I would like to thank the various experts on Venezuela who generously shared their time and knowledge. Below is an email interview with NYU professor Alejandro Velasco. (Discussions with senior Latin Americanists at the State Department are not published by their request.) Their information and opinions contributed greatly to the direction of the policy recommendation.
Alejandro Velasco is a historian of modern Latin America whose research and teaching interests are in the areas of social movements, urban culture, and democratization. His manuscript, “‘A Weapon as Powerful as the Vote': Urban Protest and Electoral Politics in Modern Venezuela,” couples archival and ethnographic research to examine how residents of Venezuela’s largest public housing community pursued full citizenship during the heyday of Latin America’s once-model democracy. Before joining the Gallatin faculty, Professor Velasco taught at Hampshire College, where he was a Five College Fellow, and at Duke University. (Biography and photo from New York University.) Many thanks to Duke professor John French for connecting me with Prof. Velasco, his former doctoral student.
Interview with Prof. Alejandro Velasco (via email April 26, 2012)
Will the October 7 elections in Venezuela be free and fair? Would Chavistas alter results if it seemed they were losing, as the PRI did in Mexico in 1988? What should the U.S. do if that were to happen?
I suppose it depends on what you mean by free and fair elections. It seems to me you want to distinguish between an electoral process and an electoral event. There has been no confirmed instance of widespread, coordinated fraud in any electoral process in Venezuela in the last 14 years; despite allegations by some sectors about statistical inconsistencies in the 2004 referendum, these allegations remain unproven and unaccepted by the mainstream of observers and analysts. In fact since then, the opposition has more and more come to accept the legitimacy of the National Electoral Council (CNE) as the sole authority governing electoral processes in Venezuela, beginning in the 2006 elections where the mainstream opposition distanced itself from the claims of fraud by some radical sectors, in the 2007 constitutional reform vote which Chavez lost, in the 2010 congressional elections in which the opposition won enough seats to block a chavista supermajority, and, more recently, in the opposition’s willingness to accept the CNE as the arbiter of its primary elections process. So the elections themselves will be free and fair, as they have been since 1998. What is undoubtedly true, however, is that the process leading up to the actual electoral event is heavily skewed in favor of the government. The government controls and freely dispenses state resources in order to mobilize electoral support, resources the opposition does not have access to and cannot realistically counter in any fair, even way. This is a pretty standard electoral ploy – naked populism – but in a context where there is little governmental transparency, huge corruption, and so much money circulates, it means that the government can and does use state coffers as its campaign coffers, which is profoundly unfair for the opposition (it’s basically incumbency protection on steroids). Likewise, pressures on private media to report in ways that respond to some semblance of objectivity (which are not followed by government media), and lack of access to government officials by private media, means that the communications landscape is, again, tilted in favor of the government. And, there is a proven record of targeting, intimidating, and isolating (through a highly politicized judicial system) key opposition political leaders by the government. So the elections themselves will be legitimate. The question is whether the preceding electoral process will be free and fair. It will certainly be free. There is no prior censorship in Venezuela, although laws are in place that give the government tremendous threat-power to regulate media messages (which in turn tend to generate self-censorship). On the other hand, in fact, acerbic political talk is the norm in Venezuela, not really debate because opposition and government media figures don’t engage but rather talk past one another in the most incendiary terms allowed by the law. But it will unfairly tilt to the government because of its blatant deployment of state resources to mobilize support and influence over the media landscape. As for your question of whether Chavistas would alter results, what would be their incentive? To stay in power would not be enough. A proven manipulation of votes would severely erode any kind of legitimacy on which chavismo has staked much of its international standing vis-a-vis the rest of Latin America. It would almost certainly lose the support of Brazil, it would make it much harder for friendly nations like Argentina to continue open support, and would put ALBA nations like Bolivia and Ecuador in a very difficult position vis-a-vis their own upcoming electoral processes. What should the US do in the event of proven vote fraud? The US is fairly isolated politically in Latin America, as the recent OAS summit in Cartagena laid bare. There are historic reasons for this, but more immediately in terms of credibility around democracy promotion it responds to the US’s atrocious handling of the Honduras coup in 2009, when it supported the ouster of Manuel Zelaya and his exile by the military. And in fact, again on the Cartagena summit, the US’s isolation also means a very real threat to the credibility of the OAS as a viable regional body, which would make it difficult for the US to try to mobilize diplomatic support in the OAS for a resolution condemning the break of democratic order in Venezuela. On the other hand, if the fraud were clear, then it would be a golden opportunity for the OAS (and by extension the US) to reclaim some of its lost standing by condemning Venezuela. Still, the US has very little credibility to speak of. What it should do is let Brazil take the lead in denouncing a clearly fraudulent election, through very concerted, behind the scenes diplomatic pressure. Trying to go alone would only further isolate the US. That said, there are domestic and geopolitical factors at play to gauge a US response. Certainly, this would be happening a month before the November elections in the US. Florida will very much be in play, and gas prices will likely also be at the forefront of people’s minds. No doubt fraud in Venezuela would embolden both Obama and Romney, the former from a policy perspective, the latter from a rhetorical perspective, to train the (metaphorical, I hope anyway) guns on Venezuela vis-a-vis the issue of oil, stability, and democracy. It might mean unilateral sanctions, it might mean UN resolutions, almost certainly it will mean a lot of incendiary rhetoric. In fact, as it is, I’m not sure that even an outright victory by Chavez wouldn’t also generate heated bluster from the US in the context of its own elections.
Given the remarks of Adán Chávez and Henry Rangel Silva, it seems some Chavistas might be loath to hand over power to the opposition if they won in October. What should the U.S. do if Chavistas do not cede power after a clear electoral defeat?
Talk is cheap. When push comes to shove, neither Adan nor Silva have any real constituency to mobilize independent of Chavez. Sure, Silva is the head of the military, but again, a de facto military government will – I believe – garner the immediate condemnation of Brazil, and then they would have very little to stand on domestically at a popular level, though of course, some hard core radicals will support them. But this scenario depends on whether Chavez is still alive and a viable candidate in October. If he is, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which he doesn’t win outright, which would make this question moot. If he isn’t, then whether chavistas win in October is the least of their concerns (more below). Your last question here is the same as your question above.
What should the U.S. do if Capriles were to win and take power? Should the relationship (economic and political) be transformed overnight? Would Capriles have to confront a Chavista-controlled legislature and Chavista governors?
A lot will depend on domestic politics in the US, as I noted above. Obama may want to cozy up to Capriles in order to curry the favor of the expat community and their supporters in Florida, which will be a key battleground state. I personally don’t see these sectors as voting for Obama anyway, but an aggressive move to court Capriles (for instance by inviting him to the White House – although it’s not clear to me Capriles would accept, or at least he should tread carefully in doing so – by lifting existing sanctions, by announcing all manner of trade deals and programs, etc) might have some effect in securing votes that might otherwise go to Romney and his own very radical stance vis-a-vis the left in Latin America. Your question about Capriles having to confront a chavista controlled legislature is a little strange. Are you suggesting that he abolish congress? If not, then yes, of course, there would be chavista governors and chavista members of congress that he would have to deal with, because of staggered elections. I guess I’m not sure what you’re asking. Maybe you’re asking if a Capriles win would bring about a lot of political realignments among those identified with Chavismo. Is that your question?
What role does Chávez’s cancer play in this campaign? What would happen if he could not run himself?
This is the only real question. There is fairly strong consensus, among chavistas, anti-chavistas, ni-ni’s and others I speak with in Venezuela, and even among analysts here in the US, that Chavez will win outright if he is still a viable (health-wise) candidate come October. My own sense is a little different. Usually incumbents win by mobilizing independents. And independents make their decision based on opportunity costs. The opportunity costs of voting for an opponent are very high. It’s basically taking a risk on someone you don’t know that what they will offer once elected will be better than what the current person offers. As much as many in Venezuela (and the US) like to think that Venezuelans are much, much worse under Chavez than before, or put another way, that they could do a lot better with someone who is more liberal (in the classical sense of the word), in fact most Venezuelans have benefited enormously from Chavez policies around health, education, employment, food, etc (there are food shortages in certain areas no doubt, but compared to what was available to vast sectors of very impoverished Venezuelans before, the shortages actually mark an improvement in terms of food access). For these transactional voters (as opposed to ideological or partisan voters), the choice is very much between keeping what I have and taking a chance on someone/something I don’t know, which in the case of a post-Chavez Venezuela, will almost certainly mean some form of instability. In other words, it’s a choice between stability and instability. In that context, again, Chavez wins, but only if he’s viable. If people believe that he may die, then that throws the opportunity-cost equation out of balance. Suddenly, if it’s not clear to me that Chavez will remain alive, and if his death will bring about uncertainty and instability that might result in some of his lieutenants whom I do not trust or respect and wouldn’t vote for, then both a vote for Chavez and a vote for the opposition implies the same or similar opportunity costs. This is in part why the opposition, and Capriles in particular, has moved so aggressively to embrace most of the social programs (misiones) of the Chavez government by, for instance, promising that should he become president he would give the programs legal standing (right now they are basically just ad hoc policies, they are not enshrined in law. He’s saying, basically, he would go further than Chavez in cementing the missions as a pillar of Venezuelan social and political life). He’s doing this to accentuate a sense of continuity in order to assuage concerns about instability that might follow a Capriles victory. Of course, there’s a certain irony here, as this runs very much counter to a narrative that has, for many years among the opposition, cast anything that Chavez has done not just in a negative light but in the worst possible terms. So it’s a major gamble for Capriles, certainly, to play the continuity-plus card against the backdrop of a Chavez demonization narrative, but it’s his only play given the uncertainty that characterizes this electoral cycle because of Chavez’s health problems. It’s also a smart policy play by Capriles, insofar as in saying – essentially – that we can make the missions run better, more efficiently, more effectively, he is also mounting a critique on the bureaucratic middle layers of the chavista government. Most polls show that Chavez is personally very popular, but no one in his mileu is popular, in part because of corruption in the bureaucracy which people pin not on Chavez (the discourse is “Chavez is truly committed to the people, but he can’t do everything himself, so he places responsibility on these other people who are terrible administrators and only sow corruption for their own ends.” This also explains why, in polling, Chavez wins in a head to head match up against Capriles, but Capriles wins in head to head match ups with anyone in Chavez’s inner circle. So again, if Chavez is viable in October, he will likely win, but he needs to project vitality to ensure a sense of continuity and thereby heighten the transactional risks of going with Capriles. If he dies, or looks sickly, or has to pull out, all bets are off.
What do you think will happen this fall in Venezuela?
I’m an historian so making predictions about the future is not something that comes naturally or comfortably. However, here are some plausible scenarios, to my mind.
Scenario 1: Chavez recovers and runs as a healthy, viable candidate. He wins outright with a safe margin, and with a new mandate proceeds to consolidate even further the statist socialism, regional integration, and anti-neoliberalism that has come to characterize his program. The opposition accepts defeat, but continues to make inroads at the local, state, and congressional level by pointing out the execution failures of Chavez’s social programs as well as the rampant insecurity and corruption.
Scenario 2: Chavez dies or otherwise becomes incapacitated after August. There will be significant infighting among his inner circle (including the military) to see who ends up as the chavista candidate. Because elections are relatively soon, the strategy is one of keeping the dream of the revolution and the comandante alive, basically, play up sympathy for votes. The chavista candidate wins, but the internal pressures and schisms within chavismo, previously kept at bay by Chavez (or, more accurately, well engineered by Chavez to prevent internal challengers) soon surface and lead to splinter groups and parties, perhaps even political violence among high level chavistas, none of whom can sustain cohesion against a rising opposition and leads instead to jockeying for alliances in a negotiated transition towards a unity government.
Scenario 3: Chavez dies sometime before August, without having made plans to appoint a successor who, in any case, wouldn’t have much popular support anyway. Because elections are more than two months away, it’s too long to effectively run a sympathy play around holding aloft the “dream” of Chavez. With no viable alternatives to Chavez among his party – despite running a nominal chavista candidate – there will be A LOT of jockeying behind the scenes among chavistas and the opposition, the former guaranteeing support and stability in exchange for some measure of immunity following a Capriles victory. Capriles wins outright. Some hard core chavistas will reject his victory, but by and large most chavistas will get behind a power-sharing transitional plan that will have been worked out to some extent before the elections, behind closed doors. There will be a period of social unrest, no doubt. Capriles and his allies (in Venezuela and abroad) would do well to temper any triumphalism or any claims about a “return to democracy,” which would only raise the specter of a much more significant break than Capriles either wants or certainly campaigned on, in turn generating great anxiety and perhaps turmoil. To the extent that Capriles can temper radical voices in the opposition, publicly if not privately, he will prove a transformational leader. The wild card in all of this is the military. The military has huge political but mainly financial interests (some of them illicit) bound up in the chavista project. They know they would not have credibility to mount a coup, but they still could cause a lot of trouble for a Capriles presidency, especially in a transitional period. As such, Capriles will have to make many guarantees of immunity (even if not explicitly, perhaps just tacitly by getting people to retire or move to embassies abroad). But his main challenge will not be the remnants of chavismo, but rather the radicals in the opposition. If he is unable to control them, then a fourth scenario, one of open conflict and ingovernability, would likely result. But my own sense is that few in Venezuela, certainly not enough to generate any sustained support, would pursue such a path. In this regard, though, I’m somewhat of an outlier. Many of my colleagues and friends, in and outside Venezuela, find a scenario of confrontation much more plausible than I do.