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3The Venezuelan Guarimba, Part Two: Maduro's Victorious Defeat

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  • Clif
    Apr 17, 2013
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      The Venezuelan Guarimba
      Part Two: Maduro's Victorious Defeat
      Merida, Venezuela

      At best it was a Pyrrhic victory which possibly spelled the beginning of the end of the Bolivarian Revolution. El Universal put it this way: "After 14 years, first as the MVR (Movement of the Fifth Republic), the PSUV (The Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela) is no longer the principal political party of the country." The party that Maduro's rival, Henrique Capriles, represented, Democratic Unity Coalition (Mesa de Unidad Democratica), received nearly a million votes more than the PSUV. Maduro won by a hair, now estimated to be 234,000 votes, and that only due to the Communist Party of Venezuela's support and the support of ten smaller parties. Director of Hinterlaces, pollster Oscar Schemel, called the two-point-per-day drop in Maduro's popularity prior to the election a "Guinness world record."
      The "victory" of Maduro looks more like a defeat given the number of factors favoring him over his rival Capriles:
      First, the time given to him by the state television station, Venezolana de Television (VTV) was 65 hours, compared to Henrique Capriles' 23 minutes, most of which was negative press. Given that the state has increased its power over television and radio in the past few years, and the fact that these media represent the main source of information for most Venezuelans, this represented a significant advantage for Maduro, were he capable of making good use of it.
      Second, Maduro was able to avail himself of a great amount of state resources for his campaign given his role as president of the republic and candidate of the ruling party. He was able, for instance, to follow in the steps of the man he calls his "father," Hugo Chavez, and use the Missions as a means of gaining popularity in the run-up to the election. Maduro, for instance, started "Mission Electric" and promised to increase salaries by 45% during his campaign.
      Third, this election was held over a weekend that represented a very significant historical date for Venezuelans, the commemoration of the coup that removed President Hugo Chavez from power from April 11 to April 13, 2002. The election took place on April 14th. One might expect that the anniversary of this event would have drawn out Chavistas to vote.
      Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, Maduro was the hand picked successor to Venezuela's most popular president in history, Hugo Chavez.
      And finally, the elections were held just a bit over a month after Chavez's death, garnering Maduro the sympathy vote.
      Despite all these factors, Maduro won by just a little more than one percent. Given the drop in his popularity at two points per day, if the elections had been held a few days later, he likely would have lost.
      In the last two nights since the election here in Merida there have been "cacerolazos," that is, people beating pans all over the city. It sounds like a rough night in the harbor with the lines of boats beating the masts, and it's punctuated by explosions and occasional shouts of protest against what the opposition considers to have been a fraudulent election. The night after the elections (April 15) I recorded some of the disturbance, the brief sorties into the streets by small groups of protestors and the fires of the guarimbas, but unfortunately when I stopped to have an arepa, I missed getting a shot of the Chavistas throwing rocks at people banging pots. A little later I was with Poeta Simon when the Chavistas charged another group of people protesting with cacerolazos. Simon cried out, "we've got to stop them! They're going to destroy the city!"
      I put my hand on his shoulder.
      "Don't they have a right to protest? Is it now illegal to protest in Venezuela?"
      "No, no, it's just that they want to burn the city down!" he replied angrily.
      "Simon, they're lighting tires and trash on the street. There's no danger of fire. They're just angry and want to protest."
      He nodded and dropped his gaze. After a moment he said, "You're right. People say they want to burn down the city. But really a lot of these people are bourgeoisie, and if they set fire to the city, they'd burn up their own shops. It doesn't make sense, does it."
      Later that night Marco, a Marxist (his description) who works the desk at the guest house where I was staying, watched Chavistas on motorcycles attack and beat a group of protestors. One of the Chavistas was carrying a pistol.
      As Marco pointed out, these cacerolazos are taking place all over the country and "not only in `bourgeois' neighborhoods, but in Petare and 23 de Enero," that is, in traditional Chavista strongholds.
      Meanwhile, Capriles has called for a recount according to his legal right. The opposition demand is considered by several Chavista friends I've talked with to be quite reasonable and something they would have expected their party (PSUV) to have demanded had they lost by such a margin. Maduro's response to the demand was move his swearing-in by four days, doing an end-run around his rival and half of the nation. His government had also shut down the internet the night before (Sunday April 14), supposedly to stop hacking attacks on Twitter accounts (an unacceptable explanation since Twitter and the internet aren't the same thing). Maduro has continued to insult and denigrate a now extremely diverse opposition, saying that the United States was behind the opposition's "plot" to refuse recognition of his victory, and went on to say "we won't negotiate with the bourgeoisie." Meanwhile, Henrique Capriles (for whom I had no respect before I entered the country just a few days ago) has called for calm.
      One might disagree with Capriles' politics. I certainly do. But given a choice between him and Chavez's lackluster successor, chosen, as Marco points out, for his "servility" to "el Comandante," one might be inclined to follow Marco who, showing his purple little finger, said, "I voted for no one (nulo)."
      "Here in Venezuela we have our Republicans and Democrats just like you," Marco said. "One is Capriles and the other is Maduro."
      Marco's sentiment is echoed by many of my Chavista friends.
      "I'm not sure about him," said one, shaking his head. "I voted for him because I don't like Capriles at all."
      It's too early to say where this process is headed but my Chavista friend Arturo says "the process has to deepen if it's going to survive. It's got to make radical changes, deal with corruption, if it's going to survive." Given that Diosdado Cabello, PSUV head of the Parliament, has seventeen outstanding corruption charges against him for his time as Governor of the state of Miranda, and with no evidence of any further action, it seems unlikely that any changes will be forthcoming. Neither does it seem likely that there will be a recount of the votes, despite three thousand reports of irregularities in the elections, as reported in the April 16th edition of El Universal.
      El Comercio, a paper a Chavista friend recommended as "objective," published a special investigation in their April 16th edition. Titled, "Devaluation puts the Revolution at Risk," and referring to the devaluation in February in which Venezuelans lost 46% of the value of their currency, the paper talks about the "crisis of scarcity, inflation, absence of [foreign] currency, the drop in oil production" which almost cost the PSUV its rule. The article, by Katherine Vega, goes on to talk about Maduro's promise of a forthcoming hike in wages and says that "the situation of inflation is higher than the expected increase." Inflation in March is expected to be over 2.8%. The "regulation of prices," moreover," has led to "a drop in production and manifested as scarcity."
      Another devaluation is widely expected, as is higher inflation, a vicious cycle that seems to have no resolution. Maduro blames the scarcity on "speculation" which is certainly part of the problem. But government policies restricting currency and allowing dollars to be sold only in auction (a new policy aimed at cutting down on one form of corruption) with registered bidders is also a significant part of the problem. The process of entering the auction through the new agency of SICAD (Complementary Foreign Currency System) is difficult and few small and medium-sized businesses even bother, attempting to get foreign currency by other means. Limited foreign currency means fewer imports, and upwards of 75% of consumer goods are imported.
      According to Tal Cual (April 2, 2013) in 2012 imports represented something "of the order of sixty billion dollars. For 2013 the income from the Venezuelan oil invoices, minus the operating costs of PDVSA will be around $45 billion." Given that oil represents somewhere between 90-95% of national income and oil production is dropping at a rate of between 3-4% per year, the situation is clearly unsustainable. According to Vega, "PDVSA maintains an immense debt owing to different agreements with countries like China, Argentina and Brazil." According to a Bloomberg report, Venezuela has borrowed some $42.5 billion from the China Development Bank most of which, writer Jason Simpkins maintains, was borrowed and spent by Chavez on social programs leading up to the elections to guarantee his victory last year (2012).
      The other nationalized industries have also performed poorly under the management of a corrupt and incompetent state bureaucracy. Sidor, or Siderúrgica del Orinoco, a steel company, was nationalized in 2008. In 2007, according to Robert Bottome of the business journal, VenEconomia, the company had produced 4.3 tons of liquid steel. By 2012 the nationalized company was down to producing 1.7 tons. Sidor is not the exception, but the rule. The same edition of El Comercio, features another investigative article titled "Expropriation of Cement Manufacturers (Cementeras) has Reduced Production by 80%."
      Vega quotes a "specialist in the matter," Manuel Malaver to talk about why the elections on April 14 were so conflictive. "It's really in the popular (working and poor classes) zones where the economic crisis has hit with the greatest fury, pulverizing salaries and draining the markets and condemning the public and private productive apparatus to a paralysis that devastates employment and tends to inflate imports."
      These are just some of the problems facing any new president. Quoting the director of the respected economic think-tank Datanalysis, Luis Vicente León, "Maduro isn't Chavez and with such a close margin [of victory] his governability will have to be negotiated to be stable." Leon went on to say that Maduro's "power isn't even a shadow of what Chavez has, nor does he have the legitimacy of origin that Chavez had."
      In the end, Maduro seems to have indeed won the elections. But it's also very possible that he, and his party, may have lost Venezuela.