CARACAS CONNECT: June 2015

by Dr. Dan Hellinger

Divisions Deepen within Left and Right in Venezuela

President Nicolás Maduro and the Bolivarian government have seen a defection of a faction of its grassroots organizers and intellectual supporters. The radical Marea Socialista (or “Socialist Tide”) has definitively split from the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the government party founded by the late Hugo Chávez. Both Marea and the government have attempted to seize the initiative after the Central Bank claimed that $10 billion dollars had been embezzled through the manipulation of the multiple tiered exchange rate system. Marea, which says that $259 billion are unaccounted for, has proposed a national citizen’s audit of the Central Bank, and it wants ordinary citizens involved in carrying it out.

Marea is sometimes inaccurately described as a “fringe” group or identified with Trotskyites, but its base includes some of the most active grassroots activists. Its most prominent spokesperson, Nicmer Evans, a political scientist at the Central University, has struck a nerve by claiming that an accord allowing Ford Motor Company to sell vehicles in dollars is a step toward dollarization of the economy.

Given its difficult relations with the U.S., it may seem hard to imagine that Venezuela could become “dollarized,” but that could happen not by deliberate policy but in a piecemeal fashion through concessions to companies that need to buy inputs for production or sale. In 2013 and 2014, foreign airlines restricted sales in bolivars because, they say, they were not receiving sufficient dollars at the overvalued exchange rate. At one point they claimed they were owed $3.8 billion.

The opposition continues to flounder and display an unseemly face to an electorate that overwhelmingly disapproves of Maduro’s performance as president. Leopoldo López, the most prominent leader of the extreme right that is demanding the immediate “exit” of Maduro and the PSUV, remains in prison, and for the second time began a hunger strike in late May. His supporters say that he had lost 26 pounds by mid-June (see Latin American Herald Tribune, June 18, for a pro-opposition account). His wife and lawyer were demanding that his personal physician be permitted to evaluate his health; Tarek William Saab, Venezuela’s governmental human rights defender, insisted that the authorities were monitoring López’s condition.

López’s main demand was for the CNE to set an election date. López was also making demands for international monitoring by the Organization of American States and the European Union (the government has only thus far said monitoring would be carried out by the Union of the South – UNASUR) and for release of those considered by him and some human rights agencies as political prisoners. On Monday, June 22, the Council announced that the election would take place on December 6. López announced the end of his hunger strike the next day.

Besides López, two other opposition leaders are in jail. The government says that Daniel Cabellos, mayor of the Andean town, San Cristóbal, abetted violence in protests that took 43 lives in early 2014; the same allegation against López. Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma is charged with collaborating with right wing paramilitary groups in a coup plot. Cabellos is a member of López’s Popular Will Party and engaged in a hunger strike earlier this year. López’s trial had been delayed and is finally slated to start again this month.

The opposition leaders have benefitted from high profile visits by Felipe González, theformer Prime Minister of Spain, and a number of former Latin American presidents. The government prevented Gónzalez from meeting with the prisoners, arguing that the judicial process is open only to Venezuelans. Spouses of the jailed leaders have regularly visited them and have actively organized support activity. Recently Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa declared his support for “prisoners of conscience” in Venezuela, elicitingcriticism from government supporters, who claim he has been taken-in by distorted international media coverage.

In the meantime, a group calling itself “Victims of the Guarimbas of the Ongoing Coup” traveled to meet European parliamentarians and professed their indignation that the 43 killed last year have been portrayed as victims of government repression. Guarimba is a name given to protests that preceded the April 2002 short-lived coup against Chávez, and consist of barricades that are often booby-trapped and injurious to officials who attempt to remove them and to bystanders uninvolved on either side of protest activity. Cabellos, who has joined López on the hunger strike, has been accused of using his office to abetguarimbas during violent protests in San Cristobal in February 2014.

The international support poses a problem not only for the Venezuelan government, but also for the leaders of the opposition Democratic United Roundtable, especially for Henrique Capriles, the coalition’s nominee for president in 2012 and 2013. Street demonstrations that turned violent weakened the opposition’s appeal in elections, most noticeably in the local elections of December 2013. (See Connect, Dec. 2013) The Democratic Action (AD) party, largest bloc in the MUD, was among three major parties to oppose López’s call for protests on May 30 of this year (early in his hunger strike).

Attendance at the protests was small compared to the massive pro- and anti-government rallies of recent years, but large enough to fill several city blocks. López is now the most popular opposition leader, eclipsing Capriles. (Capriles did attend the protest.) Cabellos was among victors in the recent MUD primary election in anticipation of the National Assembly election to take place on December 6th.

Although López did not achieve all his goals, and even though the CNE had said all along that it would shortly set a date, his hunger strike lifts his profile and strengthens his potential candidacy for the presidency, whether that opportunity comes earlier or later than presently planned (for late 2018).

Election Uncertainty

The Democratic Unity Roundtable held a primary to select its candidates for the National Assembly Election. Twenty-nine parties fielded candidates for 42 of 167 seats to be contested. The other candidates have been chosen by MUD leaders.

The primary drew a low turnout. Although approximately 7.3 million voters (from a total electorate of 19.2 million voters) were eligible to participate in the regions where primaries were held, only 543,723 ballots were cast, according to one MUD official. There was serious back-biting and complaints about deals cut among coalition members. The coalition of 29 different parties required its candidates to put up 150,000 bolivars to be eligible ($23,842 at the official rate, $500 on the black market) to be eligible for the ballot.

Meanwhile, the PSUV was preparing for its own primaries on June 28. Party official say that earlier this year 13,600 local assemblies of activists were held to propose candidates, stressing women and youth. Each assembly was to nominate four candidates-a man and a woman each over thirty, and a man and a woman each younger than thirty. Overall, 10,000 total nominees are expected to compete for positions. While the assemblies are meant to favor youth and women, the high number of candidates, many of whom are not well known, will almost certainly favor incumbents and those who already have a high political profile.

Marea Socialista, along with several other parties, has been denied right to run independent candidates by the National Election Commission (CNE). They will have a chance to re-apply. Until recently the CNE had not announced the exact date of the December election, prompting complaints from the MUD. One of López’s demands to end his hunger strike was that the CNE announce the date; with its announcement on June 22nd his hunger strike ended. Maduro’s dismal approval ratings would normally make an opposition victory in December likely.

However, several factors could work in the PSUV’s favor. Among these are: divisions in the opposition; weighting of representation toward rural states, where the PSUV is strongest; a backlash against US sanctions, announced in March; the superior level of organization of the PSUV; lack of a clear program appealing the population; popular rejection of violent protest by some factions of the MUD. In past elections, the PSUV has benefitted from low abstention, but should lack of enthusiasm translate into a low turnout rate, this time it could help the PSUV. As mentioned above, turnout in the recent opposition primary was low.

Know your Chavistas! Diosdado Cabello: Power in Waiting? Elías Jaua, Popular Former Minster

Generally acknowledged to be the second only to President Maduro in power, Diosdado Cabello is president of the National Assembly and seen as a moderate figure within the Bolivarian movement. Many observers see him as a likely presidential candidate should Maduro be forced from office via a recall election in 2016 or, if not in that eventuality, in presidential elections scheduled for 2018.

Cabello has held the Assembly post since 2012. Before that he held a variety of positions, including governor of the important, populous state of Miranda (He was defeated for re-election by Henrique Capriles in 2008), minister for infrastructure, and vice president.

A former foreign minister, Elías Jaua, could emerge as a competitor for Cabello – though that does not mean that relations between the two are poor. Jaua, a former university professor, was serving as vice president when he resigned at the request of then-President Chávez to run against Henrique Capriles, the MUD candidate. Some speculation exists that Chávez, already gravely ill, put Jaua to run the difficult race against Capriles, the incumbent, to clear the field for Maduro to be appointed vice president and, thereby became Chávez’s heir apparent.

Jaua has served in positions charged with funding and encouraging the communal councils, grassroots groups that receive funds from the government to carry out social and economic projects. These organizations were seen by Chávez as alternative mechanisms for distributing oil export earnings directly to the people. The opposition sees these funds and the councils as ways to eviscerate the authority of elected state and local officials.

Jaua has had one publicized brush with corruption, when he was accused of accepting free air travel for himself and his family from the state oil company.

In December 2014, Maduro changed Jaua’s portfolio from foreign affairs to Minister of Communes and Social Movements, where he served until May 2015. Jaua could have some appeal, then, to grassroots supporters and bring back those who look to Marea Socialista as an alternative.

Cabello has long been a target of charges of corruption from the opposition, widely reported in the international media. No prominent member of the PSUV or government has levied this charge, but many grassroots chavistas that I have spoken to over the years harbor suspicions. In December, he verbally lambasted Marea as traitors seeking to divide the PSUV.

At the same time, Cabello is also seen as someone with the right mix of skills and power to bring discipline and order to a government suffering from high levels of disapproval. The opposition fears that this would mean an iron hand and more repression; the left wing of the Bolivarian movement fears that he would bring an end to any prospect of a revolutionary transformation.

Sources sympathetic to the government have harshly criticized news reports alleging Cabello’s complicity in drug trafficking. Many of the claims about his involvement come from figures closely linked to far-right sources in Washington, Colombia and Spain, many of them accused or convicted drug traffickers themselves. None of the Spanish and U.S. intelligence reports that are cited anonymously in the most recent reports have been revealed or publically verified.

Cabello has long been associated with corruption. An accusation by Derwick Associates (a Venezuelan energy company) in a Miami court in March 2014 claims he accepted bribes amounting to $50 million in connection with construction contracts. A U.S. embassy cable released by WikiLeaks in 2009 summarizes a conversation between an embassy counselor and opposition economist Orlando Ochoa in which the latter identifies Cabello as a major pole of corruption within the government.

There is little doubt that Derwick was engaged in shady and highly lucrative business practices in securing contracts with the government; that much was confirmed in a series of investigative articles by the respected centrist Venezuelan newspaper, Ultimas Noticias. Accusations of Cabello’s connections to drug trafficking are fairly recent, picking up steam in January 2015. Well-publicized accusations were made by Leamsy Salazar. Salazar is a former Venezuelan naval officer who had some ties to Cabello; Cabello acknowledges that he worked with Salazar but denies his claim that he was his head of security.

For all the accusations and rumors, Cabello recently was part of a Venezuelan delegation to Haiti for what were characterized as positive discussions between Maduro and U.S. officials. Specifically asked if Cabello was present, the State Department spokesperson avoided answering.

One of the more interesting rumors, from the pen of the Mexican intellectual Heinz Dieterich, about the Haiti meetings claims that the Thomas Shannon, a counsellor to US Secretary of State John Kerry, offered Cabello a trade: the U.S. would halt investigations of him in return of a release of López.

See-Saw Relations; Summit of the Americas

Relations between the United States sank to their lowest point on March 9 when the White House announced economic sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials, freezing their assets in the U.S. and prohibiting U.S. citizens from doing business with them. To invoke the sanctions legally, President Obama declared Venezuela “an extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States.

The backlash to this finding – which culminated at the Summit of the Americas meeting in Panama, which Cuba attended for the first time – was predictable. The notion that Venezuela is a threat to U.S. national security is so ludicrous that the administration almost immediately tried to back-off. Obama, just before heading to the Summit, admitted that Venezuela was not a threat and tried to explain that his declaration was merely a formality.

At the Summit, every Latin American every president included in their speech a condemnation of the action. The MUD, quickly distanced itself, aware that the action would likely awaken a patriotic backlash among many parts of the Venezuelan electorate whose votes it needs to win in December. Maduro brought with him a petition with 10 million signatures from his country, demanding revocation of the “decreto de Obama” to the Summit. Cuba’s President Raúl Castro declared in his speech that Cuba would not abandon Venezuela as a price for better relations with the U.S.

In his speech, Castro said,

Venezuela is not, nor can it be, a threat to the national security of a superpower like the United States. (Applause). It is positive that the U.S. President has recognized this as such.

I must reiterate our total support, resolute and loyal, to the sister Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, to the legitimate government and the civic-military union led by President Nicolás Maduro, to the Bolivarian and chavista people who are struggling to follow their own path and facing destabilization attempts and unilateral sanctions which we demand be lifted, that the Executive Order be revoked – although this is difficult given the law – which would be appreciated by our community as a contribution to hemispheric dialogue and understanding.

We know each other. I believe that of those of us gathered here, I may be one of the few that best knows the Venezuelan process, it is not because we are there, nor that we are exerting influence there and they tell us everything, we know the process because they are proceeding along the same path which we passed and are suffering the same aggressions we suffered, or some of them.

There had been speculation that Obama might not even attend the Summit to avoid criticism of Latin American leaders, who, whether allied with Venezuela or not, are well aware that U.S. sanctions have historically preceded military action and intelligence skullduggery in other parts of the world. In the end, Obama’s concessions saved him from losing all of the good will gained from his shift on Cuba, but the sanctions on Venezuela stole some of the diplomatic gains. Latin American leaders collectively seemed to be saying they appreciated his willingness to accede to their demand for a change in a policy that had long ago lost any support in the region, but they wanted to communicate their view that the sanctions were heavy-handed and out-of-step with changes in the hemisphere.

Relations between the US and Venezuela have mostly been down but suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly turned upward when Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez met with Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon in Haiti. A spokesperson for the State Department called the talks “positive” and “productive.” Venezuelan officials similarlycharacterized the meeting.

Marco Rubio, Florida senator, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said the meeting sent a “bizarre and confusing message to the Venezuelan people” because the Venezuelan side apparently included Diosdado Cabello.

So why did Obama choose to roil the waters just before the Summit? Some think it was intended to mollify Republican critics. Others, including several Cuban political scientists that I met on a recent trip to Havana, believe that Obama wanted to make a point to Latin America, i.e., that although the United States was finally conceding on relations with Cuba, it still intended to punish countries that defied its hegemony in the region.

Just a few weeks before sanctions were announced, Venezuela had ordered the U.S. todownsize its embassy staff in Caracas from 100 to 17, accusing US diplomats of working with the opposition to topple the Maduro government. That may have the catalyst for Obama’s announcement. The Venezuelan embassy in Washington is already down to barebones, so a tit-for-tat response was not feasible.

If the two countries continue their dialogue, it is likely that the discussions will revolve around restoration of some of the embassy staff and some form of assurance from the U.S. that it will refrain from interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs. The State Department made a positive comment about the CNE announcement of the December election date.