Friday, June 8, 2018


By Steve Ellner
A revised  version of this article was published in “NACLA: Report on the Americas” (Volume 50, Issue 2) Summer, 2018, pages 119-123.

The tactics used to discredit Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the frontrunner for Mexico’s presidential elections slated for July 1, differ somewhat from those employed by the political establishment and commercial media in his first bid for the post in 2006. At that time, López Obrador (or AMLO as he’s commonly referred to) was dubbed a proxy for Venezuela’s leftist Hugo Chavez, a depiction that may have cost him the presidency. 
Just as in the past, the pro-establishment candidates and media have gained up on AMLO, but their line has slightly changed. One of the main presidential candidates, Ricardo Anaya, warns of AMLO’s “destructive and messianic populism.”[1] Although seemingly far-fetched, others are comparing AMLO’s populism to that of both Nicolás Maduro and Donald Trump. In January, Politico ran an article titled “Mexico’s Trumpian Populist,”[2] which alleged that AMLO sometimes sounds “like a Mexican Donald Trump.” Indeed, both AMLO and Trump have been accused of being anti-globalization for harshly criticizing NAFTA, although they do so from different perspectives.
Another article published in January in the Washington Post assures that the Kremlin is supporting AMLO’s candidacy. The allegation is buttressed by a Cold War-like statement made by former U.S. national security advisor H. R. McMaster that the NSA has detected “signals” of Russia’s “sophisticated campaign of subversion and disinformation and propaganda” in Mexico’s upcoming elections.  McMaster’s warning made its way to the Mexican electoral arena where several presidential candidates accused AMLO of receiving Russian aid.[3] 
AMLO and his party the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (MORENA) owe their lead going into the July general elections largely to the unpopularity of President Enrique Peña Nieto as well that of the two previous governments of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón. Peña Nieto’s approval ratings sank below 20 per cent last year. While Peña Nieto belongs to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), Fox and Calderón were members of Mexico’s other main establishment party, the Christian democratic Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). Both parties have reacted to their low ratings by launching extra-party type candidacies. PRI nominated technocrat José Antonio Meade, who occupied top ministerial positions in both PRI and PAN administrations.  PAN’s contender Anaya packages himself as the candidate of a broad coalition taking in two center-left leaning parties, the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) and the Movimiento Ciudadano.  
MORENA Moves Away from the Hard Left
AMLO claims that his adversaries have over the recent past made less use of the Chavista label because it “no longer functions for them” thanks in large part to social networking which allows people to see the truth for themselves. 
But there are more credible reasons for the opposition’s modified narrative. Most important, the thesis that links AMLO with the leftist Venezuelan government is less plausible due to the fact that he has come to assume more moderate positions. The messianic label may be more convincing than that of a firebrand leftist. As a three-time presidential candidate and the supreme leader of his party who lashes out at the political class (including former allies) as a “mafia in power” (mafia de poder), AMLO is open to the accusation of having a messianic complex and upholding a Manichean vision, considered by some to be a trademark of populism. The same narrative characterizes him as “sectarian” and “arrogant.”
Some of AMLO’s critics on both sides of the political spectrum claim he has abandoned the leftist camp altogether. The allegation was made in an article titled “The Rightwing Drift of AMLO on the Route to the 2018 Elections,” published in Huffington Post’s Mexican edition.[4] The article makes reference to the viewpoints of Roger Bartra, a renowned Mexican scholar and former leftist, who wrote in Spain’s El País “López Obrador has ceased to be on the left and now has begun a return to positions resembling those of the old PRI.”[5] 
Greenpeace has also rebuked AMLO for abandoning progressive stands. The organization objects to AMLO’s selection of Victor Villalobos—who promoted genetically modified crops while serving in two PAN governments—as his future agricultural secretary. Greenpeace pointed to the decision’s “incongruence” considering AMLO’s 2012 platform, which called for a ban on GMOs.
 AMLO’s strategy of cementing ties with non-leftists has met criticism from within his movement. MORENA’s electoral pact with the Evangelical party Encuentro Social (Social Encounter Party, PES) has been most controversial. At a December 2017 meeting when AMLO announced his cabinet appointments—consisting of eight women and eight men—renowned Mexican writer and faithful AMLO supporter Elena Poniatowska held up a cardboard sign that read “NO TO THE PES.” AMLO denies major differences between the two organizations, even though PES is generally characterized as conservative.  
A number of politicians belonging to PRI, PRD and other parties have jumped on the bandwagon. MORENA stalwarts consider the newcomers opportunists and pejoratively call them “chapulines” (grasshoppers). Some of the contests for nomination as MORENA candidates in the July local, state and national elections pit chapulines against founding party members.   
In his third presidential bid, AMLO has maintained a balance between the pragmatism that lay behind his encouragement of the chapulines and the principled stands he has assumed. The centerpiece of his campaign is his pledge to guarantee accountability and combat corruption. Among his “Proposals for the Rebirth of Mexico” are the elimination of special prerogatives (known as fueros) for all officials including the president; the possibility of holding a presidential recall election; and his commitment to travel on commercial flights as president—Mexico’s presidential airplane is one of the world’s most expensive. 
AMLO links the issue of corruption to what may be the most critical issue facing Mexico: privatization of the oil industry. Peña Nieto’s “Energy Reform” – which required a PRI-PAN pact to enact a constitutional reform that stripped the state oil company PEMEX of its monopoly – opened the petroleum industry to private capital. AMLO – in sharp contrast to the conservative narrative – argues that privatization and state downsizing is conducive to corruption. Thus, for instance, he claims that the neoliberal government’s reliance on gasoline imports as opposed to investments to boost PEMEX’s productive capacity (which accounts for only 22 percent of the internal market) facilitates shady deals involving commercial interests. “The business of gasoline imports,” he says, “is managed by the mafia in power.” 
AMLO has also pointed out that dependence on gasoline imports forced President Peña Nieto to renege on his pledge to not raise gasoline prices. Consequently, Mexican gas prices are higher than in the United States and even oil-bereft Guatemala. Gasoline hikes in January 2017 set off mass protests throughout the nation that led to looting and at least four deaths and over a thousand arrests. AMLO has pledged to build two new oil refineries and modernize six existing ones in the first three years of his presidency. In doing so, he adds, Mexico will achieve 100% self-sufficiency. 
For these elections, AMLO has softened his stand on oil policy. In 2014, AMLO took a “patriotic oath” in which he pledged to “struggle without rest” against oil privatization. Now, however, he has ruled out an “authoritarian” approach based on decreeing the expulsion of foreign companies from the industry. Instead, he promises to respect existing contracts and submit the issue of re-nationalization to a national referendum. In case of approval, the will of the majority would be incorporated in a constitutional reform that would require two-thirds congressional approval. Mustering such overwhelming support in Congress appears to be nothing short of a pipe dream. In another modification, José Luis Beato, commonly referred to as AMLO’s liaison with the private sector, indicated that Peña Nieto’s Reform package contains “positive aspects,” although he failed to name any specifics.

AMLO also shows a degree of restraint in his statements about relations with Washington, notwithstanding Trump’s offensive remarks about Mexico. In most of his declarations, AMLO stresses the need for mutual respect. He assures that under his government relations will be based on “friendship and cooperation, but not subordination.” He reserves his sharpest criticism for Peña Nieto who, in the face of Trump’s affronts, “has failed to act with decorum in defense of the Mexican people.”
Similarly, AMLO’s position on NAFTA is more flexible than those of his two previous presidential bids. His 2018-2024 governing program surprisingly praises NAFTA as a well-demonstrated, useful instrument for the development of economic relations with the U.S. and Canada.” AMLO’s platform recognizes that NAFTA has been beneficial for Mexico’s electronic and car industries, but detrimental to small producers.
AMLO envisions a government based on state intervention in the economy and the promotion of a welfare state, which would break from the policies of a string of six neoliberal Mexican presidents beginning with Miguel de la Madrid in the 1980s. However, AMLO’s ambitious electoral platform may not be entirely feasible. Large state expenditures are at odds with AMLO’s promise to avoid tax hikes and an increase of the public debt and to maintain the autonomy of Mexico’s Central Bank. AMLO has assured that needed resources could come from eliminating bureaucratic waste and corruption and slashing the president’s salary in half. These measures, however, would not appear to provide the state with sufficient revenue to implement his ambitious programs. 
AMLO’s shifts have led some on the left to question his credentials as a progressive. Lorenzo Peraza, a well-known activist and victim of government repression, told me: “López Obrador toned down his message in his 2012 campaign with respect to that of 2006 and now even more so—so much so that there is only a fine line separating him and social democrats.”[6] 
Locating AMLO on the Political Spectrum
MORENA, originally founded as a “movement” in 2012 after breaking from the PRD, now sees itself as “a party of a new type,” in the words of its Human Rights National Secretary Carlos Figueroa Ibarra.[7] MORENA militants are keenly aware that their party needs to avoid the practices that characterized the two parties that it emerged from, the PRI and PRD. At a party meeting, the renowned writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II pointed out that MORENA has not removed the word “movement” from its name because its members “associate the word political party with vertical structures.” He added: “we want to be a horizontal movement whose leaders are chosen from the rank and file…and which learns from the errors of traditional parties.”[8] 
Unlike many traditional parties, MORENA respects the autonomy of social movements. Reinaldo Mancebo, a MORENA leader in the southeastern city of Mérida, told me: “we have participated in large numbers in the protests against the murder of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa, and all the other protests in Mexico, but not in the name of the party. We don’t want to give the enemy the opportunity to politicize and discredit these actions.”[9] Indeed, MORENA’s unequivocal support for the Ayotzinapa protests and those last year in opposition to gasoline price increases clearly places the party on the Left. Nevertheless, MORENA’s more cautious strategy toward mobilizations contrasts with AMLO’s direct participation in the movement opposing oil privatization at the time of the party’s founding.
In spite of AMLO’s moderation and the resultant criticism he has received from leftists in and outside of MORENA, he remains a towering figure on the Mexican left. In a recent interview, Mexican Marxist economist Jorge Veraza referred to AMLO’s candidacy as “somewhat paradoxical.” On the one hand AMLO has followed an increasingly pragmatic strategy, but on the other he is widely viewed as a man of unbending principles. Given these apparent contradictions, “the only way you can explain López Obrador’s popularity and lead at the polls is on the basis of the complete discredit of Mexico’s political class” and the perception that he is “Mexico’s last hope.”[10] AMLO’s credibility is bolstered by his past history of steadfast resistance to the allegedly fraudulent elections of 2006, and subsequently his breaking with the PRD over its alliance with the PAN, considered by many to be self-serving. 

AMLO’s candidacy is Mexico’s only real leftist option in July. The logic behind his decision to moderate his stance is easy to understand. AMLO is not likely to receive an absolute majority of the popular vote and it’s even more unlikely that MORENA will gain control of congress. More moderate positions will facilitate congressional agreements with either smaller parties slightly to the left of center or one of the major ones, depending on the outcome in July. Furthermore, given the change in the correlation of forces in Latin America over the recent past, an AMLO presidency will face an unfriendly environment at the continental level.
In addition, forging understanding with prominent non-leftists will reduce the possibility of electoral fraud, which is foremost on the minds of all MORENA militants and is a topic of discussion in virtually all party meetings. In a recent Jacobin post, New Politics co-editor Dan La Botz reviewed the span of Mexican history over the last century as well as the hostile statements of pro-establishment publications in the U.S. and concluded that electoral fraud and even an attempt on AMLO’s life are serious possibilities. [11]
 AMLO cannot be dismissed as an ex-leftist. None of his rivals in the presidential race offer anything that comes close to a comprehensive critique of Peña Nieto’s neoliberal policies, in spite of Anaya's efforts to position himself to the left of PAN's historical location on the right. In contrast, AMLO questions the advisability of the government’s neoliberal oil, labor, education and fiscal “reforms,” even while his alternative proposals appear to be on the mild side.
Any evaluation of AMLO’s candidacy from a progressive perspective needs to place it in a broad context. In recent years, conservative and reactionary parties have come to power in major European nations (Germany, Britain, Spain, France) and in the United States. The same has happened in Latin America (Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Chile), while the right-wing pushback has been strongly felt in Venezuela and Ecuador. The rightist narrative points to these developments and then harps on Venezuela's pressing economic problems in order to question the viability of socialism and other leftist proposals for Latin America. It is precisely for this reason that so much is at stake on July 1. 

[2] Sabrina Rodríguez, “Mexico’s Trumpian Populist Could Mean Trouble for Donald Trump,” Politico,

[3] Frida Ghitis, “A Mexican Presidential Candidate is Getting an Unexpected Boost from Trump – and Putin,” Washington Post, January 11, 2018.
[5] “López Obrador representa la nostalgia por el viejo PRI,” El País, November 9, 2017.

[6] Lorenzo Peraza, author interview, Mérida, January 26, 2018.
[7] Carlos Figueroa Ibarra, author interview, Puebla, September 7, 2017.

[9] Reinaldo Mancebo, author interview, Mérida, January 24, 2018.
[10] Veraza, author interview, Caracas, May 4, 2018.

[11] La Botz, “The Plot against López Obrador,” Jacobin.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Venezuela’s “National Dialogue” Takes in Not only Business and Political Elites But Also Social Movements

Today as part of the “National Dialogue” in Venezuela, President Maduro met with representatives of communal councils and communes. One representative by the name of Robin Torrealba pointed out that AgroPatria assigns some communes 10 times more than what they need and called on the communes in these cases to return what is not being used. Torrealba’s statement was a veiled reference to the problem of corruption involving links between state companies which sell products at artificially low prices and the black market. These unethical dealings occur on a large scale. Unfortunately, Maduro in his comments didn’t pick up on Torrealba’s statement. Angel Prado of the El Maizal commune in Lara discussed this practice and presented a more all-encompassing critique of AgroPatria in a recent interview conducted and posted by Venezuelanalysis. 

On the other hand, the fact that Maduro met with community representatives goes counter to what his critics on the left are saying, namely that the National Dialogue leaves out of the picture social movements and the rank and file in general.   

In the interview with Prado, Venezuelanalysis points out that in May, El Maizal and other small and medium-sized agricultural producers occupied several AgroPatria stores throughout Venezuela to protest its practices.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018


El desconocimiento de la legitimidad del proceso electoral del 20 de mayo por parte de Henri Falcón y el otro candidato presidencial importante de la oposición, el evangélico Javier Bertucci, no presagia bien para el nuevo periodo del presidente Maduro. La consolidación de un bloque moderado dentro de la oposición representado por Falcón que reconoce la legitimidad del gobierno, hubiera restado influencia a los partidos radicales de la derecha y significado un mayor grado de estabilidad en el país al disminuir la polarización.

Maduro necesita capital político y cierto apoyo desde fuera del movimiento chavista para poder enfrentar los problemas apremiantes, como la inflación de cuatro dígitos, un deterioro muy pronunciado en el nivel de vida tanto de los sectores populares como de la clase media, y una pobre gerencia en la industria petrolera con el resultado de una baja en la producción.

Dos tareas urgentes se vislumbran como desafíos de grandes proporciones: la profundización de la lucha anti-corrupción que empezó en la segunda mitad de 2017con el nombramiento de Tarek William Saab como Fiscal General; y la necesidad de implementar una política económica para que los precios de los productos, incluyendo la moneda extranjera, guarden alguna relación con lo establecido en el mercado y también con los costos de producción. Los productos y servicios como la gasolina, el gas, y los boletos del metro de Caracas son casi gratis, mientras que las tarifas cobradas por la empresa estatal telefónica CANTV no se quedan muy atrás. 
Dada la polarización intensa, medidas gubernamentales audaces y necesarias como estas probablemente generarán resistencia popular y burocrática que la oposición podría explotar. La posición hostil de Washington, como también los países vecinos de Venezuela y la Unión Europea, agrava la volatilidad.  En agosto de 2017 el gobierno de Trump prohibió la compra de bonos del Estado venezolano y la repatriación de las ganancias por parte de la empresa CITGO ubicada en los EEUU, y luego impidió las transacciones de la criptomoneda venezolana llamada el Petro. 
En febrero de este año los partidos de la MUD se retiraron de las negociaciones con el gobierno de Maduro llevadas a cabo en Santo Domingo a pesar de varias concesiones y cierto optimismo acerca de la posibilidad de un acuerdo. Según Maduro, la decisión se debió a la presión de Washington. La denuncia por parte de portavoces de Washington al gobierno de Maduro de ser una tiranía y un Estado narco podría haber influenciado a la MUD de llamar a la abstención, aún después que el secretario general de Acción Democrática (AD) Henry Ramos Allup anunció su candidatura presidencial en enero. Los únicos partidos importantes que terminaron participando en las elecciones fueron COPEI y el MAS, los cuales apoyaron a Falcón.  
Venezuela Dividida en Tres
El desconocimiento de Falcón de los resultados del 20 de mayo estaba muy lejos de ser inevitable. Por cierto, Falcón emergió como un líder nacional cuando reconoció su propia derrota en las elecciones gubernamentales del 15 de octubre de 2017, en contraste con la posición asumida por otros candidatos de la oposición ese mismo día. Un acontecimiento concurrente pareció señalar una grieta irreparable dentro del bloque de la oposición, que durante las últimas dos décadas había generalmente desconocido la legitimidad del gobierno de Hugo Chávez y Maduro. Cuatro de los cinco gobernadores, todos pertenecientes a AD, desobedecieron la orden de su partido al juramentarse ante la Asamblea Nacional Constituyente (ANC). 
Las tensiones y diferencias marcadas entre la oposición radical y Falcón se manifestaron durante la campaña. Diosdado Cabello dijo a José Vicente Rangel: “Lo peor que dijeron acerca de Falcón no lo dijimos nosotros, lo dijo la oposición.” En un ejemplo de insultos, dos periodistas renombrados a nivel internacional – Andrés Oppenheimer y Jaime Bayly – llamaron a Falcón un doble “traidor” por haber roto con Chávez después de ser elegido gobernador de Lara en 2010, y luego haber roto con Henrique Capriles después de servir como jefe de su campaña en las elecciones presidenciales en 2013. 
Atrás de este conflicto entre los anti-chavistas, hay un hecho que llama la atención: Políticamente, Venezuela ahora está dividida en tres campos, no dos – la oposición radical, los Chavistas y un campo medio que carece de una dirigencia bien organizada. Este tercer campo firmemente se opone a las protestas tipo guarimba llevadas a cabo en 2014 y 2017 que resultaron en la paralización del tráfico urbano y violencia callejera. Estos venezolanos están igualmente opuestos a las sanciones económicas impuestas por los EEUU con el apoyo de la oposición radical. De acuerdo con la encuestadora Hinterlaces, 71 por ciento de la población está en desacuerdo con las sanciones internacionales para remover a Maduro de su cargo. El “terreno medio”, que está especialmente bien definido sobre el tema de la violencia, fue el espacio ocupado por Falcón durante la campaña.   
En este momento, la prioridad de Maduro es minimizar los efectos de las sanciones y la resistencia ilegal a su gobierno con el fin de lograr un grado de estabilidad para poder implementar reformas económicas difíciles. El día después de las elecciones, Trump, como fue esperado, emitió una orden ejecutiva que endureció las sanciones financieras; pero la fuente verdadera de alarma es la posibilidad de un embargo petrolero que actualmente está siendo estudiado por los Departamentos de Estado y Hacienda y también el Consejo de Seguridad Nacional. También, el día después de las elecciones se produjeron disturbios callejeros en varias ciudades, señalando la posibilidad de una repetición de la guarimba a nivel nacional en un momento en el cual Venezuela está más aislado internacionalmente que hace un año.   
La “Guerra Económica”
El asunto de las sanciones impuestas sobre Venezuela tiene el potencial de unificar una parte importante del país y al mismo tiempo aislar a la oposición radical, que apoya esas medidas. Pero para que eso ocurra, el gobierno tiene que mejorar su estrategia comunicacional documentando con evidencia bien fundamentada sobre las maneras en las cuales las sanciones están afectando al país. La retórica de los chavistas gobernantes tiende a enfatizar la “guerra económica” en abstracto, sin ir más allá de las consignas y sin presentar información concreta. 
Los líderes radicales tajantemente niegan que las sanciones tengan algo que ver con las dificultades económicas que aquejan al país, que ellos atribuyen exclusivamente a las políticas erradas de Maduro y la corrupción. Otros reconocen que las sanciones complican las cosas para el gobierno, pero alegan que han tenido un efecto “limitado”. Sin embargo, los errores gubernamentales, por una parte, y las perturbaciones económicas políticamente motivadas, por otra parte, no son mutuamente excluyentes. 
Hay mucha evidencia para refutar el alegato de la oposición radical que el impacto de la “guerra económica” es mínimo. En un artículo en Foreign Policy – durante muchos años dirigido por Moisés Naím – el principal asesor en política económica de Falcón, Francisco Rodríguez, planteó que las sanciones han infligido considerable daño. El señala que las compañías venezolanas como CITGO no han podido “solicitar crédito de comercio rutinario desde que las sanciones fueron impuestas” y que esas medidas corren el riesgo de “convertir la actual crisis humanitaria en una catástrofe humanitaria total”.
De igual o mayor importancia que las sanciones en sí es el mensaje que las órdenes ejecutivas emitidas por Obama y Trump transmiten al capital privado. Ninguna empresa norteamericana puede ignorar la gravedad de una declaración del presidente de su país que dice que un gobierno extranjero representa “una amenaza extraordinaria a la seguridad nacional” norteamericana (en las palabras de Obama), o que alega que está involucrado en el narcotráfico y el lavado de dólares. Estas declaraciones necesariamente han contribuido a la desinversión, que ha hecho tanto daño a la economía venezolana. 
Similarmente, el periódico El Miami Herald reveló que el presidente de la Asamblea Nacional y uno de los líderes de la oposición radical Julio Borges sistemáticamente ha contactado bancos a nivel mundial para realzar la efectividad de las sanciones impuestas por los EEUU. Borges advirtió que las instituciones financieras que “están haciendo negocio con una dictadura que viola los derechos humanos” se convierten en “cómplice” y que perjudicaría sus “imágenes”, lo que podría ser interpretado como una amenaza velada. 
 Uno de los efectos de la campaña de Washington contra Venezuela es el éxodo empresarial de los años recientes, que incluye a Clorox, Kimberly-Clark, Ford, Colgate Palmolive, General Mills, y General Motors. Aunque las compañías echan la culpa al gobierno de Maduro por su decisión, los motivos políticos y económicos en situaciones de esta naturaleza siempre son mixtos y difíciles, por no decir imposible, de desglosar. Los chavistas ven al éxodo como una expresión de la guerra económica. Cuando Kellogg’s cerró  sus operaciones en Venezuela pocos días antes de las elecciones del 20 de mayo, Maduro comentó que los ejecutivos de la empresa “piensan que la gente se va a asustar” y dejar de votar por él. 
El reconocimiento del problema de la ineficiencia, la corrupción y la gerencia deficiente no debe restar del reconocimiento que el hostigamiento de Washington ha tenido un gran impacto sobre la economía venezolana. La industria petrolera es un buen ejemplo. El Fiscal General Tarek William Saab ha documentado las prácticas no éticas en la industria, que ha resultado en la detención de numerosos ejecutivos de alto rango de la empresa estatal PDVSA. Pero la empresa también ha sido víctima de las sanciones, que afectan sus relaciones con las empresas de servicios petroleros, como Baker Hughes, Halliburton, Weatherford, y Schlumberger. Para evitar una relación directa con PDVSA, estas empresas norteamericanas ahora están trabajando a través de firmas intermediarias que usan los equipos y el personal de las empresas grandes, mientras que toman una tajada de las ganancias de Venezuela. Al mismo tiempo, Chevron, que es la única multinacional petrolera norteamericana importante en Venezuela, se ha abstenido de hacer inversiones significativas. 
Los Moderados versus la Oposición Radical
Después de las elecciones del 20 de mayo, varios portavoces de la oposición hicieron un llamado en favor de la unidad de los anti-chavistas. Laidy Gómez, la gobernadora adeca de Táchira, declaró: “Este no es el momento para culparse unos a los otros. Tenemos un enemigo en común.” Sin embargo, lograr la unidad no será fácil dada la profundidad de las diferencias que separan a los que apoyaron la abstención el 20 de mayo y a los que abogaron por la participación.  
Una mirada a las diferencias arroja luz no solamente a las grietas que separan a los “moderados” de los “radicales”, sino también las diferencias entre los venezolanos comunes sobre asuntos principales en la política venezolana. El contraste entre los dos campos también sugiere la factibilidad de una convergencia o entendimiento, aunque sea tácito, entre los chavistas y los “moderados” de la oposición, por lo menos sobre asuntos puntuales. 
La abstención versus la participación.  La oposición radical en Venezuela, el gobierno de Trump y una gran parte de los medios comerciales califican el proceso electoral venezolano como “fraudulento”, refiriéndose específicamente a la manipulación en el escrutinio de los  votos. La oposición ha usado continuamente el término “fraude” de forma ligera y poco precisa. Sin embargo, el sistema electoral venezolano se basa en procedimientos simultáneos manuales y electrónicos, como también en la auditoría de más de cincuenta por ciento de los centros de votación. Además, el 20 de mayo, como en las elecciones del pasado, los representantes de los candidatos de la oposición firmaron las actas que validan el proceso. Los portavoces de la candidatura de Falcón, conscientes que el uso del término “fraude” desalentaría la participación electoral, limitaron sus críticas más que todo al ventajismo, como, por ejemplo, en referencia a las transmisiones de los medios estatales de comunicación.    
Las objeciones de Falcón el 20 de mayo no fueron enfocadas en la manipulación en el conteo de votos, sino en la manipulación de los votantes. Falcón apuntó a la violación de normas electorales, incluyendo prácticas deshonestas en cuanto a la asistencia de los ancianos e incapacitados en el acto de votar y el hecho que algunos toldos chavistas conocidos como “puntos rojos” fueron ubicados dentro del perímetro de 200 metros. La única acusación que puede haber alterado significativamente los resultados fue la promesa a un bono a personas que votaron (aunque el secreto del voto nunca fue seriamente cuestionado). 
No a la impunidad. La oposición radical abiertamente apoya la purga del aparato estatal, supuestamente con el fin de erradicar la corrupción a todos los niveles. En contraste, la estrategia de Falcón fue claramente diseñada para ganar el apoyo de los chavistas descontentos. Falcón se comprometió con decretar la inamovilidad laboral en la administración pública al mismo tiempo que su partido indicó que si fuera elegido, consideraría la posibilidad de mantener a Vladimir Padrino López, como Ministro de Defensa. El anuncio de la posible permanencia de Padrino López fue posiblemente diseñado para calmar a los oficiales de la FFAA preocupados por las declaraciones de algunos radicales referentes a la “complicidad” de los militares y por la posibilidad de una limpieza de la institución.
La vía al poder. La decisión de la oposición radical de llevar a cabo un boicot electoral refleja su escepticismo acerca de la factibilidad de lograr sus objetivos, incluyendo las reformas neoliberales estructurales, por medios electorales. Al comienzo de 2016 cuando una campaña estaba en marcha para recoger firmas para un referéndum revocatorio, el partido Voluntad Popular, dirigido por Leopoldo López, abogó por una asamblea constituyente para redactar una nueva constitución. Los líderes de Voluntad Popular mantenían que la remoción del presidente y la elección del otro no asegurarían el logro de los cambios que el país necesitaba. 
Subyacente a la posición de línea dura sobre las elecciones fue la estrategia de deshacer los cambios implementados por Chávez y su reemplazo con el neoliberalismo estilo “shock treatment”. La posibilidad de resistencia popular tenaz a los cambios de esta naturaleza no podía ser descartada. Entre las políticas contempladas fue la privatización de los sectores básicos de la economía, una medida que fue prohibida por la constitución vigente. Este esquema, que implicaba un sacudón y enfrentamientos,  contrastaba con el discurso de Falcón que enfatizaba los cambios pacíficos y manifestaba preocupación de que el boicot electoral podría conducir a un desenlace violento. 
“La solidaridad internacional”. Falcón y los portavoces de su campaña expresaron  reservas, aunque tímidamente, acerca del énfasis de la MUD sobre el apoyo internacional para su causa y, con firmeza, se opusieron a la intervención militar extranjera en Venezuela, mientras que insinuaban que aquellos dirigentes que promovieron el boicot electoral dejaron abierta esa opción. En las palabras del líder histórico de COPEI Eduardo Fernández “La solidaridad de la comunidad internacional con Venezuela es algo que debemos apreciar, valorar y agradecer. Pero eso no puede hacernos olvidar que, al final, la solución de los problemas venezolanos nos corresponde a nosotros, los venezolanos”. Su hijo Pedro Pablo Fernández, un dirigente nacional copeyano, declaró después de las elecciones “Nosotros condenamos las restricciones contra la economía, contra Venezuela, porque las sufrimos todos los venezolanos”. 
Las Opciones Limitadas de Maduro
José Vicente Rangel, quien ha ocupado varias posiciones importantes en el gobierno de Chávez, ha sido, durante mucho tiempo, el defensor más insistente de la política de promover un diálogo con sectores de la oposición. (Esta estrategia no obvia medidas que inspiran y movilizan la base chavista y las clases populares en general.) Diferencias sobre este asunto se manifiestan en la rivalidad dentro del Partido Socialista Unido (PSUV) entre las dos corrientes principales encabezadas por Maduro y Diosdado Cabello, quien representa la línea dura en cuanto a las relaciones con la oposición. Algunos líderes de la tendencia de Cabello esperaban que él fuera candidato presidencial del partido, una proposición formulada públicamente por Francisco Ameliach, ex gobernador de Carabobo.  En los meses recientes, la corriente de Maduro ha sido fortalecida a costa de otras tendencias internas como resultado de la campaña anti-corrupción acometida por el Fiscal General Tarek William Saab. 
La llamada de Maduro a un diálogo nacional no es nueva. Por cierto, la propuesta data de los meses de las protestas de guarimba en 2014. Sin embargo, el surgimiento de un nuevo polo dentro del campo de la oposición como resultado de la candidatura de Falcón realza las posibilidades que la propuesta surta efecto. Enrique Ochoa Antich, quien apoyó la candidatura de Falcón, manifestó la voluntad de los participantes de su campaña de aceptar la propuesta de Maduro. La campaña de Falcón fue un acto de equilibrio al demostrar a la oposición que no fue blando en sus críticas al gobierno, y al mismo tiempo tratar de atraer a los chavistas descontentos. En este momento no está clara la posición que va a asumir Falcón hacia el chavismo y la oposición radical.

Las formulas neoliberales presentadas por Falcón, que incluyen las privatizaciones masivas sin ninguna garantía que no van a abrir las puertas al capital extranjero, acuerdos con el FMI y la dolarización de la economía, son incompatibles con la orientación del gobierno en política económica. Pero hay un asunto clave que puede conducir a un acercamiento entre los dos lados. Si Maduro trata de vincular la estructura de precios en el país a las condiciones del mercado con el fin de controlar la inflación desenfrenada, va a necesitar apoyo político y tal esfuerzo estaría perfectamente compatible con las posiciones de Falcón. 

Las opciones de Maduro son limitadas dado el aislamiento internacional de Venezuela, la gravedad de la situación económica y el grado de descontento en el país. Las soluciones a los problemas apremiantes requieren medidas audaces; Maduro tiene que aprovecharse de un momento en el cual la oposición está desmoralizada. En el pasado, Maduro no ha actuado contundentemente en momentos favorables, pero después de cinco años en la presidencia, quizás ha aprendido la importancia de actuar con premura tomando en cuenta los factores políticos. En los próximos días, será evidente si eso es el caso o no.  

Originalmente publicado en NACLA: Report on the Americas.
Versión en español en


“NACLA: Report on the Americas” – posted May 24, 2018
by Steve Ellner

The announcement by defeated presidential candidate Henri Falcón that he would not recognize the legitimacy of Venezuela’s May 20 elections was that day’s main news item. Nicolás Maduro’s reelection was generally expected, though his 68 percent of the vote was higher than what most polls predicted. Similarly, the 52 percent abstention among registered voters came as no surprise as the main parties of the opposition grouped in the Democratic Unity coalition (MUD) called for an electoral boycott. 

The refusal by Falcón and the other main presidential candidate, evangelist Javier Bertucci, to recognize the electoral results bodes poorly for Maduro’s new term as president. The consolidation of a moderate bloc within the opposition which recognizes the government’s legitimacy would have significantly cut into the strength of the more intransigent, or radical, parties on the right and provided Venezuelan politics with much needed stability. 
Maduro is in need of political capital and a degree of support from outside the Chavista movement in order to tackle such pressing problems as four-digit annual inflation, an appalling deterioration in the standard of living of both popular and middle sectors, and oil industry mismanagement resulting in a decline in production. Two urgent tasks loom as major challenges: the deepening of the efforts to combat corruption that began in the latter months of 2017; and bringing the nation’s officially set prices, including foreign exchange rates, within closer reach of production costs and market prices. Products and services such as gasoline, cooking gas and Caracas’ metro fare are virtually free while the rates charged by the state telephone company CANTV are not far behind. 
Given the nation’s intense polarization, bold and necessary government measures such as these, which tend to generate popular or bureaucratic resistance, will be exploited by the opposition. Contributing to the volatility is the hostile position assumed by Washington as well as Venezuela’s Latin American neighbors and the European Union. In August the Trump administration prohibited the purchase of Venezuelan state bonds and Venezuelan-owned CITGO’s remittance of profits and then banned transactions involving Venezuela’s new cryptocurrency, the Petro. 
In February of this year, the parties of the MUD pulled out of negotiations with the government conducted in Santo Domingo in spite of various concessions and optimism that an agreement could be reached. According to Maduro, the decision was a response to pressure from Washington. The Trump administration’s characterization of the Maduro government as a tyrannical dictatorship and a veritable narco-state undoubtedly also influenced the MUD to call for an electoral boycott, even after Acción Democrática (AD) secretary general Henry Ramos Allup announced his presidential candidacy in January. The only important parties in the opposition camp that ended up participating on May 20 were the social-Christian COPEI (one of the nation’s main historical parties) and the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), both of which backed Falcón.  
Venezuela’s Three-Way Split 
Falcón’s refusal to recognize the electoral results on May 20 was far from inevitable. Indeed, Falcón emerged as a major national leader on October 15, 2017 when he acknowledged his defeat in his bid for reelection as governor of Lara, unlike the position assumed on that day by other opposition gubernatorial candidates. A concurrent event appeared to signal a major break-off from the “disloyal,” radical opposition, which over the previous two decades had for the most part denied the legitimacy of the Hugo Chávez and Maduro governments. Four of the opposition’s five elected governors, all belonging to AD, disobeyed party orders by agreeing to take their oath in front of the Chavista-dominated National Constituent Assembly. 
Important differences and tensions between the radical opposition and Falcón arose during his presidential campaign. Chavista leader Diosdado Cabello told journalist and former leftist presidential candidate José Vicente Rangel: “The worst that has been said about Falcón has not been by us, but rather the opposition.” In an example of ugly name-calling, two renowned international journalists who sympathize with the Venezuelan radical opposition – Andrés Oppenheimer[1] and Jaime Bayly[2] of Peru – called Falcón a two-time “traitor”: first he broke with Chávez (after being elected governor of Lara) and then with former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles (after serving as his campaign manager). 
Behind the conflict among the anti-Chavistas, there is a glaring fact. Venezuela is divided in three, not two, camps: the radical opposition, the Chavistas, and a middle ground lacking in well-organized leadership. A sizeable percentage of the population opposed to Maduro firmly rejects the type of street protests carried out in 2014 and 2017 known as the guarimba that resulted in widespread disruption and violence. These Venezuelans are equally opposed to the U.S. economic sanctions imposed on the nation with the encouragement of the radical opposition. According to the polling firm Hinterlaces, 71 percent of the population is in disagreement with international sanctions to oust Maduro from office.[3]  
The above-mentioned “middle ground” opposes the disruptive “guarimba” protests and the economic sanctions, both associated with the radical opposition. This is the space that was occupied by Falcón throughout the campaign.  
At this moment, Maduro’s priority task is to minimize the effects of both of these threats. The day after the elections Trump, as expected, issued an executive order tightening the financial sanctions, but the real source of alarm is the possibility of an oil embargo currently under study by the State and Treasury Departments and the National Security Council. Also on May 21, street disturbances against the elections broke out in various cities, signaling the possibility of a reenactment of the guarimba at the national level at a time when Venezuela is even more isolated than a year ago. 
The “Economic War”
The issue of foreign-imposed sanctions has the potential to unify much of the nation while isolating the radical opposition, which supports the measures. But for this to happen, the government needs to improve its communication strategy by documenting the concrete ways that the sanctions are affecting the economy. Government rhetoric too often harps on the “economic war” against Venezuela in the abstract without going beyond slogans and pointing to the specifics. 

Radical opposition leaders flatly deny that the economic sanctions are at all related to Venezuela’s economic difficulties, which they attribute exclusively to Maduro’s mistaken policies and corruption. Others recognize that the sanctions complicate matters for the Venezuelan government but claim they have had “limited”[4] effect, a position which often serves to place the lion’s share of the blame for the nation’s economic problems on Maduro.  Government errors and politically motivated economic disruption, however, are not mutually exclusive. 
There is much evidence to debunk the radical opposition’s claim that the sanctions and the “economic war” in general have had a negligible effect. In an article in Foreign Policy, Falcón’s chief economic advisor Francisco Rodríguez argues that the sanctions have inflicted considerable harm on the Venezuelan economy. He points out that Venezuelan companies such as CITGO have been unable “to get U.S. financial institutions to issue routine trade credit since sanctions were imposed” and that the measures risk “turning the country’s current humanitarian crisis into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe.”[5]
Equally or more important than the sanctions per se is the message that the executive orders issued by Obama and Trump sends to private capital. No U.S. company can ignore the seriousness of a statement by its nation’s president that a foreign government represents an “extraordinary threat to national security” (in the words of Obama) or that it is involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. 
In a similar vein, Miami’s El Nuevo Herald revealed that National Assembly president and leader of the radical opposition Julio Borges systematically contacted banks throughout the world in order to enhance the effectiveness of the U.S. imposed sanctions. Borges warned financial institutions that “doing business with a dictatorship that violates human rights” would convert them into “accomplices” and would endanger their “image.”[6] Needless to say, Borges’ words amounted to a veiled threat.
One of the multiple effects of Washington’s campaign against the Venezuelan government is the corporate exodus of recent years, which includes Clorox, Kimberly-Clark, Ford, Colgate Palmolive, General Mills and General Motors. Although the companies blamed the Maduro administration for their decision, political and economic motives in situations like these are always mixed and difficult, if not impossible, to untangle.[7]  The Chavistas view the exodus as an expression of the “economic war.” When Kellogg’s shut down operations on the eve of the May 20 elections, Maduro remarked that company executives “believe people are going to get scared”[8] and thus refrain from voting for him. 
Acknowledging the problem of inefficiency, corruption and mismanagement should not detract from the recognition that Washington’s hostile actions have impacted the Venezuelan economy in major ways. The oil industry is a case in point. Unethical practices in the industry have been well documented by Attorney General Tarek William Saab, who was appointed in August 2017 and immediately denounced corrupt dealings resulting in numerous arrests of top executives of the state oil company PDVSA. But the company has also been a victim of the sanctions which have affected its relationship with major oil service providers such as Baker Hughes, Halliburton, and Schlumberger. In order to avoid a direct relationship with PDVSA, these U.S. companies now work through an intermediary firm which rent their equipment and hire their personnel while taking a fair cut of the profits. At the same time, Chevron, which is the only U.S. oil company with a major presence in Venezuela, has refrained from making significant investments over the recent past. 
The Moderate versus Radical Opposition
Following the May 20 elections, various opposition spokespeople called for unity among the anti-Chavistas. AD’s Laidy Gómez, governor of the state of Táchira, declared: “This is not the moment for us to lay blame on one another. We have a common enemy to confront.” Achieving such unity, however, will not be easy given the profundity of the differences separating those who called for an electoral boycott and those favoring participation. 
A look at the differences sheds light not only on the chasm between opposition “moderates” and radicals, but also the different ways ordinary Venezuelans view key political issues. The contrast between the two camps also suggests the feasibility of an understanding or convergence involving the Chavistas in power and the opposition moderates, at least on certain issues. 
Boycott versus participation. The radical opposition, the Trump administration and much of the corporate media label the Venezuelan electoral process “fraudulent,” which refers to manipulation in the counting of votes. Over the years, the opposition has used the term loosely. Nevertheless, the nation’s voting system is based on simultaneous manual and electronic procedures as well as auditing in over 50 percent of the voting centers. Furthermore, on May 20, as in past elections, opposition representatives at all voting centers signed documents validating the process. Falcón’s supporters, fearful that the use of the term “fraud” would discourage voting, limited their concerns to irregularities and the lack of a level playing field. Falcón’s objections on May 20 included the one-sided coverage of the state-run media, the claim that assisted voting conducted for the elderly lent itself to voter manipulation, and the location of Chavista stands known as “puntos rojos” within the 200-meter parameter of voting centers in violation of electoral norms. Falcón’s one accusation of a practice that appeared to have had a potential to influence significantly results was the effort to sway voters with the prospect that they would receive a bonus if they went to the polls (though the secrecy of the voting process was never seriously questioned). 
No to impunity. The opposition radicals openly call for the purging of the state apparatus in order to eradicate corruption at all levels. In contrast, Falcón’s strategy was clearly designed to win over discontent Chavistas. Falcón pledged he would decree a moratorium on layoffs in the public administration while his Avanzada Progresista party indicated that if elected its candidate would consider retaining Maduro’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, a Chavista stalwart, in his post.   
The road to power. The decision of the opposition radicals to boycott the elections reflects their skepticism regarding the feasibility of achieving their objectives, including neoliberal structural reforms, through electoral means. In early 2016 when a campaign was underway to collect signatures for a presidential recall, the radical Voluntad Popular party led by jailed Leopoldo López advocated the calling of a constitutional assembly. Its argument was that removing the president and electing a new one would not ensure the achievement of the thoroughgoing changes that the nation needed. 
Underlying the radicals’ hard-line position on elections was the strategy for the complete undoing of the changes implemented by Chávez and their replacement with neoliberalism, shock-treatment style. Among the changes was the privatization of strategic sectors of the economy which the current constitution of 1999 prohibits. The approach of the opposition radicals, which implied a major shakeup possibly by forceful means, contrasted with that of the Falcón candidacy, which emphasized peaceful change and associated the electoral boycott promoted by the opposition with the likelihood of violence. 
International “solidarity.” Falcón and his supporters questioned, albeit timidly, the radicals’ emphasis on foreign support for their cause and adamantly ruled out foreign military intervention, while insinuating that those boycotting the elections left open the option. In the words of Copei’s historical leader Eduardo Fernández, we welcome the “solidarity of the international community but… in the end the solution to the problems of Venezuela correspond to us.”[9] 
Maduro’s limited options. 
José Vicente Rangel, who occupied various top positions under Chávez including the vice-presidency, has long been the foremost advocate of promoting dialogue with sectors of the opposition. The issue manifests itself in internal rivalry within the governing United Socialist Party (PSUV) between the two main long-standing factions headed by Maduro and hard-liner Diosdado Cabello. At one point, the Cabello faction had hoped that he would be the party’s presidential candidate, a proposition publicly expressed by national leader Francisco Ameliach. But in recent months, Cabello’s faction as well as others outside of the Maduro circle have seen their influence somewhat diminished, partly because of the anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by Tarek William Saab. 
The national dialogue that Maduro called for on May 22 is nothing new. In fact the proposal dates back to the months of the guarimba protests in 2014. But the emergence of a new, more moderate reference point within the opposition camp as a result of the Falcón candidacy enhances the plan’s chances of success. Throughout the campaign Falcón performed a balancing act between demonstrating to the opposition that he was not soft on the government and trying to attract discontent Chavistas. The future of his movement is very much up in the air.
The neoliberal formulas put forward by Falcón including mass privatization, agreements with the IMF and the dollarization of the economy are not common denominators for the Chavista government to build on. But there is one key issue that can bring the two sides together. If Maduro attempts to link the nation’s price structure to market conditions in order to combat rampant inflation, he will need political support and such an effort would be perfectly compatible with the Falcón camp’s economic positions. 
Politics is all about knowing when to act, and this is especially applicable to leftists in power. Maduro’s options are limited given Venezuela’s isolation on the international stage, the direness of the economic situation and the level of discontent in the nation. But Maduro has just won a victory and thus needs to take advantage of the moment; solutions to the nation’s pressing problems require bold moves. In the past, Maduro has failed to take advantage of favorable moments, but after five years as president he may have learned the importance of timing. Whether this is the case will be evident in the coming days. 

Steve Ellner has been a NACLA contributor since the late 1980s. His most recent article, “Implications of Marxist State Theory and How They Play Out in Venezuela” appeared in the journal Historical Materialism. He is the editor of the Latin American Perspectives issue “Latin America’s Progressive Governments: Separating Socio-Economic Breakthroughs and Shortcomings,” slated for January 2019.