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.

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