The Anti-Chavista political swing in Venezuela - Its impact on Guyana and Caribbean relations
By Ambassador Odeen Ishmael - Posted December 20th. 2015
The December 6 elections to the National Assembly in Venezuela resulted in an overwhelming majority victory of the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD), over the governing Chavistas-the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV) led by President Nicolas Maduro. The right-wing coalition won 109 seats, and with the support of three elected indigenous legislators has managed to control a razor-edge two-thirds majority in the 167-seat National Assembly.
Despite all the pre-election claims of expected fraud by anti-Chavista groups and some sections of the international media, none of the contesting parties questioned the final results.
The opposition won convincingly, even in traditional pro-government strongholds, including the Petare, January 23 and Catia barrios (slums) in Caracas, the eastern oil city of Maturin and in Barinas, the home state of the iconic Hugo Chavez.
The MUD is a coalition of an array of Venezuelan centrist, center-left, left-wing and some center-right political parties and draws support from some other social organizations and opinion groups. About twenty of the parties are national in scope, even though some, being very small with little popular support, are not widely known. The main parties in this coalition are Democratic Action (Acción Democratica, AD), and the Christian Socialist Party (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente, COPEI) the two parties that dominated Venezuelan politics from 1959 to 1999; the dissenting left-wing parties Popular Vanguard, Radical Cause; and more recently established parties such as Project Venezuela, A New Era, and Justice First1. All of them, under the MUD umbrella, presented a unified slate of candidates2 for the elections; however, due to internal problems within COPEI, its candidates were excluded3.
Over the past two years, twelve other parties exited the coalition because they disagreed with its strategies. These parties included the leftist Red Flag4, Movement Towards Socialism 5 and For Social Democracy; and the centrist Republican Movement6 and Homeland For All (PODEMOS).
The MUD will now control the National Assembly from next January 5. Its two-thirds majority will enable it to dismiss Supreme Court judges, initiate a referendum to recall Maduro, and even convoke an assembly to rewrite Hugo Chavez's 1999 constitution. And with a simple majority, it can pass an amnesty law to free political prisoners and even to curtail some of the government's on-going social and economic development programs.
Already, it has set out its plan to introduce legislation aimed at revoking price controls that have kept basic goods affordable; privatizing key enterprises and services; giving concessions to foreign companies for infrastructure works; strengthening local police forces; and making the public media "independent" or private.
However, the outgoing legislature (which has a PSUV majority) can give Maduro powers to rule by decree, enabling him to overrule actions of the new legislature. But this can lead to civil unrest and the outgoing legislature may not consider that as an option. Maduro himself may not want that power since he has stated that he respects the results of the election, and he will also want to rebuild his own leadership within his party which is currently threatened by this huge loss. Any civil unrest, therefore, will not be helpful for him.
Causes of the defeat
The defeat of the PSUV has not come as a surprise. The surge of opposition support became quite noticeable over the past year as inflation skyrocketed and the economy tumbled into the doldrums. The worldwide decline in oil prices exacerbated the situation since the government did not have the ready largesse to expend on all its social and other developmental projects and to import food to supply the domestic market.
Many factors were responsible for the defeat of the governing PSUV and its allies. The PSUV pointed to the media campaign against the government and what it referred to as imperialist interference and harassment directly and indirectly by the US, as well as sabotage of the economy and increased insecurity and crime. However, these issues existed during previous elections which the PSUV won, and therefore could not be seen as decisive causes.
Actually, Oscar Figuera, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Venezuela, a PSUV ally, admitted that the Chavistas lost the parliamentary elections through their own mistakes and not only for the alleged imperialist interference. In a statement reported by the Caracas daily El Nacional on December 12, he recognized that failures in the production of goods, inefficiency, bureaucratic mismanagement and government corruption negatively influenced the results.7
But there developed some new problems which brought about a serious deterioration in the state of the economy. These included the continued hyperinflation, the worsened scarcity of basic products, racketeering, and the expanding of the black market-all of which have seriously affected the day-to-day livelihood of the populace. The government had accuses pro-opposition wholesale merchants of hoarding consumer goods in order to undermine support for the PSUV, a charge they stoutly denied. There may be some credence to this accusation since consumer goods, some imprinted with expired dates, suddenly began to reappear in significant quantities in the supermarkets after the opposition victory8.
MUD's influence on foreign policy and Guyana relations
How will the political shift to the MUD influence Venezuela's foreign policy? What must be kept in mind is that President Maduro (with his party) still controls the executive branch of government in Venezuela. He, through his foreign minister, thus remains in charge of foreign policy and the management of oil production and marketing. The MUD's chief role in foreign affairs, despite its two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, is mainly the ratification and revision of international treaties.
The coalition has not yet refined its foreign policy positions. While Venezuela's foreign affairs policies may change in years to come, a major shift in MUD's views on the status of the claim to Guyana's Essequibo region will not happen since some of the parties in the coalition have held even more aggressive positions than those of the current government. Actually, politicians across Venezuela's political spectrum tend to show strong unity regarding their claim to Guyana's territory, so no one should expect that there will be any easing up of the pressure on Guyana. Despite Maduro's aggressive language and action against Guyana, his party itself is not antagonistic towards Guyana, but it is generally believed that his recent behavior and his decree claiming Guyana's maritime space was a reaction to claims by the MUD that he had gone soft on the territorial claim.
But Maduro was heavily criticized by opposition leaders for what they regarded as his convenient involvement in border rows with Guyana and Colombia just a few months before the National Assembly elections, which they felt was a studied ruse to raise Venezuelan nationalism and thus capture votes for his party.
Nevertheless, their grouping has declined to oppose Maduro publicly on his strategy against Colombia and Guyana, and has instead taken a cautious approach especially on the territorial claim to Essequibo, and up to the time of the elections opposed Guyana's calls for the UN Secretary General to involve the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to resolve the issue. At the same time, it is possible that the opposition coalition will want to see an improvement in relations with both Guyana and Colombia. These relations have suffered badly since May 2015 and the new majority will want to their diplomatic muscles to show that they can work to improve the relations with Venezuela's neighbors.
Despite the MUD's stance on the border issue, this should not deter representatives of the Guyanese government from meeting or communicating with the new legislative leaders to hear their opinion on how they feel the matter should be resolved. Other views that can be sought are those relating to stalled cooperation programs and bilateral trade, in particular the purchase of Guyana's rice. It will be just a "feeling-out" process and should not be seen as undermining the government-to-government process in discussing inter-governmental relations-which, in any case, has not occurred for a relatively long time. This can also be conducted by written communication as advocated by former president Bharrat Jagdeo9 or through diplomatic contact by the Guyanese ambassador in Caracas who can meet with the legislative standing committee dealing with Guyana-Venezuela relations.
There is precedent for such an action. Back in 1958, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, as head of the then PPP government, on a visit to Venezuela held separate talks with all the leading Venezuelan political parties on a number of issues including the claim to the western Essequibo which was being championed by sections of the Venezuelan media and some leading politicians. In these discussions, all the parties stated that while they would never renounce the claim, they, on the other hand, would never resurrect it.
Most likely, if such discussions are held, the MUD leadership will not state any new position and will continue to express support for the UN Good Offices process, as the Maduro administration continues to assert. But it is important to find out specifically why they oppose requesting the UN Secretary General to place the border issue in the hands of the International Court of Justice, at least to get a legal opinion on the legality of the 1899 arbitral award. What must be kept in mind is that the MUD is not a monolithic grouping and its various political party components may have varying approaches on the issue. There certainly are politicians in the MUD who want to improve relations with Guyana and it will be beneficial to learn what approaches they intend to take.
Caribbean and South American relations
With respect to the MUD's approach to relations with the wider Caribbean, some analysts feel that the composition of the new National Assembly may damage Venezuela-Caribbean relations since it may move to dissolve or change the terms of the PetroCaribe agreement under which Venezuela exports oil for payments at concessional rates to many Caribbean countries, including Guyana to which sales since mid-2015 remain in a state of suspension. While such an action may be anticipated, it is possible that the MUD legislators will bide their time until the next presidential election when they will try to win full executive power. However, the leader of Justice First, one of MUD's constituent parties, stated on December 15 that the coalition would seek to revise the agreement and that Caribbean countries would have to seek alternative sources of their oil supply10. It is not yet known how widespread is this view among the other parties. But it is possible the PetroCaribe arrangement may continue since it is doubtful of the MUD will want to force any drastic adjustment or cancellation immediately considering that it will want to improve relations with Caribbean countries if it eventually wins the presidency in three years' time.
In regional (e.g., UNASUR, OAS, CELAC, and even ALBA) and international forums, the new political scenario can also influence the debate in discussions since the anti-PSUV views will certainly influence the thought among negotiators across the table.
With all these situations facing it, the PSUV will also be thinking ahead to the presidential elections in three years' time and will want to mollify the Venezuelan public in order to win back the support that it lost. But in that seemingly unwieldy effort, it will have to find quick solutions to the existing myriad of problems that influenced so many of its traditional supporters to switch sides in the recent elections. As the situation currently stands, there does not seem to be any signal that the PSUV and the MUD will seek any form of cooperation in dealing with prospective legislative issues. But these are yet early days and, like all Venezuelans, the region waits to see what will happen.
December 18, 2015
2: http://www.eluniversal.com/nacional-y-politica/150806/unified-democratic-panel-presents-list-of-candidates-for-congress (El Universal, August 6, 2015)
5: http://www.ultimasnoticias.com.ve/noticias/actualidad/politica/el-mas-no-volvera-a-la-unidad.aspx (Ultimas Noticias, January 19, 2015)
6: http://www.eluniversal.com/nacional-y-politica/150710/movimiento-republicano-se-retira-de-la-alianza-opositora-mud (El Universal, July 10, 2015)
7: El Nacional, December 12, 2015
9: Demerara Waves, December 9, 2015
10: Guyana Times, December 16, 2015
Odeen Ishmael, Ambassador Emeritus (retired), historian and author,
served as Guyana's ambassador in the USA (1993-2003),
Venezuela 2003-2011) and Kuwait and Qatar (2011-2014). He actively participated in meetings of UNASUR from 2003 to 2010 and has written extensively on South American integration issues.)
(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Government of Guyana.)