EspañolVenezuela ceased being a liberal democracy years ago.
The country’s supreme court and its entire judicial system became mere appendages of the Chavista party, the PSUV, while Hugo Chávez was still alive. Active army officers were appointed as judges, something even the worst military dictators elsewhere in Latin America dared not do.
All mass media, except a few traditional print newspapers, have been either nationalized or sold to government allies. Over 300 radio stations have passed into government hands in the last two years alone, so opposition candidates were all but invisible during the campaign for yesterday’s municipal elections.
Labor union leaders have been imprisoned, forced into exile, or beaten into submission. Venezuela’s once powerful Trades Union Federation (CTV) is an empty shell. Business owners dare not make any campaign contributions, lest their access to foreign exchange be curtailed or their businesses targeted for “occupation” — a form of confiscation without payment invented by the regime.
Opposition leaders have had their private conversations recorded and the contents revealed by high government officials in press conferences called specifically for that purpose. Campaign managers for opposition candidates are harassed, attacked by government party thugs, and even detained by police if they are really good at their jobs.
That is the context in which yesterday’s municipal elections were held, in what used to be one of the continent’s most open and vibrant societies. The opposition deserves some credit for their valor and their hard work. They did win more seats than last time, or so they think. In truth, they were allowed to gain seats and a few more mayoral offices, because such a result was in the best interest of President Nicolás Maduro.
While the opposition celebrates, Maduro’s cronies at the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced that the government party and its allies, while losing many mayoral offices and thousands of seats in municipal councils, still managed to beat the opposition in total number of votes by nine percentage points. That is the key statistic that Maduro wanted from this election all along. Mayoral offices and seats in municipal councils are of no interest to him. He only wanted to prove to the world that he can indeed command a majority of the national vote, and thus demolish the opposition’s argument that he is illegitimate for stealing the presidential election held earlier this year.
Maduro has no worries about these new mayors, since he knows their days are numbered. The regime has been busy creating a parallel structure to formal municipal governments, through an unconstitutional arrangement decreed by Chávez, “The Law of Communes.” Through these arrangements, municipal governments are being overlooked for federal funds and many of their responsibilities usurped. A similar system is also in place to take all real power away from elected governors at the state level.
Incredibly, the Venezuelan opposition leadership continues to behave as if Venezuela were Switzerland and victory through the polls were a real possibility. Time and again, opposition leaders have called on their followers to “respect the process,” despite its evident corruption. Time and again, they have warned their followers not to turn their anger and frustration into street actions. In 2002, when Chávez was briefly toppled by his own handpicked generals, the leaders of the opposition called on their followers not to take to the streets to counter the pro-Chávez demonstrations that his backers organized to pressure the military. In 2003, the opposition chose to believe in Chávez’s promise and ended the three-month long national strike by accepting the deal brokered by Jimmy Carter. Chávez reneged on the deal for a national referendum by postponing the vote for nearly two years. Once the referendum was held, Chávez openly stole it, and again the opposition called on its followers not to take to the streets.
This pattern has been followed at every turn and after every election. Last April, while protesting that he had been cheated of a victory, presidential candidate Henrique Capriles still called for his followers to stay home.
Many analysts within Venezuela question why: while in Arab countries huge street action has toppled governments, in Venezuela the opposition has taken that route off the table. Could Egyptian moderates have toppled the Muslim Brotherhood if they had called for their people to stay home to avoid violent clashes with the Brotherhood’s? Could the people of Tunis or Libya have achieved change by staying home?
In truth, the Venezuelan opposition lost its chance with last April’s presidential elections, when it was evident that the official results were brazenly manipulated (Maduro would have the world believe that he managed to obtain more votes than Chávez’s past results in hundreds of electoral centers). By stemming the natural reaction of his supporters to take to the streets to protest the evident manipulation of the results, Capriles showed he lacked a key quality of leadership: a sense of opportunity. He played softball against Maduro’s hardball.
Now, by again accepting the unfair rules imposed by the electoral authorities, the opposition candidates have gained new jobs and government salaries in their new municipal posts. They have also truly helped Maduro become the legitimate leader of the country. Maduro must be very grateful.
The opposition leadership seems to believe they have a plan for the long term, that eventually can produce a change in Venezuela. After 15 years of defeats, one wonders if they have ever heard the famous phrase from John Maynard Keynes: “in the long run we are all dead.”