The coming months will bring major developments for Venezuela’s polarized political landscape. With Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s approval rating at an all-time low, and in the face of worsening scarcity of basic goods and upcoming legislative elections, 2015 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for the country.
On February 25, WOLA hosted a panel discussion, “Chavismo Under Pressure: Economic Crisis and Political Challenges in Venezuela,” to assess the country’s political and economic forecast. WOLA Senior Fellow David Smilde and Michael McCarthy of the American University Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS) gave their take on what the future holds for the country, in 2015 and beyond.
Highlights from David Smilde's remarks:
On Venezuela’s economic situation:
• Smilde argues that it is important to note that the roots of Venezuela’s economic challenges—which began when the price of oil was still above $100 per barrel—are about more than the decline of oil prices. The fundamental problem is a wildly overvalued exchange rate that causes an insatiable demand for dollars, corruption and scarcities.
• Maduro is paying more of a political price for scarcities than Chavismo has in the past because they are affecting the government’s base which is highly dependent on subsidized and price-controlled goods.
• According to Smilde, the recently announced economic reforms seem to be too little too late.
On President Nicolas Maduro and the future of Chavismo:
• To Smilde, President Maduro lacks the political capital needed to make unpopular but necessary economic changes.
• Maduro’s favorability rating is indeed low, but stands at a similar level to Chávez’s approval figures ten years ago. Chávez overcame this and won a subsequent recall referendum in August 2004, but it seems doubtful that Maduro will be able to muster a similar comeback.
• Smilde believes the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) in Venezuela faces three potential paths forward: 1.) it can try to reform and stabilize the economy ahead of the election, 2.) it could see major losses to its National Assembly majority in legislative elections this fall, or 3.) it could become a significantly less democratic movement. There are signs of potential movement along each of these three paths, but only time will reveal which will predominate and where it will lead.
On regional engagement
• The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has emerged as the only multilateral agency Venezuela will listen to. However, Smilde argues that U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan officials is leading UNASUR to “circle the wagons” around Venezuela, prioritizing its sovereignty over the fundamental rights of its citizens.
Highlights from Michael McCarthy's remarks:
On the Maduro government and nature of the current crisis
• Maduro came to power in a political crisis and without ever answering questions about the influence of his leadership, a full blown economic crisis emerged. The government’s biggest challenge is managing this two-front crisis and preventing the emergence of a new front, in the form of a social crisis.
On the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition:
• The MUD faces obstacles to becoming a real, working coalition and its national agenda appears to be “under construction,” according to McCarthy. The primary challenges for the MUD in 2015 will be emerging from this construction phase with a popular sector-based campaign that energizes its base and reaches new sectors.
• A repeat of last year, a la ‘La Salida 2.0’ appears unlikely; it does not have the bandwidth to prioritize demonstrations and the upcoming legislative elections.
• For McCarthy, 2010 is an important point of comparison and the opposition’s successful campaign that year was one of its “high water marks.”
On Venezuela’s democratic institutions:
• Polls in Venezuela indicate decreasing “confianza” in the electoral management body in the country, the Consejo Nacional Electoral, while the international Electoral Integrity Project documented a decline in “electoral quality” from 2012 to 2013.
• The fact no date has yet been set for the 2015 legislative elections is not encouraging.
On international engagement and criticism of Venezuela:
• McCarthy also highlights the importance of new voices that have emerged as international critics of the ruling party in Venezuela, including some well-known international political figures like former U.S. President Bill Clinton, as well as figures on the Latin America left, like Juan Pablo Letelier and Isabella Allende in Chile.
Both experts agree that the coming months will see important political developments. The ruling party is at risk of losing control of the National Assembly in an upcoming legislative vote, which in turn could boost opposition momentum for a presidential recall referendum in 2016. But as the opposition remains fractious and distanced from average Venezuelans, its capacity to take advantage of Chavismo’s difficulties is very much in doubt.
About the Panelists
David Smilde is a Senior Fellow at WOLA and Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations, Tulane University. He writes regularly about politics, citizen security, and human rights at WOLA’s blog, Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Professor Smilde has researched Venezuela for the past 20 years and has taught at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. From 2010-2012 he was the Chair of the Venezuelan Studies Section of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA). He is frequently quoted regarding events in Venezuela by major press outlets, including National Public Radio, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.
Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University. Previously, he served as a Senior Analyst for the Carter Center's 2012 and 2013 Presidential Election Study Missions, and as Visiting Professor at Johns Hopkins-School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He lived in Venezuela from 2008-2009 as a Fulbright and Inter-American Foundation Fellow, and was a visiting fellow at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administración. He is a regular contributor to American University's 'AULA Blog' and has offered commentary on events in Venezuela for the Financial Times, World Politics Review, and The National Interest.