19 July 2013

Hundred Days of Maduro's Government: The Revolution Breathes Again

Nicolas Maduro Moros won the Venezuelan presidential elections of April 14 with something approaching the bitter taste of defeat. His tiny victory margin invited real questions if Hugo Chavez’s decision to name Maduro as his successor was a rank mistake. The Chavistas were on the back foot, bewildered by their poor harvest of votes and petrified that they were looking at the end of the revolution.

Then the Opposition candidate, Capriles Radonski, came to their rescue, claiming that the elections had been stolen and that Maduro was an illegitimate President. Capriles ordered his supporters to take to the streets with a thinly disguised call for violence. Eleven Chavistas were murdered and many more injured in the two days of mayhem on April 15 and 16 and health centres, Socialist Party offices and state-run food shops burnt down. Radonski called for pot banging (cacerolazo) protests and a march to the centre of Caracas, a repeat of the hours before the April 2002 coup. Big business toyed with the idea of a general strike but backed down when the fiery Blanca Eekhout, second Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, announced that workers would occupy businesses that downed shutters and banks flirting with any coup attempt would be nationalised.

The Chavistas saw in all of this a trailer of what awaited them should the Opposition come to power. Their leadership worked out the Opposition game plan was to trigger a fratricidal conflict as a prelude for U.S.-Spanish sanctions and military intervention. They held back from retaliatory attacks but Maduro threw down the counter-challenge that the Opposition march would not be allowed into Caracas. Radonski backed down; that was the moment the initiative passed back to the Chavistas.

In his first hundred days (April 22), the first Chavista President has held the line and pushed back the Opposition inside the country and abroad. The Opposition mobilisation has fizzled out: if they banged pots and pans, the Chavistas put on their music at full blast and set off fireworks. The military has remained loyal to the government and the unity of the movements and parties of the revolution has held till now. Maduro has made it clear he is no pushover and Capriles, till the other day a menacing figure, now appears more like a Don Corleone with a plastic baseball bat, pleading with the Catholic Church for a dialogue with a government he does not recognise.

Thwarted at home, the Opposition sought to internationalise their campaign to delegitimise the government with Colombia, Spain and the USA as their first ports of call. When President Santos received Capriles in Bogotá, he had perhaps not bargained for Maduro’s reaction. Caracas responded with fury and froze the rapprochement between the two countries. Colombia, proud of its military muscle and of its influence in Washington, is not used to being shouted at by its neighbour, but equally it has to live with the fact that the loss of the Venezuelan market can be devastating for its economy. When Santos whimpered that this was all a misunderstanding, other Latin American governments washed their hands off Radonski. Now Santos has sent an emissary to Caracas asking for the two Presidents to meet again.

The Spanish Foreign Minister received a very public rebuke from Maduro for suggesting the President should conciliate with the Opposition and promptly recognised the legitimacy of the Venezuelan government.  Unasur, the regional bloc of South American countries, came out in favour of Caracas and so did the Organisation of American States. The USA has begun talks with Venezuela on restoring a degree of normalcy in their relationship but the Snowden issue will have its effect. None of the Opposition’s friends in South America, other than in the corporate media, will publicly endorse them for now. The dreams of a grand comeback tour have quickly become a big flop show.

Even as a cockroach with one antenna, the Opposition has been sniffing for trouble in food scarcity, high inflation, power cuts and rampant crime in the country. The objective is to stop Maduro from governing and stoking up public disaffection so that the citizens either take to the streets, join sectoral strikes leading to a colour revolution (presumably not red) or cast a protest vote large enough to overturn the slim Chavista majority. Maduro’s government has tackled each of these issues – but criminality more than anything else – with enough energy and some success to convince the population of its seriousness. Maduro’s great innovation has been what he calls the “street government”. The President and his ministers have been visiting the states, interacting with the local administration and the communities to tackle specific local problems.

The popularity is reflected in the latest results of the Venezuelan research group GIS XXl which normally offers the most accurate results: 62% of Venezuelans have a high regard for the initiative and less than a fifth think poorly of it; less than a third think poorly of the overall performance of the new government or of Maduro; only 22% think the Opposition is doing a good job and 26% that Radonski is up to the mark while 46% think negatively of him and 48% the same about the Opposition. Other independent polling organisations give Maduro an 11% lead over his rival. This suggests that the Opposition is being pushed back to levels where it was before the October 2012 presidential elections which it lost to Chavez by 11% although the actual results the next time might not be quite as flattering.

In April this year, Maduro emerged from the shadows as Chavez’s most trusted backroom boy, with almost no public profile or acceptance, to take charge of an election campaign lasting just 10 days and almost lost it. In the short period since, he has calmed Chavista nerves and outwitted the Opposition. He is starting to develop his own style of presidency. But, while he has won the crucial first skirmishes, another tough test awaits him at the end of the year in the mayoral elections when it will be tested if the voters who deserted Chavismo will return to its fold. This will be accompanied by fierce resistance to the drive against speculation, including possibly an all-out economic war to be timed for just before the municipal elections. If Maduro has hit the ground running, he will have to keep sprinting, both to corral his enemies and to make sure they do not take him down from behind.

18 July 2013

Cien días del Maduro: La Revolución Vuelve A Respirar

Nicolás Maduro Moros ganó la elección presidencial de 14 de abril con casí un amargo sabor a derrota. Su mínimo margen de superación llevó a duras preguntas, si la decisión de Hugo Chávez de nombrarlo como su sucesor era una evidente equivocación. Los Chavistas estaban a la defensiva, desconcertados por su pésima cosecha de votos y temerosos que el fin de la revolución estuviera a la vista.

En ese momento preciso, el candidato de la oposición Capriles Radonski, vino con su gallardía a rescatar los chavistas con su afirmación que la elección fue robada y Maduro era un presidente ilegitimo. Capriles ordenó a sus partidarios salir a las calles sin ningún disfraz a desatar la violencia (“salgan y descarguen su arrechera“ afirmo el opositor Capriles). Once chavistas fueron asesinados y mucho más heridos entre 15 y 16 de abril además de que ambulatorios, oficinas del Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela y almacenes del estado fueron incendiados. Radonski llamó a un cacerolazo y una marcha al centro de Caracas al 17 de abril, justo casi a las mismas horas del golpe de abril 2002. El gran capital estaba contemplando sumarse a una huelga general pero se echó para atrás cuando la apasionada Blanca Eekhout, segunda vicepresidenta de la Asamblea Nacional, advirtió que las empresas en paro serían ocupadas por los obreros y la asociación de bancos privados, si coqueteaban con un golpe, los nacionalizarían..

Los chavistas vieron un tráiler escalofriante de lo que hubiese pasado si la oposición hubiera ganado el poder. Su liderazgo entendió el juego de la oposición de provocar una guerra fratricida como un preludio de sanciones por parte de los Estados Unidos y de España y luego una intervención militar y evitó un contraataque pero Maduro lanzó un desafío a la oposición que su marcha no sería permitida para llegar al centro de Caracas. Radonski reculó y en ese momento los chavistas una vez más reconquistaron la iniciativa.

En sus primeros cien días (22 de abril), el primer presidente chavista se ha mantenido firme y ha hecho retroceder a la oposición, dentro y afuera del país. La oposición se ha desinflado: si ellos pidieron cacerolazo, los chavistas respondieron con música a todo volumen, con fuegos artificiales y consignas de amor. La fuerza armada se mantuvo leal al gobierno legitimo y a la unidad de los movimientos y partidos de la revolución que hasta hoy continúan intactos. Maduro ha dejado claro, bien claro, que él no es ningún pelele pero Capriles, hasta poco una figura amenazadora, ahora con un profundo parecido a Don Corleone armado con un bate plástico de béisbol, suplicando a la Iglesia Católica efectuar un diálogo con el gobierno que él mismo no reconoce.

Frustrada internamente la oposición, intentó internacionalizar su campaña para deslegitimar el gobierno con sus primeros paradas obligadas en Colombia, España y EE. UU. Al recibir a Capriles en Bogotá, el presidente Santos quizás fue inconsciente de como reaccionaría Maduro. Caracas respondió con una virulencia inesperada y congeló la reconciliación con su vecino. Colombia, con su soberbia militar y confiada sobre su influencia en Washington, no está acostumbrada a recibir regaños desde Venezuela, pero también es innegable que este pais es uno de sus principales mercados y su perdida pudiera ser devastadora para su economía. Cuando Santos gruñó que todo era un malentendido, los otros gobiernos del continente lavaron sus manos de Radonski. Ahora Santos ha enviado un emisario a Caracas pidiendo un dialogo entre los presidentes.

Después de que Maduro públicamente reprochó al canciller de España por su sugerencia que el Presidente debería conciliarse con la oposición, salió rápidamente reconociendo el gobierno de Venezuela. La Unasur, la agrupación regional de los países de América Latina, salió en defensa de Caracas. Los Estados Unidos está negociando con Venezuela aunque el caso Snowden por seguro tendrá su efecto. Por ahora, ninguno de los amigos de la oposición en el continente, menos los medios privados de comunicación, van a respaldarlos. El sueño de un gran giro internacional se ha hecho un fracaso anunciado. 

Si, parecida a una cucaracha con sola una antena, la oposición está husmeando, tener una oportunidad en la escasez inducida de comida, la alta taza  de inflación, los apagones y el crimen descontrolado en el país. El objetivo es hacer imposible que Maduro pueda gobernar y echar leña a desafección publica para que los ciudadanos participen en huelgas sectoriales y luego en una revolución de color (presuntamente no rojo) o lograr un voto de castigo suficiente para anular la estrecha mayoría chavista en una elección en el futuro. El gobierno de Maduro ha abordado cada uno de estos asuntos – pero sobre todo en la criminalidad – con suficiente fuerza y algo de éxito para convencer la ciudadanía de que él esta enfocado en su trabajo. La gran innovación de Maduro ha sido su “gobierno de  calle” en el cual su gobierno va a los estados, interactuando con las administraciones y comunidades locales para abordar problemas específicos.

Esta popularidad está reflejada en los números del grupo de investigación GIS XXl que suele dar los resultados más confiable: 62% de los Venezolanos tienen una valoración positiva sobre la iniciativa y menos que un tercio tiene una impresión negativa de los esfuerzos del gobierno o los de Maduro; solo 22% piensa que la oposición va en buen camino y 26% piensa que Capriles tiene liderazgo; 46% tiene una impresión negativa sobre él y 48% reacciona negativamente sobre la oposición, demostrando que la oposición está retrocediendo a nivel de antes de la elección presidencial de octubre 2012 la que Chávez ganó con 11%, aunque los resultados reales para las elecciones futuras, quizás no sean tan amplios.

En abril de este año, Maduro surgió de las sombras como el ayudante más confiable de Chávez, con casi ningún perfil, ni aceptación publico, para manejar una campaña electoral que duró solo 10 días y que casi perdió. En este rato, Maduro ha calmado las ansiedades de los chavistas y ha emergido como más astuto que la misma oposición. Esta en desarrollo de su propio estilo y liderazgo. Pero, aunque ha ganado las primeras escaramuzas, le esperan pruebas más difíciles a finales de este año en los comicios por las alcaldías, cuando saldrá a la luz si aquellos quienes renunciaron el chavismo volverán  a su fila. También vendrá una resistencia feroz alrededor de la ofensiva contra la especulación y hasta habrá la posibilidad de una guerra económica total sincronizada a los comicios del 8 de diciembre.  Claro que sí, Maduro ha empezado con un sprint pero tendrá que recorrer a toda velocidad, tanto como meter a sus enemigos en un corral y asegurarse de que ellos no lo den una puñalada por la espalda.

*Agredecido al amigo y chavista incansable de Caracas, Tonnys Uzcategui Alvarez, para revisar mi articulo

21 January 2013

Return Of The Chavitos: The Brotherhood Of Chavez

Soon after Hugo Chavez went to prison in February 1992 for his failed military uprising, it was carnival time in Venezuela and hundreds of largely young boys dressed up in military fatigues with a red beret as Chavitos (little Chavez) or Chavecitos (the latter usually refers to a balancing Chavez doll), an army of Chavez look-alikes. In one commando operation Chavez had inserted himself in the Venezuelan popular imagination. 

A Chavito

He mentions this in one of his prison letters: “Those were the days of being born. Those were the days… that children were dressed up. I remember very clearly we were at the San Carlos barracks; it was the carnival and there we could watch television and there was a journalist speaking with a child. It is not easy speaking to children, but they were on the streets and the child with his mother, the child dressed as Chavecito or Chavito. Then the journalist arrives and comes up to the child, you know how the journalists are like, and then tells him:

‘And you, what’s your name and what are you dressed up as?’

“The child with a beret tells the journalist:

 ‘Are you an idiot? Don’t you see that I am Chavez?’

“And then the journalist tells him:

‘Sure, I know that you are in disguise. But who is Chavez?’

“The child gives a beautiful reply:

‘Chavez is there among the trees. He walks there and I’ll go with him.’

“Those were the days. You know that Chavez is something more than Chavez… I’m merely a human being of flesh and bones, no more than anyone of us. In truth, this is what we are as individuals: dragged, pushed and impelled by the revolutionary hurricane.”

Twenty years later, the Chavitos are effectively in power, not the carnival children, but a new generation of young leaders standing in for their leader absent from Venezuela. And they have a project: creating a brotherhood of Chavez. This is not a deduction; it has been publicly announced by Chavez’s principal heir and chosen apostle, Nicolas Maduro, the current Vice-President.

The Brothers 

Nicolas Maduro

Diosdado Cabello
Elias Jaua
There are two other men who stand alongside Maduro as the principal executors of Chavez’s political will, activated even though he is alive. Diosdado Cabello, speaker of the National Assembly, former soldier-mutineer and a natural expert in psychological warfare, and Elias Jaua, brand-new Foreign Minister and beloved of the Chavista base who also appeals to the young. There are no women in the first rank but four of the twenty Chavista state governors are women. The governors, two of them the last chiefs-of-staff and nine others former soldiers, were handpicked by Chavez to develop local bases and deny the Opposition any hinterland. They are the second rung of the leadership pool and committed to building the brotherhood. There are a few other second-rank leaders in the PSUV (the United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the national government and in the armed forces who are part of this talent pool. 

'I am Chavez'
Chavez postponed an emergency surgery and returned to Caracas from Havana for a day on December 8 last year and asked Venezuelans to accept Maduro as his successor if he did not survive. He met his military high command with the sword of Bolivar in hand, reiterated his choice of Maduro and in a symbolic moment handed the sword to Maduro. That was the precise moment in which power was transferred, even if temporarily, in Venezuela to the next generation. A few days later Maduro almost broke down at a public event, fearing that Chavez was dying of post-operation complications, and first spoke of creating the brotherhood of Chavez, swearing an oath of loyalty “to always accompany Chavez, if necessary, even beyond this life”. On January 10, the day Chavez was to have taken oath in parliament but could not make it, hundreds of thousands of Chavistas arrived at the Balcony of the People at the Miraflores presidential palace, constitution in hand and declared, ‘We are all Chavez’. The brotherhood of Chavez was consecrated that day. 

The brotherhood is structured on a very personal and, simultaneously, very ideological foundation. Loyalty to Chavez, unquestioning and permanent, will bind the brothers of the same ‘political father’. The President, Maduro said, had changed their lives, made them “better human beings” and turned them from idealistic young men and women to Socialists capable of handling power and using it to construct Socialism. But Chavez is what the assassinated Colombian leader, Jorge Gaitan, was: not just a person but also a people. The brotherhood of Chavez has at least three clear influences: the anti-imperialism of Simon Bolivar, Christianity and Marxism. Venezuela is dreaming the Bolivarian, Christian and Marxist dream that seeks to create a fiercely independent nation living on the principles of social justice based on a radical interpretation of Christianity (Christ was the first Socialist, as Chavez has so often said) and recognising that class struggle must lead them to social ownership of the means of production and a just distribution of riches based on the Marxist notion of from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Borrowing a line from the iconic Venezuelan singer, Ali Primera, the brotherhood of Chavez seeks to “make humanity more human”.

If Chavez returns and lives awhile, the project will recede, only to germinate again when he passes away. Perhaps he will have better luck with his succession that either Lenin or Mao; perhaps it was not mere luck or chance that this has happened; perhaps he prepared for it right from the start of his illness; perhaps he will have more time to cement his legacy.

22 December 2012

Chavistas Score Another Famous Victory

There are as many ways of explaining election results in Venezuela as there are of reading tea leaves. There are some obvious features of the December 16 elections for 23 state governors in that country, the second-most important electoral event after the October presidential elections. Some of the changes are harder to quantify, but real nevertheless, and there is political evolution of which it is still too early to come to a conclusion.

First, the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), Chavez’s political creation, won 20 of the 23 governorships at stake and steamrolled the Opposition and its own dissidents. The Chavista influence extended to 298 of the 334 municipalities, a pointer to what will happen in next May’s mayoral elections. In 15 of these 20 states, the Bolivarian candidates won by more than 55% votes that they had achieved during the presidential elections. The Chavista votes increased in the three states where it lost to the Opposition. Henrique Capriles, the Opposition presidential candidate, was the winner in Miranda, the state adjoining Caracas and with the largest concentration of the moneyed classes in Venezuela but with a reduced number of votes and only a four-percent victory margin. His challenger was Elias Jaua, a former Vice-President who, along with Nicolas Maduro, current Vice-President and Hugo Chavez’s successor if his health fails him, sits right at the top of the emerging generation that will rule Venezuela. Elias is far from politically finished; his candidature went down very well with the Bolivarian social base nationally and he will surely mount another challenge in 2016. Capriles retains his presidential option but is weakened, diminished in stature, and despised outside the Caracas oligarchy which controls money and media access for the Opposition.

The PSUV did not lose any of the 15 states it held and took five states from the Opposition or deserters from its own ranks. And what states. The victory in Tachira and Zulia, bordering Colombia, deprives the Right of resources that organised crime fetched for them. With victory in Merida, where the Communists mounted a challenge, the Andean region has returned to PSUV fold. Zulia is the most populated state, oil rich and an agricultural powerhouse. The state of Carabobo is part of the country’s limited non-petroleum industrial base and losing it will hurt the Opposition financially. Eleven of the winning governors are former soldiers, two of them former Chiefs of Staff, one of whom in the Andean state of Trujillo won with over 80% of the votes and the other who unseated a long-serving Opposition governor in the island of Nueva Esparta, Venezuela’s tourist hub. There are four women governors this time, the double of four years ago. The Bolivarians have taken control of all but one of the state legislatures, among these Miranda, which will restrict Capriles’ freedom of action.

The Opposition has been pushed back territorially and also to its rabid upper class core voters. The Chavistas have put the reverses of 2007-8 behind them when they lost a constitutional referendum and important states in the last state elections. Abstention was surprisingly high this time, about 46%, and seems to have affected both camps. Various theories have emerged overnight to explain it: voter fatigue, disillusionment in the Opposition camp and dissidence in Chavista ranks. Most of these are hypotheses for now but surely one certainty is that both camps have been reduced to their core voters and, while the PSUV emerged as by far the largest party securing close to half the votes, its mobilising powers are still not extensive as is thought. There are many, many Venezuelans who vote for one side or the other in different elections, suggesting that the voters are not always as polarised as the politics.

The biggest significance goes beyond numbers, in what Venezuelan political analysts describe as the emergence of Chavismo, a political force forged definitively in these elections. Chavez’s party secured this triumph in his absence. Chavismo has emerged as a durable phenomenon: it adheres to a set of values based on inclusion and social justice, a loyal support base, a mean election machinery and a leadership without any major discernible fissures nationally. But its strength is precisely its greatest weakness. It remains an electoral machinery and many join it like the civil service, hoping to further their political careers.

These elections also saw some of the PSUV allies, principally the Communists, challenge the official candidates in some of the states and campaign against the PSUV while professing loyalty to Chavez. The emergence of a non-Chavista Left comes at a curious time, when Chavez is still alive and as revered by his people as ever. These parties cannot win on their own, or defend the revolution on their own, but can electorally damage the PSUV. They secured respectable votes in at least four states, claiming to be still loyal to Chavez but left one question unanswered: by splitting the votes are they willing to let he Right sneak into governorships or mayoralties, or some day into the presidency?  Voting numbers suggest that the Venezuelan Communists and some other Leftist parties will feel that they can only grow at the expense of the PSUV by sheltering its dissidents.

The Opposition increasingly resembles a one-legged man in a kick boxing competition. Chavismo has made its transition to a new generation but the unity of the broad Left is not so assured and the PSUV, contrary to appearances of a hegemonic domination, remains a fragile creation.

17 November 2012

El gobierno roba
La policía mata
La prensa miente

Escrito sobre una pared en la República Dominicana durante 
manifestaciones hace poco tiempo