Perhaps the most surprising thing about the parliamentary elections in Venezuela on 6 December was not that the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) lost control of the national assembly but that it accepted the result with such apparent good grace.
Most analysts had expected the party to do badly. Yet there were concerns about how the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, would react. Before the election Maduro had repeatedly warned of “a massacre” if the opposition emerged victorious.
The Socialist Party’s worst fears certainly transpired – the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition has won 112 seats in the assembly to the ruling party’s 55 – but, so far at least, the fears of his opponents have not. The government has been conciliatory in defeat, publicly recognising the “adverse results” and saying that democracy and the constitution “have triumphed”.
Explaining why the ruling party has been rejected so comprehensively at the polls is the easy part. Venezuela is a mess, with the world’s largest proven oil reserves existing alongside the world’s highest rate of inflation and one of its highest peacetime murder rates. Some of this is down to the recent collapse of the oil price – Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia are suffering, too – but much of it is the result of the government’s mismanagement of the economy.
The so-called Bolivarian Revolution, initiated when the late Hugo Chávez came to power in democratic elections in 1999, remains an enigma. The regime was initially feted for its generous social programmes – the poverty rate in Venezuela fell from 48.6 per cent in 2002 to 29.5 per cent in 2011. Yet, in recent years, both Chávez and his successor, Maduro, have attracted the ire of human rights organisations for muzzling the media and locking up political opponents. Human Rights Watch claims the Venezuelan government was “misusing the criminal justice system to punish people for criticising its policies”.
Edmundo Bracho, a Venezuelan lecturer in communications and media at the University of Westminster, says that while “Chavismo” has socialist elements, “It is essentially a populist, militarist and authoritarian model.”
Yet for over a decade Chavismo was sustained by an opposition that was itself tainted by an undemocratic image. High-profile opponents of Chávez and Maduro – such as the former politician Leopoldo López, who led a protest march against the government in 2014 and was jailed as a result – were reportedly involved in the notorious 2002 coup to unseat Chávez. The coup was the opposition’s original sin and since then the socialist government has evoked its spectre whenever it has sought to crack down on critics.
But the opposition appears to have shaken off its association with the events of 2002. “[The elections] mark a new era in Venezuelan politics,” Ana Zárraga, a Venezuelan human rights activist, says. “It’s not the comeback of old pre-Chávez political parties like Maduro wants us to believe, but a wave of new faces that are taking over.”
Since the death of the charismatic Chávez in 2013, the popularity of the socialist “revolution” he set in motion has rapidly ebbed away. Pre-Chávez Venezuela was dominated by a Harvard-educated capitalist elite; today, a government-favoured “Boligarchy” holds sway. Chávez’s daughter is said to be the richest person in Venezuela and the country is ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt in Transparency International’s annual listings (161st out of 175). In this rotten state of affairs, shops routinely run out of basic goods such as toilet paper; powdered milk meant for poor schoolchildren is smuggled to Colombia; and hospitals lack paracetamol and other rudimentary medicines.
“Maduro’s anti-American and anti-political-opposition rhetoric is no more than a narrative by which to hide his incapacity – and that of his ruling party – to govern effectively, to deal with corruption and crime and to formulate coherent economic policies,” Bracho says.
The big question now is: what comes next? For all Maduro’s conciliatory talk, the ruling party has in the past stymied the democratic rights of its opponents. Despite Sunday’s loss of the national assembly, Maduro remains president and he could use his party’s control of the judiciary to water down the powers of a newly hostile legislative branch.
“Chavism, like Peronism in Argentina, is an ideological construction that will not fade away in Venezuela,” Bracho says. Instead, it is “beginning to fragment into different factions”, he adds.
For now, however, Sunday feels like a watershed moment for the opposition – it has at least some influence over government policy for the first time in 16 years.
“These new MPs have the power to bring human rights to the centre of the agenda,” Zárraga says. “A good start would be choosing a new independent judicial system that puts an end to corruption and to impunity in the country. An amnesty law to free political prisoners should
also be prioritised.”
Latin America’s populist tide appears to be receding. Cuba is slowly embracing capitalism. The poll numbers of the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, are in free fall and, last month, the Maduro ally Cristina Kirchner lost the presidency in Argentina to the centre right. Maduro clings on for now but the end may finally be in sight for what Hugo Chávez used to call “21st-century socialism”.
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires