21st Century Socialism Has Just Fallen

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17 years after Hugo Chávez came to power, the Venezuelan opposition has scored its first victory. The win was emphatic, with the opposition receiving 62.27% of the votes cast in the parliamentary elections of December 6, compared with Chavism’s 32.93%. In seats: 112 to the opposition and 55 to the Government.

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This qualified majority paves the way for the opposition to rebalance, at least in part, the institutional and political game. A collision has been set in motion, in fact, between the executive and legislative branches of power, the consequences of which are unpredictable. The sparring has already begun. The opposition has promised to vote for amnesty for political prisoners and to make the economic crisis its focal point, policies which won support even from sectors of the Chavist vote. President Maduro, on the other hand, refuses to accept political amnesty and maintains that the economic collapse was caused by an “economic war” waged by the oligarchy and Venezuelan businesspeople, rather than the policies implemented over the last 17 years.

What has happened over the last 17 years, ending with the Venezuelan Government receiving such a ‘slap’ in the polls (to use Maduro’s expression), illustrates in every sense the difficulties democracies face in dealing with this populist and authoritarian model. Thus, his defeat is iconic in Latin America, crystallizing the end of a political cycle characterized by the predominance of the self-qualified, nationalist, leftist governments of Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia. Their area of influence has extended to all regional bodies, thanks to the oil boom that allowed them become, especially Hugo Chávez, champions of a political franchise they did not hesitate to export. Chávez was not a man of the left. His ideology was a strange cocktail of Castro-ism, nationalism and populism; a man of Providence and a Latin American warlord, so well described in the novels of Alejo Carpentier, Augusto Roa Bastos, Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

The Chavist model reveals the deep apathy of the ruling classes that preceded it. Chavez, with public coffers overflowing with petrodollars, attended to the large disadvantaged sectors of Venezuela. These people, marginalized by the system, subscribed to Chavez’s welfare policies and accepted his proposed trade: bonds and subsidies in exchange for political loyalty. And loyal they were, until December 6 when they used the ballot boxes to punish policies that resulted in scarcity, deindustrialization, insecurity, capital flight, corruption and debt. Venezuela, the country with the largest oil reserves in the world, is today a country destroyed, with the highest inflation in the world and long lines for food and basic necessities.

After 17 years the electorate has reacted, following a fall in oil prices which revealed the unfeasibility of a system that turned the State, captured by Chavez, into the only engine of the economy, the limitless philanthropist and enemy of the private sector. This underlines the cost paid by Venezuela, firstly for the negligence of some elites, who marginalized sectors of the population; and then for the adherence of these sectors to a messianic model that had failed in the old Eastern Europe and been rebranded by Chávez as 21st century socialism.

The model is practically unassailable: make a clean slate of the past; convene a Constituent Assembly where all the rules are in your favor and create locks to prevent them from changing; multiply benefits and allowances; control all powers; harass the press ceaselessly; manipulate information; convert the public sphere into a propaganda state; legitimize oneself with referenda; discredit the opposition and persecute dissidents. That, despite this, the Venezuelan Government has lost the election proves two things. Firstly, that the opposition has learned from its mistakes and from the past. Secondly, that the ruin of Venezuela today is visible even to the Chavist bases. According to Datanalisis, before the parliamentary elections 90% of Venezuelans considered the status of the economy to be “bad” or “very bad.”

The Venezuelan opposition has just proven that the Chavez model, designed to perpetuate itself in power, is vulnerable to three main factors: commodity slump (in this case oil); a dogged and creative resistance by society and its political actors; and a clear commitment to peace in the face of a violent party-state which owns all institutions and citizen rights. That message has also been exported to societies like Ecuador, which has spent nine years under the dominion of a government of the same hue: Correa-ism. Argentina, too, has just turned the page on Kirchner-ism.

Rafael Correa, aware of the wind blowing across the region, has manifested his desire not to stand in the 2017 presidential election. He is committed, however, to continue to concentrate the remnants of power that the Constitution allows in other areas, those of regional governments and citizens in particular. He wants perpetuate his power through another presidential candidate and his bloc in the Assembly. This explains the package of constitutional amendments, 16 in all, which he just pushed through his parliamentary group, openly violating its own constitution. He has already promised a second package of reforms which, according to him, are more technical… but which will, too, concentrate power in the Executive. In this way, Correa seeks to create a favorable legal reality that is difficult to remove by the next government, if not controlled by him.

A gesture that could further diminish his popularity and reveal, more clearly and crudely, this insatiable thirst for power which sustained Chavism and has just received its death certificate in Venezuela.

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