Venezuela’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) suffered a devastating loss in Sunday’s parliamentary election. The opposition Democratic Unity Front (MUD) received 56 percent of the popular vote to the PSUV’s 41 percent. Due to a majoritarian electoral system, the MUD won 112 seats (67 percent), with the PSUV taking 55 (33 percent). The opposition will control the National Assembly for the first time in 16 years. With a super-majority of two-thirds, the opposition will have significant powers, including the ability to block government spending and ministerial appointments, unseat sitting Supreme Court justices, remove the vice president, call for a constitutional assembly and initiate a recall referendum against the president. (It is unclear if the National Assembly can call a recall referendum on its own or only after gathering signatures from 20 percent of the electorate.)
President Nicolás Maduro immediately accepted the defeat, demonstrating that widespread fears voiced by the opposition, international media, and the US and other foreign governments that the government would not accept a loss were unfounded. It is worth noting that the government’s recognition of the MUD victory stands in marked contrast to the opposition’s repeated refusals to accept electoral losses in the past (including 2004, 2006, 2013), despite the fact that numerous observers, including Jimmy Carter, have praised Venezuela’s electoral system as technically sound and “the best in the world.”
Why the Government Lost
“Things are worse now than they were during the Caracazo,” said Omar Machado, referring to the 1989 popular uprising in Caracas that was sparked by the sudden imposition of neoliberal austerity and left hundreds (thousands, according to some estimates) dead at the hands of state security forces. Machado, a community organizer from the Caracas barrio of 23 de Enero, then rattled off a list of everyday products—shampoo, soap, deodorant, tampons, and birth-control pills—that he and his family have been unable to obtain for months. If Machado wants to buy basic food items, such as chicken, corn flour, and black beans, at regulated prices, he must face the long lines found throughout Venezuela. The lines exist “because of the bachaqueros who buy some product for 19 bolivares and then sell it for 200 or 300.” (A bachaquero is someone who buys price-regulated products and resells them on the black market at much higher rates.)
The difficulties Machado and millions of Venezuelans face making ends meet are due to a severe economic crisis brought about by low oil prices (oil revenues account for 96 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings and 40–45 percent of the federal budget), the government’s poor management of its currency exchange rate, and, if the government is to be believed, an “economic war” waged by businesses and the opposition. The IMF estimates that Venezuela’s economy will contract 10 percent this year and that inflation will reach almost 200 percent. Poverty and unemployment have been rising. There are widespread shortages of innumerable goods, from coffee, eggs, and toilet paper to auto parts, cement, and industrial inputs. And there are the vexing, ubiquitous lines, which can last for five hours or more, for everything from withdrawing money from the bank to catching a bus to buying food staples and basic consumer goods at regulated prices.
Like most Chavistas I spoke with in the lead-up to the election and on Election Day, Machado accepts the government’s view that the opposition’s “economic war” has caused Venezuela’s economic crisis. Machado planned to vote for the PSUV and thought the government would win the election. “The government will win because the opposition doesn’t function. The people may be upset with this or that deputy but they won’t vote for the opposition.” Yet Machado was critical of the “non-serious measures taken by the government” to confront the crisis. “They’re just giving things away and painting the facades of houses.” Machado is also concerned about the increasing gap between the PSUV’s leadership and base. “People are upset because part of the party has become embedded in power. The party doesn’t recognize true leaders, grassroots leaders. It’s led by candidates who have been parachuted in.”
Machado and others who predicted a government victory have of course been proven wrong. The opposition’s victory is due, in part, to strong turnout in affluent districts, such as the municipalities of Chacao, Baruta, and El Hatillo. Yet the opposition vote in these districts was nearly identical to what it was in the 2010 National Assembly election, while there was a large increase in turnout nationwide, from 66 percent in 2010 to 74 percent in 2015 (the highest turnout for a purely parliamentary election in Venezuelan history). It is thus clear that the MUD’s overwhelming victory was due to widespread support among popular sectors that have traditionally favored Chavismo. The MUD won 18 of 24 states, including Hugo Chávez’s home state of Barinas and erstwhile Chavista strongholds in Caracas such as 23 de Enero, Catia, and Caucaguita, a very poor district that abuts Petare, one of the largest barrios in Latin America. The opposition’s support from the popular sectors and margin of victory distinguishes this election from the 2007 constitutional reform referendum, the only other of the 20 elections held since 1998 that Chavismo has lost; the 2007 loss was by a razor-thin margin, with marked abstention in Chavista districts.
I spent Election Day on Isla Margarita (Nueva Esparta), visiting eight voting centers as part of an international electoral accompaniment process organized by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE). Conversations with middle-class and popular-sector voters reveal that the two groups had very different reasons for supporting the opposition. A commercial pilot in a mixed-income voting center in La Asunción supported the opposition because, he said, “I want change. I want this to be a normal country,” like the other Caribbean islands he flies to regularly. Another pro-opposition middle-class voter in the center said, “I hope we can recover liberty and democracy.” This echoes what Robinson Montillo, a middle-class fish vender from a Caracas suburb and strong opposition supporter, said a week before the election: “This country is in bad shape. It might not be a dictatorship, but it seems like one. We have a lot of persecution, we have political prisoners.”
In the popular-sector voting centers I visited I encountered numerous people planning to vote for the opposition. In one barrio in the city of Porlamar (which CNE officials said was known for crime and the “hot tempers” of the people), only two of the 18 people I spoke with planned to vote for the PSUV. None of the voters supporting the opposition mentioned liberty or democracy as a reason for doing so. All of them said they were supporting the opposition because of the material difficulties they faced. “I want change,” a woman told me. Pointing to the baby she was holding she said, “I can’t buy formula, and my father, who is 60 years old, had to go to another country for medical treatment” because the medicine he needed was unavailable in Venezuela. Over and over I was told of people’s frustrations with long lines and shortages of food and basic goods. Another young woman holding a baby said, “I get up at 4 am to stand in line and I can’t even buy food. I want change.” As she said this, the women standing next to her nodded their heads vigorously.
The sentiments expressed by these voters suggest that it’s more accurate to think of the election result less as a victory for the opposition and more as a rejection of the government. This is the view of Juan Vicente Mijares, a top official in the opposition-led government in Sucre municipality in eastern Caracas and a member of Primero Justicia, a leading force in the MUD. Days before the election, Mijares said, “The opposition is winning because the government is failing, but they don’t have their own proposal.”
What Lies Ahead
Like the bare shelves I saw last week in a government-run Bicentenario grocery store in Carora, Lara, the opposition campaign was characterized by a lack of content, a deliberate strategy that obviously worked but makes it unclear what the MUD-led National Assembly will seek to achieve. There appears to be a split between a comparatively moderate sector of the opposition, led by ex-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, and a more radical-right sector, led by jailed leader Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado. Capriles has said that dealing with the economic crisis is a priority. Most likely he will seek to do this by stimulating domestic and foreign private investment. I have not, however, heard any opposition proposals regarding the pressing need to close the yawning gap between the official and black-market exchange rates, with the black-market rate 125 times greater than the official rate in recent weeks. (Veteran Venezuela analyst Mark Weisbrot has been urging the government for years to close this gap through a managed float of the bolivar.)
Opposition leaders have also expressed a desire to roll back social measures, by, for example, overturning the Law of Just Prices, which, however ineffectual in practice (due to bachaquerismo), has allowed the poor access to food staples and basic goods at very low prices. The radical right, which led the violent 2014 protests, have already indicated that they will seek to quickly remove Maduro from office, most likely through a recall referendum. This will lead to increased polarization and waves of mobilization and counter-mobilization. And it will likely make it harder for either the government or less-radical opposition to fix the economy.
The MUD, a fractious and unwieldy coalition that includes everyone from leftist ex-guerrillas to far-right proto-fascists, may not be able to retain its two-thirds super-majority. The government will almost surely try to peel off any legislators it can, either by offering ministerial appointments or through other means (including negotiations or bribery). There may, however, be movement in both directions, with less-radical PSUV members jumping ship to join the opposition.
In his speech Sunday night accepting defeat, Maduro indicated a need for the government and revolutionary forces to engage in a period of reflection and reassessment. At the same time, he reiterated the view that the opposition is solely responsibility for the economic crisis. If Maduro is to have any hope of surviving an all-but-certain recall referendum, the government must accept much more responsibility and take steps to address it. This will not be easy, given the continuing slide in the price of oil, which has fallen from $108 a barrel in June 2014 to under $37 a barrel now. Maduro has discussed raising the price of domestic gasoline (which is so low that SUVs can be filled up for less than 5 bolivares, which amounts to pennies on the black market) on multiple occasions between 2013 and 2015. To date, however, he has not taken the steps to make this happen. The main reason for this is likely Maduro’s fear that doing so would lead to further price increases for many products.
Maduro has also been unwilling to get the currency exchange rate under control. One reason may be that doing so is likely to engender resistance from corrupt elements inside and outside government who have profited immensely from the gap between the official rate and the black market rate. The gap means that individuals and enterprises provided dollars at the official rate (6.3-1) for the purpose of importing goods have a huge incentive to simply sell the dollars on the black market (where the rate was over 800-1 recently), providing them astounding profits of 12,500 percent and more.
Commune or Nothing
While the government needs new policies to overcome the crisis, it’s a mistake to think it can be done through purely technocratic means. Since it will encounter increasing resistance from the empowered opposition and privileged sectors, both in and out of government, Maduro needs both better policies and increased popular mobilization.
That, in turn, will only be possible if the PSUV closes the gap between its leadership and base. According to Atenea Jiménez, who founded the Red de Comuneros (Communards Network), a nationwide network of 500 communes, “There’s a rupture within Chavismo between grassroots Chavismo, which is living through the most difficult situation of 16 years of revolution, and the state and party leadership, which is one and the same. There’s a big difference between what the base is feeling” and what the leadership sees. Jiménez added, “There’s no space for articulation between the popular movement and the party.”
Like Machado, Jiménez is frustrated by the government’s response to the crisis. “Recently my 9-year-old son told me, ‘I understand that the bourgeoisie is waging an economic war, but what are we revolutionaries doing to confront this?’ And that perfectly sums up the situation right now.” Jiménez said, “The people are asking for a rectification and for a solution to the most basic problem we have, food. The government hasn’t done enough to resolve this. As the popular movement, we have concrete plans for how to resolve this that we’ve put forward to Maduro, but unfortunately they haven’t paid attention to this.”
Jiménez said, “We have a collective proposal, as the Red de Comuneros, to create a communal network for production, distribution, and consumption of food. And this would be under the control of the communes, not the state and not the private sector.” Jiménez said that this proposal could only work if there were high levels of popular participation and genuine popular control. This is necessary to avoid the corruption and bureaucracy that has engulfed other projects put forward by the government, such as communal council distribution of cell phones (which are increasingly expensive and hard to find in private and state-run stores).
Days before the election I spoke to Johnny Murphy, an activist based in Carora who participates in a network of alternative media producers. He put forward an argument that is quite similar to Jiménez’s. Like Jiménez and other Chavistas critical of the PSUV, Murphy said the threat of the opposition meant that revolutionaries had to support the PSUV. Doing so, however, was just the beginning. Murphy said, “Yes we have to vote for the revolutionary deputies, but we have to think of a process of rectification, to put forward a new revolutionary direction, and to create a collective leadership. We are committed to giving all of our support to Nicolás Maduro, whom Chávez designated as the head of the revolution. But we say, Nicolás Presidente, el pueblo insurgente. We have to occupy more spaces, create more spaces for popular power, and create a communal state and a communal economy, an economy that doesn’t rob people, that doesn’t damage people, that doesn’t destroy and doesn’t harm people. And following Chávez, we call this economy socialism of the 21st century.”
It is not clear whether Maduro or other government officials will heed the advice of grassroots leaders like Machado, Jiménez, and Murphy. In their different ways, those leaders stress the need for more participation and genuine popular control over decision-making as a way to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles that have engulfed the Bolivarian Revolution and made it harder to fix the economy. Maduro has talked of the need for reform and has summoned party and social-movement leaders and activists to a series of meetings that will be held in the coming weeks. Whether this will lead to a deepening of popular participation and mobilization, negotiation with the right, or more of the same remains to be seen. The popular slogan “Commune or Nothing,” which comes from one of Hugo Chávez’s final speeches, known as the Golpe de Timon, seems an increasingly apt way to characterize the choices facing Chavismo in this difficult and perilous moment.