Venezuela on a Knife’s Edge Ahead of Upcoming Elections
Frida Ghitis |Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015
With a month left until Venezuela’s pivotal parliamentary elections, the country has been jolted by accusations that the government’s case against a top opposition leader was a sham. Meanwhile, President Nicolas Maduro is vowing that he will not surrender power under any circumstances. The stage is now set for the country’s already turbulent political environment to become even more dangerously unstable.
|An opposition member walks under a Venezuelan flag |
during a rally in Caracas, Venezuela, Sept. 19, 2015
Inept economic policies had already wreaked havoc even before global oil prices collapsed, squeezing government finances to the breaking point. Now the state has resorted to selling gold reserves to pay its bills.
But the economic crisis is now taking a back seat to the growing political crisis.
On Oct. 26, Maduro declared an “emergency,” saying it was time to activate an “anti-coup plan” ahead of the Dec. 6 elections. What exactly the president meant is not altogether clear. The plan, he said, is to mobilize the people and win by “pummeling” the opposition. But his words signaled that he may have more in mind than an energetic “turn out the vote” campaign. “This revolution will not be betrayed nor surrendered,” he said, warning that rightist forces at home and abroad are not planning an electoral victory but a “counter-revolutionary coup.”
Maduro’s emergency warning, however, was not the most dramatic announcement of the week. In fact, it was not even close.
The news that shook up the country came in the form of a video confession posted on a local website, featuring a nervous-looking man known to Venezuelans for his role in one of the most dramatic trials in recent memory.
The face on the screen belonged to Franklin Nieves, one of the two prosecutors who led the government’s successful case against opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. Nieves said he was speaking from self-imposed exile, explaining that he could not live with himself after the crime he helped perpetrate against Lopez. Nieves characterized the entire trial against Lopez as a travesty and called the evidence against him fabricated. Nieves said he decided to leave Venezuela with his family because he was under pressure to defend the government’s case on appeal.
The conviction of Lopez, a former mayor of the Chacao section of Caracas, had already been derided by human rights organizations that saw the government’s case for the mockery of justice it was. The year-long trial centered on a government assertion that Lopez had sent subliminal messages through his speeches, inciting crowds that had gathered to protest crime and inflation in January and February 2014 to violence. In the end, a judge sentenced him to almost 14 years in prison.
Nieves revealed that the prosecutors knew the process was a sham designed to protect the Maduro government from a feared political rival. And he pointed to the head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, as a principal orchestrator of the plot.
It was a stunning turn of events that riveted Venezuelans, with Nieves, who says he will request political asylum in the U.S., giving extensive interviews to international media, and Lopez’s status as an iconic victim of the regime rising with every passing day.
It took a couple of days for the government to put together a response to the charges, but when it came it was just as one might have expected. Cabello, who stands to lose his powerful post if the opposition wins in December, called the former prosecutor a “thug” and “traitor” and accused him of receiving an $850,000 bribe to smear the Maduro regime.
It amounts to yet more heat under the bubbling caldron that is Venezuela. Still, what comes next is unclear, although it is likely to involve more tension, instability and risk.
The polls show Venezuelans have lost all trust in their president, but that is not the whole story. Maduro, whose socialist Chavista administration sides vociferously with the poor against the rich, has become profoundly unpopular, even if the majority of Venezuelans are poor, not rich. The president’s approval ratings are languishing around 25 percent. The vast majority, 87 percent, describe the country’s situation as bad, a sharp increase from the 46 percent who said so when Maduro won the 2013 presidential election. And most people blame the government for the problems, not global oil markets or the rich—or the “empire,” as Maduro and the late Hugo Chavez before him contemptuously referred to the U.S.
And yet, the opposition is not much more popular. Henrique Capriles, its moderate standard-bearer, has run twice for president against candidates from the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), first against Hugo Chavez in 2012 and then against Maduro in 2013. His approval ratings are even lower than Maduro's. It was impatience with Capriles’ moderate stance that propelled Leopoldo Lopez to take to the streets in a more confrontational style.
It is unclear exactly how or how much the latest episode will affect the electoral outcome. The polls ahead of the legislative elections have seesawed, and there are fears that fraud could mar the results.
If the PSUV wins, it is clear that current course is unsustainable. Something will have to give, as popular frustrations are growing.
If the opposition wins and electoral authorities recognize the outcome, it is difficult to predict how Maduro, Cabello and their Chavista backers will respond. With the opposition in control of the National Assembly, tensions will rise exponentially, as control of the legislature would empower the anti-Maduro forces to legally launch a recall referendum against the president. Maduro’s term lasts until 2019, long enough that a push to remove him is all but assured.
As tensions rise and Election Day approaches, Venezuelans are bracing for a critical, perilous showdown.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.