an 8 point lead for the MUD in early October. Not only did Maduro’s stock rise; polls began to show decreasing support for Capriles.

During the campaign, the opposition leader attempted to square two conflicting messages. One was his continued insistence that Maduro’s narrow victory in April was a result of fraud and violations of campaign laws.  The other was his call to Venezuelans to exercise the vote in the municipal elections.  In effect, Capriles was simultaneously asking Venezuelans to have confidence in the electoral system but also to believe that the official count in April was fraudulent.

Maduro’s use of emergency powers to force down prices on consumer goods, and his mobilizing the population against hoarding and price gouging may be difficult to sustain, and not only because of opposition pressure. The PSUV mass base is largely poor and working class, but there are many business interests that have aligned themselves with the government, which controls distribution of the country’s oil largesse.

The mainstream media generally dismisses Maduro’s actions as irrational and ultimately ineffective populist bashing of businesses. If popular at all, the theory goes it would be with poor Venezuelans who do not know better.  This attitude fails to take into account that Venezuelans are long accustomed to powerful economic groups hoarding to generate shortages. The tactic goes back at least as far as the administration of President Carlos Andrés Pérez, as businesses resisted his brand of populism in the 1970s. Profit margins in Venezuela are usually in excess of 40 percent; Maduro claimed his aim was to maintain them at 15 to 30 percent.

Speculation and poor macro-economic policies go hand-in-hand in some ways. Greg Wilpert, a U.S. sociologist sympathetic to the government recently commented, “There is a huge and widening gap between the official exchange rate of the Venezuelan bolivar and its far lower internal worth, which lies behind the current inflation, shortages and profiteering. For the government there’s no simple answer.” These imbalances have offered extraordinary opportunities for quick profits via speculation. A Public Radio International story tells of José Rafael having bought a huge truck in 2011 for $3,200.  Two years later, he could sell it for $24,000 at the official rate.

However, the myriad stories about an impending implosion of the Venezuelan economy are premature. As Ewa Zapiezynski and Hassan Akram, academics at the University of Chile recently pointed out:

In fact in 2012 oil exports brought in $94bn, while imports (at historically high levels) were just $59.3bn. Today there is some $22bn in reserves at the Venezuelan Central Bank. There is also an account surplus that is currently at 2.9 percent of GDP. Given these very positive indicators, US-based economist Mark Weisbrot is quite certain that Venezuela will not face a future balance of payments (debt) crisis. His confidence is shared by US banking multinational Wells Fargo, which recently produced a report declaring Venezuela one of the emerging economies most protected against the possibility of a financial crisis and by Bank of America Merrill Lynch which has recommended investors purchase Venezuelan government bonds

As a critique of recent mainstream news analysis, this optimism makes sense. However, in 2011 and 2012, oil prices were consistently valued over $100 per barrel, fed by rising demand in Asia.  Only five years earlier, prices were close to $60. Since 2009, Venezuela’s government debt to GDP ratio rose from 26.3 percent to 49 percent. That level is serviceable (in the U.S. it was over 100% in 2012), but should the price of oil fall, (oil exports are 25% of GDP) Maduro will find it much more difficult to navigate economic problems in the economy. High profit rates and speculation are part of the problem, but they cannot be addressed by laws, enforcement, and popular pressure alone.

Also at Stake: Alternative Conceptions of the State

Besides serving as a barometer of the PSUV’s ability to carry on the Bolivarian Revolution without Chávez, the outcome of the local elections may also shape the role of communal councils.  Though activists in the communal councils are often at odds with PSUV mayors and politicians, opposition victories will make it even more difficult for the councils to function. Indirectly, the each local contest may be a mini-referendum on the councils themselves.

One day before the election, a group of MUD deputies in the National Assembly called for a new constituent assembly to change the “illegitimate government.”  The current constitution, written by a constituent assembly in 1999, articulates the goal of creating a “participatory and protagonistic” democracy, laying the legal base for the councils, which began to form in 2006.

Chávez promoted the communal councils as the basis for a participatory democracy that would deploy the country’s oil export earnings more in alignment with popular needs than would local and state governments. The communal councils are directly funded by the executive branch, by-passing mayors, and governors and, for that matter, the Chavista – controlled National Assembly.  The opposition promises to keep the popular social programs known as misiones (missions), but administer them more effectively through the state and local governments.

Jacquelin Faría holds the position of “chief of government” for the Capital District of Caracas, overseeing the federal organization that administers funds to the regions communal councils. Her position and agency was created after Ledezma’s victory there in 2008. Asked after Sunday’s election if she could cooperate with Ledezma, Faría commented that she regretted that “it would not be possible to coordinate efforts with this jurisdiction (city government)” because “they are always conspiring.”

Polarization, and Institutional Weakness

How Capriles and the opposition react to the defeat at the polls and how the government chooses to treat moderate opposition sectors will have significant influence on the country’s democratic prospects.

The April presidential election represented a return to the acute polarization and confrontations that took place during the period between 2001 and 2004, when the opposition coalition, the Coordinadora Democrática, had no goal other than the immediate removal of Chávez from office — first through massive and sometimes violent protests, then a failed coup, then the 2002/2003 oil industry shutdown, and finally the recall vote.  From 2004, the opposition shifted mainly to contesting Chavismo through constitutional means. Even after Chávez’s December 2012 election victory, Capriles acknowledged defeat.

With Maduro’s ascension to office, the opposition’s strategy clearly shifted back toward combining constitutional with extra-constitutional tactics. However, blame for the unfavorable climate surrounding the April and December 2013 elections cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the opposition. Abuse of incumbency (ventajismo) on the part of the government was highly visible in the April contest. While the National Electoral Council (CNE) can conduct a fair count of the vote, it has shown little ability to check abuses on both sides, with the MUD representative on the council growing increasingly critical.

As a result, sociologist Luis Lander points out, government supporters never cease pointing out the undeniable strength of the Venezuelan electoral system – a technological and logistical system of balloting that, while not foolproof, makes outright fraud unlikely.  Similarly, the opposition never tires of pointing out the unwillingness or inability of the CNE to defend the integrity of the campaign process and of failing to curb the PSUV from using government resources (employees, trucks, buses, etc.) to get its voters to the polls on Election Day.

In the aftermath of the April presidential campaign, Capriles followed a two-track strategy: First, to contest the elections in the hopes of eventually removing Maduro through a recall election, after which he would most likely win the resulting presidential election. The second was to de-legitimize elections in Venezuela in eyes of the international community. This two-track approach mirrors strategies historically employed by the United States in Chile and Nicaragua, among other cases.

In one widely watched (over one million hits) video on Youtube, Capriles, aided by animated graphics, called on Venezuelans to “massively vote” in the December 8 election and also to organize to prevent the government from “cheating” by tampering  results transmitted to central authorities (the CNE) or by interfering with the freedom and secrecy of the ballot. Certainly, there can be no objection to calling for civic vigilance, but the video also maintained Capriles’ contention that the April election was stolen. A graph appears showing the “true” result (a narrow Capriles victory) and the amount of votes allegedly added to Maduro’s total through fraud.

The video was posted on October 31, more than one month before the polling, also claiming that victory was already assured for the opposition in 97 municipalities. A pie chart claimed that the opposition is supported by approximately 60 percent of Venezuelans, far more support than the MUD actually achieved.

Capriles claims that the vote is absolutely secret, so opposition voters have nothing to fear from any employer, leader of a mission, or the government. The MUD leader said, “The [April] fraud was not in the counting the votes; it was in the identity of the voters and the freedom of the vote.” The animation reinforces the message that the transmission of vote totals from the electronic machines is secure and accurate. After the April election, however, Capriles insisted on a full recount, not just audits of the electronic tallies (See Caracas Connect, July).

The MUD based much of its campaign advertising on countering a drift toward “authoritarian democracy,” and defending the integrity of the vote.  One short ad featured Venezuelans of different racial complexions expressing their determination to defend democracy.  Another 30-second animated spot warned voters about accepting assistance in casting ballots (to which the elderly and disabled are entitled), addressing a major complaint by the MUD in April.

Just as abuses of incumbency by the government have contributed to a deteriorating climate, so too did Capriles’ opportunistic discourse after the April contest. Adding to the deterioration, just before the election there were indications of a surge of activity among parts of his coalition that constitute a disloyal opposition.

Electoral Observation and CNE Legitimacy

As with the April elections, observation of the electoral process was limited to the day of the election itself. Once again UNASUR sent a mission to observe on Labor Day and praised the electoral process as example to be emulated by others.

Observatorio Electoral Venezolano (Venezuelan Electoral Observatory, OVE), an independent civic watchdog, deployed more than 600 observers throughout the country.  OEV called attention to “the manner in which the national government and the leadership of the PSUV conducted themselves.”  In addition to ventajismo, the group took Chavista politicians and leaders to task for “an aggressive and sectarian political discourse guided by the dangerous idea of continue to divide the country through disqualification of different political options.” However, the OVE also stressed, “Citizens voted in accord with their opinion and in secret, thanks to a system of voting that functioned in an efficient manner.”

If there were any one race that the current government might have been tempted to tamper with, it would undoubtedly be the result in Caracas. Opposition mayor Ledezma defeated Ernesto Villegas, a popular journalist, by four percentage points, largely by rolling up huge totals (80 percent or more) in middle class areas.

The OEV considered the 59 percent turnout unremarkable by historical standards in Venezuela, pointing out that four in ten citizens did not consider it worth their while to vote in municipal contests. By Venezuelan standards, the turnout was indeed lower than in earlier years, but U.S. citizens might be more impressed. Turnout in New York’s mayoral race in November was 25 percent. Earlier this year, only 21 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the Los Angeles mayoral race.

While the CNE once again carried out its election day duties admirably, the members of the board are nearly 8 months beyond their present mandate, product of a deadlock in the National Assembly.  The Assembly could forcibly name a new board with the two thirds majority it now has in the legislature, a result of the replacement of a deputy removed on corruption charges. However, the legitimacy of the CNE, both inside and outside the country, depends upon the two blocks in the Assembly arriving at some kind of accord.  The danger is that neither side may wish to negotiate an agreement – the PSUV because it wishes to maintain majority control over the CNE, the MUD because the stalemate reinforces its efforts to delegitimize the government.

Allegations of Ties among U.S. Firm, Colombian Right, and Some in Venezuelan Opposition

In November, Eva Gollinger, an American lawyer and staunch Chavista ally, who has on several occasions in the past uncovered evidence showing intervention in Venezuelan affairs,  released on her blog,Postcards from the Revolution, a copy of a document allegedly prepared by Venezuelan and Colombian right-wing organizations and individuals. The document, dated June 13, summarizes “action points” to be carried out in anticipation of the municipal elections.

Among the action points the groups agreed upon the following (my translation):

  • Perfect the discourse of confrontation and denunciation of Henrique Capriles
  • Maintain and increase sabotage affecting the service to the population, especially against the electric system. [Caracas suffered a second major blackout in a month the Tuesday before the election]
  • Create situations of crisis in the streets in order to facilitate the intervention of North American forces through NATO, with the support of the Colombian government.
  • Increase the flow of financial support received by the opposition, with the goal of winning at least 55 percent of mayoralties in the municipal election.
  • Diffuse an image of crisis in Venezuela to the largest number of media and countries possible…

The document also calls for more coordination with Cuban-American groups in the U.S. and efforts to influence the Venezuelan military to be prepared to act against the government in support of a civil insurrection.

Gollinger is well known for The Chávez Code, which among other things revealed U.S. taxpayer funding of several organizations implicated in the short-lived 2002 coup in Venezuela. While some of Gollinger’s analysis has been debated, the authenticity of her sources have not been questioned.

Gollinger claims that among participants at the June meeting were Mark Feierstein, regional head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), José Rendón, a psychologist and political strategist; and Venezuelan opposition leaders, including Maria Corina Machado, Julio Borges and Ramon Guillermo Avelado

A revelation of past support for the Venezuelan opposition by a U.S. group that receives U.S. government funding came on November 13 in the latest Wikileaks release, which includes a 2010 memo from CANVAS (Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies), an NGO that promotes non-violent protest and receives funding from USAID.  In a memo to the private security company, Stratfor, a CANVAS contact for the company outlines its activities, including help for the opposition in the 2010 National Assembly elections:

This year we are definitely ramping up activity in Venezuela. They have elections i [sic] September and we are in close connection with activists from there and people trying to help them (please keep this to yourself for now, no publication). The first phase of our preparation is under way. According to CANVAS’s “Plan Format” model (which activists apply in workshops) there are four stages to successful strategy:

1. Situational Analysis (which we are doing now)

2. Concept of oepration [sic] (what is to be done)

3. Execution phase (How the hell we are going to win this war?)

4. Technology operations (administration, logistics, coordination and


Better Relations between Venezuela and the United States?

The on-again/off-again rapprochement between Venezuela and the U.S. appears “on” again for the moment.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the December 8 elections had “some irregularities” but acknowledged, “I think fundamentally, they [the elections]… met standards.” He indicated that the U.S. was interested in better relations. Venezuelan Vice President José Arreaza followed with a statement that Venezuela too wants better relations, based on mutual respect.


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