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Chavismo fights for survival
– by Benjamin Reichenbach
The late Hugo Chávez still shapes his followers’ ideals.
Over the past few months, Venezuela has lost about one third of its government revenues due to the fall in oil prices. The country depends on that resource, and that dependence increased under the presidency of Chávez from 1999 to 2013. Price controls, expropriations and limits on profits made the production of goods unviable. Venezuela has been importing ever more goods.
The government’s response to lower oil prices was increasing its debt. The inflation rate rose to 68.5 % in 2014 – the highest in the world. Food shortages became worse than previously known because the government lacks foreign exchange reserves. Venezuela must pay back about $ 10 billion of national debt in the second half of 2015. A default in 2016/17 looks ever more likely unless the budget policy changes fundamentally.
The number of critical voices is increasing even within the government alliance. Political leaders and ordinary party members are fighting over Chávez’ legacy. Many people adore the charismatic former president to a quasi-religious extent. He inspired hope for better life in people who were always marginalised. To them, Chavismo means being part of the unique historical process of a perceived revolution. Even after his death, Chávez shapes his followers’ ideas.
Socialism as an economic system is no characteristic principle of this movement, but consumerism is an important part of the Venezuelan lifestyle. This mentality has been driven by the influx of petrodollars and inflation. The poor in Venezuela do not fight capital, they demand their share.
Parliamentary elections are set for the end of 2015. Maduro is less and less successful in claiming Chávez’ legacy in a credible way. His support base is shrinking, but this does not automatically translate into growing support for the fragmented opposition. The only group that can count on a majority at the moment is that of the “Ninis” (ni gobierno, ni oposición) who neither support the government nor the opposition. In view of the crisis, many citizens are expected to abstain from voting, which could hurt both government and opposition.
The governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will have to open up to its base and mobilise broad grass-roots support. The opposition coalition is called United Democratic Panel (MUD), and its chances of winning are poor. They are further reduced by the gerrymandering of constituencies. Even a narrow majority of the public vote would not necessarily lead to a majority of seats in parliament. The government will surely do whatever it takes to prevent a clear victory of the opposition.
Regardless of the election result, President Maduro will have to deal with the worsening economy. All economic data suggest that the current situation is no longer maintainable. However, Maduro does not show any willingness to take the political risk of structural reforms.
Chavismo bears a political potential that must not be underestimated – no matter how the current government performs. It will not disappear the way some people in the opposition expect. Economic reforms are inevitable in Venezuela. It will likely depend on the grass-roots Chavistas, which political constellation will implement them and what the country’s future economic orientation will be.
Benjamin Reichenbach is country director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Venezuela.
The Friedrich Ebert foundation in Venezuela (in German only):