Venezuela goes to the polls today. These elections are not for the presidency, but for deputies in the National Assembly, which from the time Hugo Chávez came into office, has operated like a rubber stamp for Miraflores. The opposition is fighting under a coalition banner, generally referred to by its acronym, MUD, and theoretically at least, stands a good chance of defeating the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
The country enjoys the dubious distinction of having the highest inflation rate in the world, and is suffering from shortages of all kinds, ranging from foods and commonplace consumer items, to critical drugs and medical supplies. Ordinary Venezuelans queue up from early in the morning outside supermarkets in the hope they might have eggs or oil to sell, and will wait there sometimes for as long as nine hours. As if that were not enough, in this El Niño year, the reservoirs are low, and the electricity supply is unreliable, particularly outside Caracas.
Now one might have thought that this would make it impossible for President Maduro’s party to win, but he has stacked the odds in his favour as far as he can do so, short of seizing direct control as a full-fledged dictator. He has locked up some members of the opposition, more especially the best known and most charismatic of them, Leopoldo López, on trumped up charges, and he has the media under heavy manners, to use a Guyanese expression. There are too a whole slew of other allegations against him, including in relation to the electoral roll, but whatever their validity, the net result is still that he has managed to create the kind of unlevel playing field which other would-be autocrats can only dream about.
President Maduro has, of course, the most active propaganda machine in South America, and the population has been treated to endless warnings about conspiracies and plots emanating from Venezuela’s ‘enemies’, such as the United States. The food and other shortages have all been blamed on “capitalist speculators” and “bourgeois bandits” who are supposedly hoarding goods with a profit motive or simple malice in mind, and Mr Maduro has not been slow to threaten supermarket managers and business magnates with jail. All of this verbiage notwithstanding, it seems there are even ordinary chavistas who simply don’t believe his rhetoric any longer.
The other weapon in the President’s armoury is violence. Pro-government thugs routinely attack opposition demonstrations, or threaten their members. According to El Universal these armed groups are nowadays perversely known as ‘peace collectives’, and on November 25 they killed an opposition leader in Guárico state. The government response has been to say that it was a gangland killing, unrelated to politics, but the opposition insists it was a political assassination intended to intimidate voters.
There are some South American groups which will be watching the election, although they are not electoral observers, as such. The largest is from Unasur, which is sending what is called an electoral support group which has only a limited remit; Brazil pulled out of this in October over Venezuela’s refusal to accept the Brazilian head of the team, among other things. Experienced observers from organisations like the OAS have not been accepted by the Venezuelan government. However, MUD has stated that it will have between 110 and 120 ‘international guests’ to monitor the process. Venezuela has an electronic voting system which has proved efficient in the past, and in a country of around 19.5 million voters, where the polls close at 6 pm, the results have been declared between 8 and 10 pm in the four previous elections.
Most observers feel that the real issue is what happens after the elections. Will the opposition accept the result if they lose, especially if there are allegations of electoral impropriety, or will they take to the streets? And what happens if they win? President Maduro has been reported as warning of violence if they do win. In other words, whichever way it goes, everyone fears instability.
Well, all of this is not a matter of academic interest to Guyana, and in case we were in any doubt about that, there was the helicopter incident at Kaikan last week to remind us. Apparently we are supposed to believe that the Venezuelan military is so incompetent that they don’t know how to use the sophisticated instrumentation in their helicopters, added to which don’t know how to use their eyes so they can tell when they’ve crossed the Cuyuni River. They were trying to reach San Juan in Venezuela, they were reported as saying, but ended up in Kaikan. If they truly are operating at the level of five-year-olds, then President Maduro had better disband the lot of them immediately.
What all of that was about in reality, however, is a matter for speculation, although given the context and recent events, there are certain possibilities which come to mind. Be that as it may, it is what happens after the declaration of Venezuela’s election results that will begin to show us the trend of what we should expect from the west.