With Chavez’ death on March 5, the constitution calls for elections to be held within 30 days, by April 4 at the latest. Elections may or may not be held by that date, as constitutional requirements in Venezuela are somewhat flexible – a good indicator will be if Deosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly, becomes interim President, as the Constitution requires, or if Executive Vice-President Nicholas Maduro, retains power while running for President as Chavez’ designated successor. The prospects for elections depends on the regime’s calculus – on the one hand the sympathy for Chavez will be at its strongest over the near term, on the other hand, the regime, never secure to begin with, has never been more uneasy and paranoid than at present. Much also depends on the dynamic between two main factions of the regime – the military which is aligned with Cabello, and the socialists aligned with Maduro. Over the long term, they are likely to have widening differences, over the short term, their interests lie in cooperation, as they are acutely aware that without Chavez the electoral appeal of the regime is much weaker. The only certain thing is that Venezuela is now in the Post-Chavez era.
The political economy of Venezuela is unstable. The regime’s economic policies have redistributed wealth towards its political base among the poor. However, it has not maintained the overall health of the economy. Employment, private sector business initiative, maintenance and investment in the oil sector, infrastructure, and most social indicators (especially crime) have deteriorated over the last decade. Most recently, the economy was artificially inflated in 2012, with high government spending meant to insure Chavez’ re-election in October. That must now be cut back and the near-term outlook is for severe retrenchment – a 32% devaluation of its currency on February 13 was likely the first of a series of unpopular but necessary belt tightening measures to deal with severe economic and financial imbalances.
The GOV has been a highly personalized regime that is not geared to operate without Chavez. It has been centered on his persona and dependent on his charisma – analogous to Fidel Castro in Cuba and Juan Peron in Argentina. Official pronouncements exhorted love for Chavez in exchange for his love of the people (“amor con amor se paga.”). There was, and is, no room for a loyal opposition – Chavez called his opponents “squalid” ones (escualidos) who merited public contempt rather than a fair hearing. Disagreement with the regime is considered tantamount to treason, and conformity and unity are sought at all costs, including a fairly systematic violation of human rights.
Like most Caudillos, Chavez leaves no appealing leader among his entourage; most of them are epigone not known for independent or creative thought. However, while Chavez centralized all power in his person, he never fully overthrew the institutions he inherited. The failure of the regime to completely supplant pre-Chavista institutions with “Bolivarian” replacements has left a kind of dual-accountability, a regime that is neither liberal fish nor autocratic fowl. This has caused disconnects in governance and breakdowns in order in many areas of public life.
The Government’s domestic agenda and its international ambitions are closely linked and legitimized by an unusual ideology. Domestically, the regime has concocted a mix of nationalism, socialism, anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism, and Catholicism, all under the rubric of Bolivarian revolution. Internationally, the building blocks of its foreign policy included Islamism, anti-Semitism, and anti-imperialism. These concepts are tied together by an atavistic Catholicism that is xenophobic and exclusionary (especially vis-à-vis Jews). The architect of the regime was Norberto Rafael Ceresole, an Argentine sociologist who linked Marx, Castro, and Lenin, to the Islamic revolution in Iran and Palestinian liberation. This Latin American/Islamist Alliance depends heavily on anti-Semitism and an anti-Israeli posture. Chavez unleashed a raid on the Hebraica Jewish center in Caracas in 2004 on the eve of his official visit to Teheran, sent officials to the Caracas mosque wearing Keffiyehs, and raided the Tifaret Israel Synagogue on January 30, 2009. Some 20% of Venezuela’s Jews have been intimidated into leaving the country.
The chief manifestations of its foreign policy have been a close relationship with Iran and Syria, the sponsorship of a kind of socialist Latin American equivalent of the European Union called the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas – ALBA (in Spanish). ALBA consists of Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and a few other countries and has a common currency, the Sucre. These countries generally incline towards limiting freedoms of expression and the press, weakening the power and independence of their judiciaries, intimidating or jailing political opponents, and so forth. All of the ALBA countries have been the beneficiaries of Venezuelan largesse to the tune of about 7 billion dollars per year – Cuba alone receives some 5 billion per year, a sum which is critical to its economy. Between the impending need for austerity in Venezuela, and a new leader who will probably find himself obliged to retrench and cut expenses, no matter who wins the election, it is likely that the regimes of these countries will find themselves in straitened circumstances as Venezuelan assistance is ratcheted down.
Venezuela’s opposition, which lost the presidential election by about 11 points in October to Chavez, will try to amalgamate and reconstitute itself to put its best foot forward to defeat Nicholas Maduro. On balance, time is on the side of the opposition, so it probably behooves the government to have elections sooner than later. Enrique Capriles, the likely contender for the opposition, was also the candidate in October, in which he did better against Chavez than any previous contender. Still, given the sympathy and grief for Chavez, the fact that the economic retrenchment has not yet begun to bite as it will, and the probable inability of the opposition to fully accept the premises of Chavez’ popularity and make the political adjustments necessary to sheer off enough of Maduro’s support to win.
Whoever wins the election, the prospects for Venezuela’s political stability and economic progress are not good over the next several years. From this perspective, Chavez died at probably the best time for the establishment of his myth – he will not be around for the painful restructuring of the economy that is coming. For this period, awareness of the GOV’s paranoia, particularly in the aftermath of Chavez’ death, will be essential to dealing with it effectively – it will dissimulate its insecurity with hostility, increasingly substitute force and human rights abuses for moral authority and legitimacy, and portray domestic opponents as traitors and foreign ones as threats to national sovereignty. The regime is practiced in and will continue to use vilification and the politics of distraction to shore up support – more actions like Maduro’s expulsion of two US defense attaches a few hours before Chavez’ death are to be expected. – MS
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Personnel and company profiles for this publication:
Manfred Schweitzer is an international business consultant with more than 10 years’ experience working for companies in the Middle East, Mexico and Latin America, Africa, and Europe. Before that he was a career diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service. He has resolved international environmental cases and property disputes and has worked in international crisis management and public messaging. Finally, he is experienced in trade policy and government relations, successfully persuading US Senators, Congressmen, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to support US interests on a variety of issues in several countries. His government service included work in international strategic security policy, including analytical work on nuclear strategy and military space strategy, as well as U.S. international economic policy. His overseas experience includes living and working in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Morocco, France, the U.K., and Switzerland. He speaks fluent French, Spanish, and German as well as Russian.
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