By Roberto Savio*
Let us try to look at the situation from a distance
To write about Venezuela has become extremely difficult. The country has become so polarized, that just two narratives are left. One, that the government has been so handicapped by the sanctions and other punitive measures introduced by the Trump’s administration, and its allies (0ver 50 countries, and the European Union), that the economy has been strangled, with a terrible social and economic impact. The other, that the government is in fact a dictatorship, who has made an administrative mess, has destroyed the economy, ad survives only thank to the support of the military, which has been corrupted by the government. Those are two oversimplifications, that we use for the sake of brevity. Let us try to look at things by a distance.
Venezuela just had two important and contradicting events. One, the election of the new parliament, deserted by the majority of the opposition, which claimed that they were fraudulent. The European Union, the US, and several other countries also took that position. The EU tried to mediate, offering to serve as an electoral observer, but the government did not accept a postponement, and the EU declared that they did not have the necessary time to prepare. The few observers who were there claim that the elections were fair, but all this is seen as part of the government game. The party in power got easily a large majority of the seats, and now the bulk of the opposition is out of the parliament because they did not run.
The opposition organized a counter consultation, in which citizens could express their views of the government by person, via Telegram, via web page, and via App. This also had the participation of the Venezuelan diaspora (according to the UN, five million people have left the country, out of a total population of 29 million). Citizens have expressed their rejection of the government, at an average of 99,9%.
The official figures about the consultations, from both sides, is that the legislative elections had a total of 6.251.000 voters or 70% of the voters. And that the consultation had 6.400.000 votes, which means the rate of abstention was very similar.
As those figures are recognized by each side, let us start to look at them from a distance. Of course, each figure legitimizes the success of the government in the legislative and the approval of the opposition in the consultation.
But besides that, two other data clearly emerge: one, that the country is divided into two polarized halves; and the second, that the abstention is way over the number of voters. How much legitimacy do you get from the expression of one-third of the citizens? One of the very few independent polls available, the firm Datanalisis, has made an exhaustive survey on the feeling of the voters, albeit with the smallest acceptable sample of interviews: 1.000.
To start with, the general view about their country, is negative, at 92%. And they have a very negative view of their political leaders. An impressive 81% has a negative view of President Maduro (against a 37% of Chavez, who started the present process of the Bolivarian revolution, and passed the torch to Maduro, when he died in 2013). But nobody in the opposition did farewell. Guaido, the President of the Parliament, (an institution which became superseded by a parallel Popular Assembly created by the government, and who declared himself President of the Republic with the support of the US (and other 50 countries), had a disappointing 67% of negative view. Close came to the radical opposition leader Maria Corina Machado ( who called for a military intervention of the US), with 65%. Worst did the other main figures, Hernan Falcon had a negative view of 86% of those polled; Enrique Capriles 77%, and Leopoldo Lopez 71%. Interestingly enough, 64% had at the same time, a negative view of Donald Trump.
Equally disheartening were the views of the different institutions. The National Assembly, chaired by Guaido, had only 31% of positive evaluation. The National Electoral Council (close to the government) had just 25%, the same that the general evaluation of the political opposition parties. The army got a scathing 19% approval, the same as the United Socialist Party, the PSUV, the government’s party.
This poll was realized just before the elections. And 60% said they were not interested to vote, against 34% disposed. About the consultation organized by the opposition, 71% said they were not sure. Ready for participation was just 21%. Asked about the trust in the results, 61% had none, against 20%.
Here, to understand this situation, we need to make an extremely abridged and incomplete summary of the recent history of the country, obscured by the recent debate. For those who are not interested in the roots of today’s situation, please skip the following twelve paragraphs.
Venezuela was run by a string of dictators, until the last, Marcos Perez Jimenez, was deposed in 1958. Two parties, a Christian Democrat, Copei, under the leadership of Rafael Caldera, and a social democrat, Accion Democratica, under the leadership of Carlos Andres Perez, alternated in power. Both parties’ plaid a significant international role and modernized the country. But while they saw a significant increase in the middle class and of a new entrepreneur and merchant elite, they never eliminated poverty. Hugo Chavez, a young military officer, who was inspired by the military progressive coups of Peru, Panama and Portugal, tried a coup against Carlos Andres Perez in 1992, for which he was imprisoned. In 1994 Caldera was elected, and he freed Chavez, because he was very popular with the poor, and the coup was justified” for the need to face the situation of hunger and misery in Venezuela.” Chavez decided to take part in the 1998 elections, where he won with 56% of the vote, with a participation of 63% of the voters, defeating, Copei and AP, who united on a single candidate. Chavez then embarked on a process of constitutional reforms. He called in April 1999 a national referendum, to change the constitution, with an 88% approval. Then he called elections in July, for the constituent assembly, where he got 95% of the vote. The new assembly gave itself the power to abolish government institutions, fight corruption from the previous governments, and overhaul the judicial system. The Supreme Court ruled that the Assembly had the authority to do reforms, and was replaced by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice.
In December 1999, Chavez called a new referendum to adopt a new constitution. But this time the abstention was over 50%… even if 72% of the voters were in support. The new constitution gave to the President much-expanded power and a six-year period. It also gave a role to the military, expressly forbidden in the previous constitutions. Chavez now had the support of the three branches of the state,
Chavez then runs for reelection, according to the new constitution, and he received 60% of the vote, more than in his election of 1999. By this time, it was clear that his electorate comes basically from the poorer sectors of the Venezuelan society. that year Chavez made an official alliance whit Cuba. In the end provided 90.000 barrels of oil per day in exchange for 40.000 medics and teachers, with many replacing civil servants in various sectors, including intelligence. This increased the fight of the opposition: this became particularly virulent by the approval, from the General Assembly elected in 2.000, (where Chavistas were 101 members out of 165) of 49 social and economic decree, among them the nationalization of the oil industry, the vital sector of the economy.
In January 2001 the opposition started to act as a joint force. They organized a successful campaign against the publication of textbooks, with a heavy governmental bias. Then, later in 2001, all the opposition, corporate powers, media, industrialists formed the Coordinadora Democratica (CD), and from there the present divide started. The divide was social: the poor with Chavez and the traditional forces in the CD. And in 2002, the opposition was able to stage a brief coup and depose Chavez but the popular manifestations for Chavez brought him again in power.
In 2004, the opposition called for a recall referendum, contemplated by the new constitution. Chavez won, with a 70% participation, out of which 59% decided to keep the president in power. And from that moment, the two forces radicalized. Chavez started to call for a “socialism of the XXI century”, moving from the previous Bolivarian line, which was not an ideological one, but generally progressive.
Then, in December 2006, there were presidential elections, with a 74% participation, that Chavez won with 63% of the vote. The elections were recognized as free and legitimate by the Organization of American States. After this victory, Chavez promised an “expansion of the revolution”. And from there, he proceeded to adopt a number of measures to implement a socialist course of action, with a corresponding reaction of the opposition, which was considered conversely as a threat to the revolution.
Chavez runs for the fourth time in October 2012, and he won with a lower 55.1% of the vote. He was supposed to be sworn in in January 2013. However, he was never able to take the oath, as cancer eventually killed him in March, at the age of 58. He was succeeded by his vice-president, Nicholas Maduro, that he expressly indicated as his successor, as a provisional president.
The presidential elections were held in April 2013: Maduro got 50,61% of the vote, and his opponent, Enrique Capriles, 49,12%. Capriles asked a recount of the elections, supported by the United States, France, Spain, Paraguay, and the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States, Insulza. Finally, in June, the National Electoral Council, announced that had finalized the final recount of votes, and confirmed the result of the elections, among many reactions from the opposition.
The following year, 2014, the opposition organized a campaign, for “la salida”, the way out, of the government. One of its leaders, Leopoldo Lopez, was jailed, and with a large protest, which ended with 43 dead, and 486 wounded. That is generally considered the end of any possible dialogue.
In 2017, the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), decided to take over the functions of the National Assembly and to expand the power of the President. The large manifestation of protest, with the opposition declaring that they would never stop mobilizations, until the resignation of Maduro.
In 2018, in a ceremony at the National Bolivarian Guard celebrations, a drone exploded while Maduro was speaking. He was unhurt, but seven Guards were wounded.
Finally, at the beginning of 2019, Maduro was going to start his second presidential period, 2019-2025. His elections were considered illegal by the opposition because several key candidates were disqualified, and huge manifestations took place. Finally, three candidates took part, and the official result was that the participation was 46.07%, and Maduro won, with 67.84 of the votes. Then, the National Assembly declared that Maduro was usurping his position, and declared Juan Guaidò, the President of the NA, as an interim president. The United States immediately recognized him, followed by the other 50 countries. Then, Maduro called for the renovation of the National Assembly, which was held on the 6th of December, without the participation of the bulk of the opposition, and is now basically composed of Chavistas. Guaido now is not the chairman of the NA, and therefore without the basis for his proclamation as Head of State. He has called a consultation, with the same participation of the elections organized by the government. The departure of Trump could bring some changes, even if it is unlikely…
And so, we arrive at the present situation, and where we left, or this historical excursus. Over these 20 years of history, it is clear that there are now two irreconcilable worlds. One, intent in changing the country, and the other which resist it. The two bands are far from being totally homogenous. In the revolutionary field, there are also people who are interested to use power for personal gain. Corruption, one structural problem of Latin America (and large parts of the planet), is endemic in Venezuela. Maduro comes to power with the fight on corruption as one of his points against the governments of Caldera and Carlos Andres Perez. According to Transparency International, Venezuela ranks now 173 out of the 180 countries on its index. The military, that Maduro brought back as one of the pillars of the state, support the government for a number of reasons, some of them far from the revolutionary goals. The same is with the opposition. Far from being united, personalities play a very important role. And there are opponents who share the social concern about the poorest sector of the society, and others who are fighting the mere mention of socialism. It is certain that all attempts to open a dialogue, even under the sponsorship of the Vatican, have gone nowhere.
And this brings us, to some long-term considerations. Where is Venezuela now? In a dramatic situation. The government says that this is due to “an economic war” that the US and the opposition are staging. The opposition is ascribing the crisis to mistakes and mismanagements of the government. Fact is that a UN report estimates that 94% of the Venezuelans is in, or bordering poverty. According to that report, Reuter claims that 75% of the population has lost an average of more than 8 kilos of weight. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the GNP has more than halved. UN estimates that the crime rate is the second in the world, and security has become one of the highest concerns for Venezuelans. Life has become a daily challenge, and the situation keeps deteriorating. Five million have left the country, with a great percentage of professional cadres, but also many criminals, who find the country too poor…
All this is deeply linked to the prices of oil, which is the lifeblood of the country. Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves. In 2008, it was the tenth producer, with 2.394.020 BPD (barrel per day), and the eighth largest oil exporter. Maduro nationalized the oil production, concentrating everything in PDVSA (Petrolio de Venezuela SA). In 2002 during the protests from the opposition, the management of PDVSA went on strike, for two months. Maduro fired 19.000 striking employees, and replaced them with whatever he could find, but loyal to the revolution. That meant a tremendous loss of expertise, accompanied by the use of PDVSA as the source of financing for the many social projects undertaken. The petrol had a very high price, nearly triple than today. But the ratio of investments in the company was minimal, and a growing problem of maintenance has reduced in 2019 the extraction to one-third of million BPD, the lowest in 75 years. But a great factor is the United States sanctions, that are objectively a crippling factor for the Venezuelan economy, and for import of food, ( imports are 70%), medicines and any other import. In 2020, according to Kepler Analysis, oil could drop to an estimated 800.000 BD to 600.000. Meanwhile, the refinery capability has dropped, and Venezuela is importing 155.657 BPD of fuel and diluents naphtha. And there are now long queues for refueling, which make daily life even less tolerable.
To restart the industry, besides eliminating the US sanctions, large investments are required. Those will never come with any humanitarian program, as oil is becoming a bête noire in international cooperation, because of the fight against the climate tragedy. But the International Energy Agency says that there are probably still 40 years of oil use, also because of the increase and longer life of the world population. But oil companies are not exactly philanthropic institutions, so they will negotiate in strong conditions, agreements which will not be ideal for Venezuela… and this time window is shrinking every day…
In other words, Venezuela is a vanishing country. None of the two camps can overcome the other. Trump and his policy of big stick are gone. But now, the Venezuelan conflict, like all those which last more than a flash, has become internationalized. The opposition can count on the US, and a blend of countries who are against any socialist experience, like Colombia and other conservative countries. And also, in countries, like Europe, worried about the authoritative measures that the defense of revolution entails, and violation of human rights, police brutality… The government counts on a coalition of countries which are trying to deflate the American power: China, Russia, Iran, which continue to trade petrol, and are investing in mining precious metals and minerals in the very rich subsoil.
The question is: are those powers really interested in the Venezuelan people? Because the last two popular consultations have shown disillusion, estrangement and rage. There is any chance that some kind of national unity can be achieved, to relaunch the country. Not likely. Also, because poverty is rising, and there cannot be social peace by bringing back the situation pre-Maduro. But 70% of the state’s incomes were coming from petrol… so funding social programs requires a clear political will, may be a luxury, that the opposition has not explicitly announced…
So, there are at least 15 million Venezuelans, who did not take part in the last electoral process. People who fight to survive and that now depend on food programs and other subsidies from a government who is in the middle of a fight for survival. Public services, water, electricity, gasoline, hospitals, schools, are in crisis. The two camps will continue to look for the defeat of the other. Venezuela is becoming more and more polarized, and in the Datanalisis survey, 13% said that their main feeling is rage. How many generations will take to heal that country, and its people: a warm, happy and joyful population, that now is plunged into a terrible existence… this is not a tragedy just for the beautiful people of Venezuela, is a tragedy for humankind…
*Publisher of OtherNews, Italian-Argentine Roberto Savio is an economist, journalist, communication expert, political commentator, activist for social and climate justice and advocate of an anti-neoliberal global governance. Director for international relations of the European Center for Peace and Development. Adviser to INPS-IDN and to the Global Cooperation Council. He is co-founder of Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and its President Emeritus.