I suspect that this piece will make no one happy.
Supporters of the government will see the headline as a call from Washington to curtail the Bolivarian movement initiated by Hugo Chávez.
The hardline opposition—those that want the government of Nicolás Maduro to fall, to fall now and to fall like a ton of bricks—will be disillusioned with the argument that the answers for Venezuela will not be found in the rubble of toppled governments.
And from both sides, there will likely be recriminations that “you don’t know what is actually going on in Venezuela.”
There is truth to this last point. Analyzing Venezuela from afar is a fool’s errand—it is the most inscrutable country on the continent.
Even analysts on the ground may not really understand the full picture of what is going on in the country.
Is the President a strongman authoritarian, as some argue? Or is there an emerging power vacuum in Caracas as Nicolás Maduro loses his grip—both on power and reality?
Do the protests represent mass displeasure with the Maduro government, or have they been isolated to more upscale neighborhoods?
Is Havana actually the sinister puppet-master that some anti-government figures allege, pulling the strings of the Maduro presidency? Or is the small Caribbean island scrambling to maintain privileged access to its one remaining benefactor?
Short of Diosdado Cabello, I am not sure anyone really knows what is going on in Venezuela.
Unequivocally, the protesters have ample reason to be angry.
The IMF has Venezuelan inflation topping out at 40 percent. And that may be a conservative figure—the Financial Times has it at 57 percent; The Economist at 56.
The Venezuelan Bolivar has continued to unravel—though determining the currency’s exact value remains elusive (for a quick run-down of bolivar-dollar exchange options, see this from The Economist).
Official devaluations attract headlines, but few Venezuelans have access to the announced exchange rates anyway.
In February 2014, black market exchange rates had the bolivar at roughly 70 to the dollar—a far cry from announced figures, be they the 6.3 “super insider rate”, or the 11.3 Sicad 1 rate. (FT journalist John Paul Rathbone has since reported that the recently announced Sicad 2 exchange –“the government’s first piece of pragmatic economic policy making” since Maduro became president—has at least opened the door to freer-market currency exchange at 51 bolivars to the dollar.)
In short, if you are a normal Venezuelan, your money is worth less by the day.
And if you want to buy something with your bolivares, good luck: The Venezuelan central bank’s own calculations found that “more than one in four of the goods it tracks was missing from shelves.” And if you want to change it to dollars, your exchange rate is not going to be pretty.
Perhaps most inexcusable of all, however, is the violence.
It is one thing if extremely poor countries such as Honduras or Nicaragua cannot police themselves. But there is simply no excuse for Venezuela being unable to police Caracas.
According to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, “Venezuela’s 2013 homicide rate hit 79 per 100,000 inhabitants. It was 73 per 100,000 people in 2012. In 1998, the rate was 19.” If these numbers are accurate (and this is debated) it would make Venezuela one of the most homicidal countries on the planet.
And this does not even begin to address the kidnappings, home invasions, and armed robberies that occur daily in Venezuela—in fact, the current protests actually began following an incident of sexual violence on a college campus.
As I see it, Hugo Chávez’s great failure was his inability to control the violence. It is tough to lead the working class into the 21st Century if they can get shot just stepping out on the street.
So the protesters have many legitimate reasons to be upset. These reasons exist beyond any traditional right vs. left debate—the homicide rate does not have a political affiliation.
But beat Maduro at the ballot box…not on the streets
The problem arises when we consider the demands of the protesters. Some claim simply to be protesting chronic and profound government mismanagement. Fair enough.
But any unnatural removal of the Maduro government would be unlikely to play out well for Venezuela.
If the protesters do succeed in ousting the Maduro government, the opposition will not simply stroll into the Miraflores Palace and begin to govern.
If anything, the most likely outcome would be a military intervention, and the military is believed to be just as—if not more—hardline Chávista then the current government.
The point here is that if ish hits the fan, the Chavistas would remove Maduro before the opposition could.
If a “party coup” removes Maduro from power he may be replaced by a military figure, or perhaps someone from the National Assembly or Supreme Court—Chavistas all.
Simply put, the opposition is still too far from power to have any rapid, undemocratic regime change work out in their favor.
More importantly, however, the Nicolás Maduro government is a democratically elected government.
Maduro may not be very good at being president; that does not mean his election was illegitimate.
Sure, the April 14 election that brought Maduro to power had irregularities—as all elections in the world do.
Sure, the Chavista electoral machine took full advantage of the power of the incumbency—as all incumbents in the world do.
The truth is a whole lot of people voted for Maduro, and the opposition’s claims of fraud have never been fully convincing.
The bottom line—and the number one reason Venezuela’s opposition may not be ready for prime time—is that they refuse to accept that Chavista support is more than a mirage.
They refuse to accept that the election was not a complete fraud. They refuse to accept that Maduro has a modicum of popular support.
In short, they refuse to accept that the voice of Venezuela’s poor matters.
All the Pedro Carmonas and the Leopolodo Lopezes of the world will struggle to win elections until they respect the fact that the Chávista movement offered Venezuela’s poor something they didn’t have before.
This is not to say that Enrique Capriles or Leopoldo Lopez cannot win a national election—I argued the day Chávez died that the opposition has an inside track on the 2018 presidential elections.
Inflation, shortages, depreciations—these hurt the Venezuelan poor as much as anyone. Given that Maduro is no Chávez, a strong opposition leader will be able to make headway into PSUV strongholds.
But if the opposition continues to act as if Maduro is an illegitimate leader—a strongman acting independently of any popular support—it will alienate the millions of Venezuelans for whom Chávez remains a hero.
This will only deepen the ideological divides in Venezuela, and will make it harder for the opposition to ever win popular support.
So by all means, continue the protests.
Demand better governance, and sounder economic policy (or at least economic sanity). Make sure the stories of shortages make international news.
But when it comes to Nicolás Maduro, don’t try to beat him in the streets.
There are National Assembly elections in 2015, and the opposition could rally a recall vote as early as 2016.
Beat him at the ballot box…
…if you can.
See more from Se Mancha on Venezuela HERE