The Venezuelan Election — Again

The news broke this week that the National Electoral Council (CNE) of Venezuela has finished an audit of the April 14th elections and, according to an ABC report, bylined by Christopher Toothaker, “as expected it confirmed Nicolas Maduro’s 1.5 percentage-point victory.”

I was a supporter of the Bolivarian government up until very recently (as anyone who has seen my film, Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out, 2008, PM Press, will know). My piece about the Venezuelan guarimbas, or election protests, two days into my month-long journey through a land I once almost called a second home but which had now become strangely foreign. I called it in that previous piece, “the land of Bizarro” because things had suddenly reversed and in this last election many of Chavez’s supporters, the poor and working class, came out to vote for Capriles (cacerolazo protests were heard in 23 de Enero, Caracas, a long-time Chavista barrio). At the time, the defections to the opposition were a bit of a mystery, but as I observed and experienced, the long lines at supermarkets where shelves were missing many of the basics, and prices had suddenly made commodities that were there completely unaffordable, I began to understand a bit more about why the elections were so close.

That’s all the more reason why the Venezuelan government, and also the US government, are anxious to put the elections behind them and get on with the oil deals. While the US initially balked at the disputed presidential elections of April 14 between hand-picked Chavez successor Nicolás Maduro and Henrique Capriles of the opposition, it now seems to be warming up to the new caudillo wannabe. The ABC article concludes this way: “Among nations, only the United States has insisted on a full recount. But those calls fell silent after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Venezuela’s foreign minister, Elias Jaua, last week and the two agreed on accelerating efforts to restore relations at the ambassador level, lacking since 2010.”

Perhaps the change of heart in the US government has to do with the fact that Chevron and the China National Petroleum Corporation teamed up to lend the troubled Venezuelan state-owned oil company US $6 billion to “increase production” of heavy oil in the Orinoco zone? Could it possibly be that the US government would throw its friends in the Venezuelan opposition to the dogs to benefit a corporation doing business with the “socialists”? Of course, it wouldn’t be for the first time.

But that’s not the end of the story, even if everyone but the Venezuelan opposition wants to forget the elections. The Economist made a good point on the CNE ruling: it completely missed the point. From the article published June 15th, 2013 and titled, appropriately, “Beside the Point”: “The CNE has refuted an allegation that nobody has made: that the machines failed to tally the votes properly. The opposition challenged the result in the supreme court on different grounds. It says that violence at polling stations, coercion, multiple voting and the casting of votes for the dead were on such a scale as to affect the result.” The article goes on to explain the problem in greater detail:

Evaluating these claims would mean checking the cuaderno (manual log) for each machine, in which voters place their signatures and thumbprints against their name and identity-card numbers, as well as the results from a fingerprinting system (known as SAI) intended to stop people voting more than once. The CNE has refused to release the logs (claiming it would be illegal); it has stalled about when the SAI data might be available.

The opposition will now have to deal with Chavista courts, that is, judges selected by Chavez for their compliance with his political project. But Capriles is nothing if not determined and he seems ready to take his struggle to the international courts. For the opposition, this struggle is far from finished, and it poses a very serious threat to the Maduro government and those who support the Bolivarian project. But the number of hardcore adherents to the project of the PSUV is growing smaller by the day as it watches Maduro in action, apparently helpless before the world’s highest inflation (which came in at six percent in May), scarcity of basic commodities and an economy in shambles.

What the Economist missed, and what few other journalists of any stripe have mentioned, is that in the contest between Nicolás Maduro, and Henrique Capriles of the opposition, is that Maduro really lost, or at best, won a Pyrrhic victory that likely has spelled the beginning of the end of the Bolivarian Revolution. El Universal put it this way: “After 14 years, first as the MVR (Movement of the Fifth Republic), the PSUV is no longer the principal political party of the country.”

The party that Maduro’s rival, Henrique Capriles, represented, Democratic Unity Coalition (Mesa de Unidad Democratica, MUD), received nearly a million votes more than the PSUV. Maduro won by a hair, now estimated to be 234,000 votes, and that only due to the Communist Party of Venezuela’s support and the support of ten smaller parties. Director of Hinterlaces, pollster Oscar Schemel, called the two-point-per-day drop in Maduro’s popularity prior to the election a “Guinness world record.”
The “victory” of Maduro looks more like a defeat given the number of factors that favored him over his rival Capriles:

First, the time given to him by the state television station, Venezolana de Television (VTV) was 65 hours, compared to Henrique Capriles’ 23 minutes, most of which was negative press. Given that the state has increased its power over television and radio in the past few years and the fact that these media represent the main source of information for most Venezuelans, this represented a significant advantage for Maduro, were he capable of making good use of it. Of course, Globovision, the only significant opposition channel (there is also Televen, and Venevision, but they tend to be less “public affairs” or politically oriented stations and fill air time more with variety/entertainment/telenovela programming) tended to do the opposite, playing up Capriles against Maduro, but even then Maduro got considerable air time: “press” even if “bad press” is still “press.” Given that there are now some five to seven national government-owned stations, this represented, in total, a strong advantage for Maduro.

Second, Maduro was able to avail himself of a great amount of state resources for his campaign given his role as president of the republic and candidate of the ruling party. He was able, for instance, to follow in the steps of the man he calls his “father,” Hugo Chavez, and use the Missions as a means of gaining popularity in the run-up to the election. Maduro, for instance, started “Mission Electric” and promised to increase salaries by 45 percent during his campaign. He also (illegally) used an unknown amount of state funds for his campaign, given that the line between the ruling PSUV and the state with all its resources, is more unclear than ever after fourteen years of Chavez’s government. Finally, on this point, the state oil company (Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. or PDVSA) allowed its vehicles and other resources (presumably money, but given the utter lack of transparency in almost all state affairs dealing with money, it can’t be confirmed) to be used for Maduro’s campaign.

Third, this election was held over a weekend that represented a very significant historical date for Venezuelans, the commemoration of the coup that removed President Hugo Chavez from power from April 11 to April 13, 2002. The election took place on April 14. One might expect that the anniversary of this event would have drawn out Chavistas to vote.

Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, Maduro was the anointed successor to Venezuela’s most popular president in history, Hugo Chavez.

And finally, the elections were held just a bit over a month after Chavez’s death, garnering Maduro the sympathy vote.

Despite all these factors, Maduro won by just 1.49 percent. Given the drop in his popularity at two points per day, if the elections had been held a few days later, he likely would have lost, even assuming, rightly or wrongly, fake votes and the support of the dead who, we’re told, cast their votes for him.

Nevertheless, questions about the election remain. There is, first of all, the fact that the National Electoral Council (CNE), packed four to one with Chavistas, and as the Economist pointed out, was stubbornly unwilling to compare voter registries with the machine vote in all the polling centers. Maduro’s claims that the system is “impeccable,” and Jimmy Carter’s certification of elections seven years before might reassure some, but the Electoral Observation Network of the Education Assembly, an independent group of observers, reported “grave alterations of the electoral process in 5% of the observed [voting] centers” (El Nacional, April 17). They called for an “‘exhaustive revision’ of the elements that form the electoral process such as the notebooks, the acts and the fingerprint register and an audit of 54% of the voting centers (mesas).”

Jose Domingo Mujica, coordinator of the network, said that “we’ve participated in 10 elections since 2006, duly accredited by the CNE. Some are more irregular than others, but this one had serious incidents…” Finally, elections in Venezuela (or the US for that matter) are rarely without problems. This expandable list of elections with big problems in Venezuela under Chavez is revealing:

Regardless of whether or not Maduro won the elections “fair and square,” the fact that he enters his presidential term with questions about his legitimacy has made for a weak beginning, and he hasn’t strengthened the faith of even the Chavista faithful in the ensuing weeks. He has attempted a media campaign with his “Government on the Street,” but the man who proclaimed himself “hijo de Chavez” (“Son of Chavez”) isn’t Chavez; he has none of the Comandante’s charisma, intelligence, acting abilities nor military rank. This latter might be a significant factor as he attempts to gain support of the very significant military sector of the PSUV, especially given that 11 of 23 states are governed by ex-military, ex-military have been put in charge of strategic industries like electricity, mining and basic industries and the military is sprinkled throughout other higher posts of the government, including ex-General Diosdado Cabello who is Speaker of the Parliament. That might explain why Maduro would be adopting olive green jackets, notably without bars or medals.

Meanwhile, in contrast with the Chavista depiction of the opposition as “escualidos” (squalid, quislings) and “ultra derechistas” (“extreme right”), the ranks of the opposition are swelling with ex-Chavistas, an array of disaffected leftists from the Maoist Bandera Roja (Red Flag) party, to Causa R (party formed from the union movement), MAS (Movement toward Socialism) and union workers from the destroyed basic industries nationalized by Chavez.

This latter group I met with in Puerto Ordaz, Bolivar when I was recording interviews in April and May of this year, and the leaders from the independent unions were all militant Capriles supporters. They’d seen their companies destroyed under the Chavez government after nationalizations that started in 2008. The so-called “Plan Socialista de Guayana” has been a complete failure, and it’s evident from footage one worker provided from inside one of the plants: ovens that are crumbling, machinery rusting and virtually nothing being produced: Sidor, the iron company nationalized in 2008, produced 4.3 million tons of iron the year before nationalization: in 2011 it was down to 1.7 million tons; Aluminum production at 200,000 tons in 2007 was at 60,000 tons in 2012 and industrial coal went from 120,000 tons before it was nationalized to 30,000 tons.

After more than a year of complaints of corruption in Ferrominera Orinoco (FMO), and after nine separate features printed in that time in the local Puerto Ordaz paper, Correo del Caroní, the Maduro government is throwing the small fish to the sharks, people like head of FMO since 2006, Radwan Sabbagh, who has just been detained. Nevertheless, the big fish, denounced by the opposition, people like PSUV Governor Francisco Rangel, accused of corruption and trafficking in everything from gold to steel rods and aluminum, remain, thus far, untouched.

Impunity goes along with cronyism, and both are elements of corruption that comes with the territory of petro-states, as Terry Lynn Karl points out in her book, The Paradox of Plenty, along with “the weak legacy of state building, the extreme centralization in the executive, the strong tendency toward expansionism, and the missed opportunity to build a capable administrative structure…” In that sense, the Venezuelan government under Chavez and now Maduro is no different from any of the previous governments, except in degree – arguably far worse since the polarization is greater, transparency opaqued, and a single party is building for a hegemonic position, forcing the opposition to do the same. In that sense the Pact of Punto Fijo may make some Venezuelans nostalgic for the days when two parties amicably traded power.

It gives me very little pleasure to talk about a process that is now more devolutionary than revolutionary, and I’m sure it also gives the reader little joy to read this. Nevertheless, as Maduro hardens in power, signing deals with Chevron and Chinese capital, and as the people increasingly defect from the base of the PSUV, driven into the hands of the opposition by hunger, scarcity, demagoguery, a bureaucratic command structure that gives orders but rarely listens, North Americans will have to consider to whom they will wish to extend solidarity. Some, in good conscience, will continue to support the State and the Party; others will begin to look to the social movements, the left unions and community organizations and other expressions of revolutionary power at the base. Others will move over to support the opposition. I find my friends in Venezuela, all good people, in each of these camps. All three positions have their merits and difficulties and we need to respect those who have taken their stance on the basis of accurate information, moral conviction and political clarity. In Venezuela the situation is too polarized for these three groups to dialogue yet. I wrote this article in the hopes that in the US we might begin that needed dialogue here.

Clifton Ross can be reached at clifross1(at) His most recent book, Home from the Dark Side of Utopia (2016, AK Press) is a memoir of his experiences among revolutionary movements in the Americas, including the Bolivarian process of Venezuela. Read other articles by Clifton.