The Venezuelan opposition’s victory in Sunday’s election exceeded even their own hopes: they won more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. It may be the beginning of the end for the “Bolivarian revolution” launched by the late hero-leader Hugo Chavez seventeen years ago – but it will also plunge the country into a prolonged period of conflict and crisis.
Credit where credit is due: the election was conducted in an exemplary fashion although the government knew it was going to lose. And even when the scale of the opposition’s victory became clear, President Nicolas Maduro took the high road: “I call on all of our people to recognise these results peacefully, and to re-evaluate many political aspects of the revolution.”
However Maduro, who took over when Chavez died in March 2013, does not intend to preside over the funeral of Venezuelan socialism. When he said “our people”, he meant the Chavistas who still support the “revolution”, and the fact that they were now obviously a minority of the Venezuelan people went unmentioned. As did the fact that it was not actually a revolution at all: Chavez came to power legally and peacefully in the 1998 election.
The real question is whether Maduro and those around him will consent to leave power the same way. His vague rhetoric – “We have lost a battle today but now is when the fight for socialism begins” – is designed to leave that in some doubt. And it may be a real fight, perhaps including violence in the streets, because many Chavistas will feel duty-bound not to let this historic experiment fail.
Excuse the deliberate lapse into antique Marxist-speak, but that’s how they talk, and it illustrates how misleading the revolutionary rhetoric is. Because the Chavista era in Venezuelan history was not an historic experiment at all – not, at least, unless you think that building a welfare state with oil revenues is a revolutionary idea (in which case Saudi Arabia also has a revolutionary ideology).
True, the Chavistas are rather bigger on the notion of equality than the Saudi royal family, but what they were actually doing was not controversial in principle. They sought and won power through democratic means. Like left-wing politicians in early 20th-century European states, they then set about improving the income, health, housing and educational level of the bottom half of society, as they had promised they would.
The work of social uplift went a lot faster in Venezuela because of the oil money. (It has the world’s biggest oil reserves, and only 30 million people.) Chavez accomplished in a decade what took countries like Britain, France and Germany two generations. But by the end of that time the European countries had diversified industrial economies that could pay for a welfare state. All Chavez left his successors was oil.
So long as the oil income held up, Chavismo was invincible. Mismanagement and corruption grew, as they often do when money is plentiful. Arrogance grew too, as it usually does in governments long in power, and protests were increasingly met with physical or legal violence. Still Chavez and his successor Maduro won elections – until the oil price collapsed.
In the past eighteen months the world price for oil has fallen from $140 a barrel to only $40. Venezuela was already facing serious unemployment and very high inflation. Government-imposed price controls were already creating predictable shortages of staple goods like milk, rice, coffee, sugar, corn flour and cooking oil. But when the government’s income collapsed, all those problems went ballistic.
OF COURSE Maduro lost the election. In these circumstances, Chavez himself couldn’t have won it. Even Simon Bolivar couldn’t have won it. So now the challenge that both the Chavistas and the opposition face is how to manage an orderly transition that respects democracy, avoids violence, and preferably also preserves some of the social and educational gains of the past seventeen years.
The sheer scale of the opposition victory makes this tricky, since it has a “super-majority”: more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. In theory, that lets it do radical things like rewrite the constitution. In practice, however, the temptation to do that may not be very great. The opposition’s super-majority is vulnerable as it depends on a single seat (it holds 112 out of 167 seats).
The first order of business of the new National Assembly will be to pass an amnesty law freeing some seventy leading lights of the coalition’s various parties who were jailed on highly questionable grounds – but once freed they will try to reassert their leadership of those parties, which will probably undermine the fragile unity of the coalition.
Nothing the new opposition-dominated legislature does in the short term can change the dire economic situation. Maduro will still control the executive branch, with a presidential mandate that extends into 2019 – unless the opposition forces a recall referendum on his presidency, which it can legally do by next April. The “experiment” is over, but the crisis isn’t.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“The work…oil”; and “The sheer…seats”)