Special for Cuba Central Readers – Venezuela in 2012, the Election Outlook, the Impact on Cuba, and CELAC, too!

While we wait for the Cuba Central Team to assemble after the holiday, we have a special treat for our readers – a compelling report about the upcoming presidential election in Venezuela; a milestone in that country’s politics with profound implications for Cuba.

For the last twelve years, President Hugo Chávez has governed Venezuela, led on issues relating to political and economic integration in the region, and constructed a tight relationship with Cuba.  Ill with an undisclosed form of cancer and addressing tough economic conditions in his country, he is facing a competitive election against an apparently united political opposition.  Reelected, Chávez would continue ties with Cuba; defeated the future of the Venezuela-Cuba relationship and Venezuela’s support for Cuba’s economy will be in doubt.

To understand the larger context of what is happening in Venezuela, we asked our colleague and trusted advisor, Dr. Dan  Hellinger to consider writing a piece that analyzed Venezuela’s election outlook and related issues for our Cuba Central audience.  We know of no one more qualified to do this, and Dan returned with an essay that we think is quite extraordinary.

Dan’s day job is Professor of Political Science at Webster University.  He is a co-editor, contributor, and author of several books such as Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era,Venezuela: Tarnished Democracy, and The Democratic Facade. His future publications include Democracy at Last textbook and Participation, the State and Civil Society in Venezuela co-edited book.

He also moonlights as a musician and as emeritus president of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

We’ll be back on track with news from Cuba next week.  Until then, please read and enjoy what Dan has to say.

Happy New Year!

Venezuela Update

By Dan Hellinger

Summary:

  • President Chávez’s Health Introduces Political Uncertainty before 2012 Elections
  • In Caracas, Latin American presidents create new international organization

Venezuela’s presidential elections are scheduled for October 7, 2011, but the country remains in doubt about who will appear on the ballot.  The uncertainty on the government side is due to questions about the health of President Hugo Chávez, whether, as he insists, he is really free of the cancer first diagnosed in Cuba in June 2011.  The opposition, united for the moment, is due to choose a candidate in a primary on February 12. Economic issues and personal security are likely to be the main issues for Venezuelans voting in the election, but foreign capitals from Havana to Washington will be paying close attention to the outcome.  Meanwhile, developments in the Middle East and Russia raise issues about the government’s foreign policy, and a major summit of Latin American leaders gives birth to a new hemispheric organization in Caracas.

Chávez’s health

While on a visit to Cuba in 2011, President Hugo Chávez was diagnosed with cancer.  The facts remain closely guarded secrets; perhaps no one outside of Cuba and the president’s family really knows what kind of cancer was diagnosed or what the prognosis for recurrence is.  President Chávez (aged 57), who was first elected president in 1999, claims that two operations and four chemotherapy treatments have left him cancer-free, but he has not released any independent medical validation of this claim.

As might be expected, this failure to inform the Venezuelan public has unleashed a wave of rumors. On the opposition side, and in Washington, the constant speculation is evocative of the premature reports and repetitive predictions of the death of Fidel Castro.  In early November,Roger Noriega, a former Bush administration figure and former ambassador to the Organization of American States, spread a rumor that Chávez has only months to live.  Other reports claim that Chávez’s doctors have given him two years.

It seems likely that at a minimum Chávez expects to be healthy enough to contest the October election.   Were he to be incapacitated without preparing a transition there would be a scramble within the ruling party, the United Socialist party of Venezuelan (PSUV), to secure the nomination.  Even some chavistas see the illness as a wake-up call to reduce the Bolivarian Revolution’s dependence on one charismatic leader.

Possible Successors to Chávez

Four leaders are most often mentioned as possible successors to Chávez, though other contenders might emerge were the president’s health to decline rapidly.

Rafael Ramírez is president of the state oil company and has far-reaching ties to both business groups and social organizations that have benefitted from the company’s contracts and financing of anti-poverty programs. But Ramírez lacks charisma, and the company itself has suffered some erosion of its reputation due to scandals and inefficiencies.

Diosdado Cabello is former governor of the State of Miranda, which includes much of the Caracas metropolitan area.  He is an old and loyal colleague of Chávez since their days together in the military.  Cabello’s political fortunes have benefited greatly from his longtime relationship with Chávez, but he was an unpopular governor, frequently denounced by grassroots chavistas as bureaucratic and corrupt. He lost the 2008 gubernatorial election to Henrique Capriles Radonski, who is the leading contender for the opposition coalition’s nomination. Nonetheless, Chávez subsequently brought him into the cabinet as Minister for Housing and Public Works, a key patronage post.  More recently Chávez promoted Cabello to a top ranked post within the PSUV, second only to the president himself.

Nicolas Maduro is Foreign Minister.  Unlike Cabello and Ramirez, he comes directly out of the working class, having no formal education beyond high school and having been a bus driver and organizer of the union representing the Caracas Metro.  He would be the successor most appealing to the grassroots, but would be less acceptable to the PSUV political class.

Maduro would probably have the best chance both to hold the PSUV together and to wage an effective campaign, but were Chávez to be incapacitated before the October election it is not at all clear that the party would hold together.  The prize for winning the election, just as it was before 1998, is access to the enormous wealth generated by oil exports, the base of patronage. This provides incentive for fierce competition, probably including additional candidates not mentioned above.

Opposition Candidates and the Question of Unity

President Chávez is a source of unity not only for his party, the PSUV, but also for the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).  Polls may prove to be unreliable, since it is difficult to predict who will actually participate in the opposition primary. There are three leading candidates according to the polls:

Henrique Capriles Radonski started his career as a member of the COPEI party, which has nearly disappeared after being the second most important party in the country before 1998.  For eight years, he was mayor of a relatively wealthy suburb of the capital. During the 2002 coup against Chávez, he was present during a mob attack on the Cuban embassy – either trying to defuse the crisis or purposely allowing the attack to go on, depending upon whose account one believes.  He seems to be leading the race for the nomination and attempting to position himself as a populist for the general election.

Leopoldo López has gotten much attention for his successful appeal for the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) to find that he should be reinstated as a candidate.  Previously, he had been administratively barred from holding office (along with many other candidates, including chavistas).  This occurred because, in 1998, his mother, while an official at the state oil company, had written a company check to a political organization he had helped organize.  López has never been tried or convicted in connection with the case.  After the IACHR decision in September 2011, the Venezuelan Supreme Court ultimately ruled in effect that he could run but did not lift the ban on his holding office. Nor did it reaffirm it. Hence, should López win the nomination, and even more so should he win the general election, a great deal of uncertainty, if not instability, could be unleashed.  López is regarded by many as less ideological than Radonski, and he has built a substantial grassroots base in poor neighborhoods in the far eastern metropolitan Caracas area.

Pablo Pérez is governor of Zulia, the most populous state and home to Venezuela’s second city, Maracaibo.  After losing a race for mayor of Maracaibo in 2004, he successfully ran for governor and won with 53 percent of the vote. His party, “A New Era,” is a regional break-away from the Democratic Action Party (AD), which was the dominant party in the country before 1998.

There are other candidates, most notably María Corina Machado, a deputy in the National Assembly who is best known for leading a group that participated in the 2002 coup; Antonio Ledezma, a former Caracas mayor; and Diego Arria, a former member of AD who has filed acomplaint against Chávez with the International Court of Justice in The Hague, a tactic denouncedby more moderate factions of the opposition. There are eleven different parties.  There already exists speculation that Arria is preparing to run an independent campaign. Though he would garner a small percentage of votes, it could be enough to tip the balance in a close race.

Currently, polls, even by opposition associated organizations, generally show Chávez with a high approval rating, from 51 to 60 percent.  Polls show Chávez ahead of the most likely candidates by a few percentage points, but not enough to assure his victory.  Furthermore, Chávez’s popularity does not transfer automatically to the PSUV and its elected officials, and local and state elections are scheduled for December 2012, two months after the presidential vote.

The major opposition candidates have faced each other in debates where the three strongest competitors have carefully avoided wishing the president ill and, with an eye on the general election, put forth the idea that they would keep popular social programs and merely govern them better. This may have some appeal in the barrios, but all of the candidates have some baggage, either uncomfortable connections to the old regime or to the 2002 coup.  Furthermore, the programs, known as misiones (missions), are linked to a broader program of creating participatory democracy.  That is, they are supposed to be more than just relief or welfare programs, but lay the basis for “twenty-first century socialism.” Transforming them into traditional social welfare programs may be resisted, even in barrios were the chavistas fail to win the vote.

Will elections be fair? Would Chávez accept defeat?

We need to distinguish between the campaign and the election itself.  The Venezuelan National Electoral Council (CNE) has professionally administered a series of highly contested elections since 1998, which have been vetted by international  observers, such as the Carter Center.  It uses the most sophisticated electronic voting systems.  Expect the opposition and much of the U.S. media to raise questions about the fairness of the balloting; but, in reality, it would take a sophisticated effort, though not an impossible one, to pull off a fraud.

Recently, the head of the CNE toured the United States defending the integrity of the Venezuelan election system. However, the most serious problem with the election is likely to be the campaign itself.

The opposition will enjoy overwhelming support from wealthier Venezuelans and an overwhelming bias against Chávez in most of the media, especially the electronic media.  If Washington follows past practices, the U.S. will pursue a two-track approach, materially supporting the opposition and hoping to win the election, while simultaneously preparing to deny the legitimacy of the election in case of a loss.  This strategy has been battle-tested in ChileNicaragua, and elsewhere since World War II, and there is little reason to think Washington will be hands-off.

Chávez will fight back with domination of the state television network, which is supposed to be neutral, and by ramping up social spending – and carefully ensuring he gets the credit through the state network (though it is the least watched among the major media) and through state-financed propaganda (e.g., “information” posted in public places and transportation).

For comparison, imagine that the New York Times, Washington Post, and all four major television news networks decided to oppose Obama’s re-election, not just on the editorial page but by adopting Fox News standards for reporting, while Obama decided to fight back by taking control of public television and direct use of Federal funds to mount a thinly-veiled campaign on his behalf.

The army is responsible for carrying out the logistics of elections – distributing ballots and machines, providing security at the polls, etc. Most of the high command seems loyal to Chávez, but the institution also prides itself as defender of the 1999 constitution and guarantor of its legitimacy.  Credible reports of serious fraud would do substantial harm to Chávez’s standing with his fellow Latin Americans.  A coup to ensure Chávez’s continuance in power would come with a substantial diplomatic cost as well and surely with a serious cost in terms of unity with the armed forces.

Implications for Cuba

No country views the Venezuelan elections with more apprehension than Cuba.  Cuba is a member of PetroCaribe, the Venezuelan initiative to discount oil to Central American and Caribbean nations.  It also has special additional arrangements through the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (ALBA) and the Integral Cooperation Agreement (ICA, of 2000) to import badly needed oil from Venezuela.   Cuba pays for the oil in part with personnel who aid in health care and a variety of other services.  This barter system makes it difficult to calculate in monetary terms the value of Venezuelan aid.

Venezuelan sold Cuba an estimated 100,000 barrels of oil per day in 2006 under ALBA and the ICA, according to Havana.  World prices fluctuated that year around $70; Cuba paid $27.  However, we should keep in mind that the cost of producing a barrel of conventional oil in Venezuela is only between $3 and $7, depending on the field. Another 55,000 bpd is sold through PetroCaribe on the same terms sold to other Caribbean nations.  The total comes close to fully supply Cuba’s daily consumption of 170,000 bpd. Some of the Venezuela oil provided Cuba is refined at two refineries that were refurbished by a joint company (PDV-CUPET) and then re-exported, providing valuable foreign exchange for Cuba.

It is unlikely that any opposition candidate would continue the ICA, and all have made blanket statements about ending support for Cuba.  However, it is unlikely that any of them would simply do away with PetroCaribe, a diplomatic initiative that has netted Venezuela closer ties with countries it has long sought to influence.  Conceivably some aid might flow to Cuba under this program, especially if Cuba continues with its market-oriented economic reforms. Still, there is little doubt that an opposition victory would be highly consequential for Cuba’s economy.

Arab Spring and Venezuelan Politics

Because of its long and sad experience with American intervention in its internal affairs, many Latin American governments have reacted cautiously, if not with outright opposition, to events in the Middle East.  The NATO intervention in Libya earlier this year drew at best a lukewarm endorsement; Latin American countries have longer and deeper ties to Iran than superficial news coverage suggests, and even those countries that reject Chávez’s warm embrace of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would recoil against further sanctions or an attack on Iranian facilities.

Whereas President Chávez’s offer in March to mediate the conflict between the President Muammar Gaddafi and Libyan rebels was treated in the American press as little more than a stunt, the proposal was taken seriously by the African Union, which proposed it to the conflicting parties.

What does provide food for thought regarding Venezuela’s view of the Arab Spring is the repeated conviction on the part of President Chávez that the opposition to Gaddafi and now to Syria’s embattled Bahar al-Assad is largely fomented by the United States, whom he accuses of “infiltrating terrorists” into the country.  In 2009, Chávez charged that the United States and Europe were behind Iranian protests of alleged fraud in the re-election of Ahmadinejad. More recently, Chávez went out of his way to “congratulate” Russian president Vladimir Putin on the “victory” of his party in parliamentary elections widely reported to have been marked by widespread fraud.

The common denominator behind these actions is Chávez’s conviction that Washington is orchestrating the overthrow of governments that share Venezuela’s resistance to continued U.S. hegemony.  Surely Washington seems willing and able to meddle in the internal politics of its adversaries, but to reduce the troubles of allied governments to U.S. intervention and dismissing mass discontent may ultimately come back to haunt Chávez.

The question of more immediate importance is whether Chávez’s diagnosis of popular opposition to allies abroad might be imported into Venezuela, where the U.S. has a well-documented history of intervention but where opposition protests need little inspiration from Washington. Furthermore, given Chávez’s endorsement of questionable electoral outcomes abroad, would he accept as valid an opposition victory next October? Would Chávez blame the loss upon American intervention and attempt to annul the results? On the other hand, the opposition, egged on by Washington, might decide this time, in contrast to 2006, to proclaim fraud and protest simply to evoke comparisons to global democracy movements?

Of course, the Venezuela situation is far removed from the conditions provoking the Arab spring, but the narrative coming out of the Middle East provides a convenient frame for the Western media to portray Chávez’s project as anti-democracy – especially in the hyper political environment of the U.S. presidential campaign. The Venezuelan opposition has been capable of putting hundreds of thousands of protestors in the streets in the past; the Chávez government has shown itself capable of responding with even larger demonstrations. There is therefore a risk that even after a clean election Venezuela could fall back into the instability that marked the period between 2001 and 2004.

Is the OAS about to disappear?

A major, largely uncovered story out of Caracas was the first meeting of the Community of South American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in the Venezuelan capital.  Thirty-three nations, including Cuba, met to found the new hemispheric organization.  Thirty-two presidents (Costa Rica sent its vice president) attended. In a sign of U.S. disdain, the New York Times devoted a mere 100 words, from an Associated Press report to the weekend.

Just as important, the exclusion of the United States and Canada from the new organization is an expression of the Latin America’s growing confidence of assuming an independent role in world affairs. Latin American nations have taken strong stands on a number of global issues at odds with the preferences of the U.S.  Several nations spoke out strongly against the NATO intervention in Libya, and others were very guarded in expressing limited support. The historic summit established a goal for CELAC to act to form a “concerted voice for Latin America” on global issues.  The idea for CELAC grew directly out of hemispheric criticism over the decision by the United States government under President Obama to back elections in Honduras after the overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya.  Nonetheless, President Chávez welcomed current Honduran President Porfirio Lobo to the meeting, an indication of how determined he was to ensure a complete show of unity. Chile’s conservative president, Sebastián Piñera, was chosen temporary president

The presidents agreed on an Action Plan for a wide range of economic and social projects for integration.  Among the agreements was a commitment to design a new “financial architecture,” an attempt to take advantage of the relatively successful economic record of most countries in the region, even in the face of the global recession. Critics argue that the new organization lacks a physical headquarters, institutional mechanisms to form and implement plans, and even a physical location.

However, the delegates agreed to hold the next summit in Chile, and then the 2013 meeting in Havana.  In other words, delegates sent a message of their seriousness by agreeing to meet into two capitals with governments at ideologically polar opposites, but united in a determination to give Latin America a voice independent of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The delegates did not agree on whether CELAC should replace or complement the OAS, but it is notable that the first meeting of CELAC comes shortly after the House Foreign Relations Committee voted to defund the OAS entirely as it marked up the State Department authorization bill for fiscal year 2012.  Conservatives want the OAS to act more aggressively against Chávez and other leftist governments, whom they accuse of violating democratic commitments.  Liberals for the most part have reacted with indifference.  In Venezuela itself much of the oppositionreactedwith alarm to the Republican move to defund the organization.

This indifference in Washington is all the more notable given the recent OAS “celebration” of the 10th anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. While the charter commits all of the signatories to democracy, Latin Americans are increasingly critical of the document’s liberal philosophy, seen as increasingly outmoded as social movements demand changes in the associated economic philosophy and the growing power of concentrated media ownership.

The combination of growing Latin American independence and Washington’s tone-deaf reaction to hemispheric changes may soon leave Washington with a new “monument,” a magnificent, vacant architectural gem. The OAS headquarters, built 101 years ago at 17th and Constitution Avenue, has a tropical patio, marbled staircases, fine galleries, and “monumental halls” which surely, as the OAS website says, will continue “to delight the thousands of tourists and diplomats who visit the elegant structure every year.”

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