Oleg Yasinsky presents his views on the current state of Venezuela and how facts and myths are contorted by the right wing and mass media.
In recent days, the residents of Venezuela’s wealthiest neighborhoods received pamphlets containing the following message:
“We, the active youth of Venezuela, consider it our duty to tell you the following:
“Thanks to the vigilance of our activists, we have succeeded in exposing a network of informers working for the Regime, which is currently trying to steal the results of the election from its rightful victor, Henrique Capriles.
“Every step of the way, we are being watched by drivers, cleaners, mechanics, concierges, and various others servants of Cuban communism.
“We ask you to watch them closely when they enter and exit your house, to cease any conversation in their presence, to keep them away from your children and, if possible, to not even let them into your homes.
“Our corrupt and unlawful government will collapse in the near future.
“The tyrant and despot Hugo Chavez died and took the strength of his trained seals with him to the grave. They lost the elections but are trying to hold on to power!
“Please, be very careful with this pamphlet.
“Freedom to Venezuela! Down with Cuban communism in our lands! We fight to win!
“Everyone to the streets!
“After the death of the tyrant, we will put an end to his worms!”
At night, unidentified individuals fire gunshots at groups of Chavez supporters from passing vehicles and then disappear. During one night alone, the victim count amounted to 8 fatalities and 60 injuries. Hordes of fascist fighters have set fire to dozens of private homes and government offices, many with people still inside. In the country’s federal districts, which remain under the control of the opposition, the municipal police have become inactive and the only defensive unit standing in the way of the rioters is the army. The majority of the world’s leading news agencies speak about the contested results of the presidential election and the split in Venezuelan society. But to many others, the election is merely a harbinger of larger and more tragic events to come.
What’s happening in Venezuela today?
In October 2012, Venezuela had yet another presidential election that was yet again won by Hugo Chavez, with 55 percent of the vote. The opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, won approximately 44 percent of the vote. That election campaign turned out to be the final one for Chavez – his cancer was terminal—and the last months of his life were solely the result of the tireless efforts of Cuban medicine and the president’s own willpower, which kept him fighting and hoping for a miracle until the very end. In December of last year, at his final public appearance before his operation in Cuba, Chavez asked the following of Venezuelans—that in case he did not return, they appoint Nicolas Maduro, vice-president and foreign minister of Venezuela, as his political successor and elect him as the head of government.
Over the last 20 years, Maduro became one of Chavez’s closest friends and allies after launching his political career as director of the Caracas metro driver’s trade union. A founding member of the first pro-Chavez organization, the Movement of the Fifth Republic (MVR), Maduro went on to play an important role in Chavez’s release from prison and in his first presidential campaign in 1998. Despite his lack of a higher education, Maduro was repeatedly elected to the post of MVR representative and served as speaker of the Venezuelan parliament. And despite not knowing English, Maduro became one of his country’s finest foreign ministers, a position which seemed to benefit from his experience in seeking consensus as a union negotiator. We also know that he follows the teachings of the Hindu spiritual leader Sai-Baba and considers the practice of nonviolence to be the highest manifestation of human reason. The election of Nicolas Maduro, a former driver, to the presidential post is undoubtedly a message to anyone who believes a layman should not be entrusted with running a government.
The other leading character in this Venezuelan drama, Henrique Capriles, is the product of aristocratic upbringing in a family of Jewish-Polish-Russian origin. A lawyer by training, Capriles joined other members of the conservative Catholic youth to create the radical right-wing Justice First (Primero Justicia) party in 2000, the first year of Chavez’s rule. That same year, he was elected mayor of the Baruta Municipality of Caracas and in 2008 he became governor of the state of Miranda. Capriles proved successful in both roles and his popularity steadily rose. In February 2012, he was selected as the single presidential candidate to represent the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable, known in Spanish abbreviation simply and tellingly as “MUD.”
But Capriles wasn’t known solely for his leadership in a wealthy district. When, exactly 11 years ago, there was an attempted presidential putsch against Chavez, Capriles immediately recognized the self-appointed “president” of the putschists, Pedro Carmona, who ended up fleeing from the rioting public within hours of his inauguration. In the following days, Capriles personally led throngs of rioters to storm the Cuban embassy in Caracas. The assault against the embassy was sparked by rumors that it was sheltering supporters of the recently toppled government. When the Cuban ambassador refused to grant the rioters an “inspection” of the premises, they responded by cutting off the building’s water, gas and electricity, and destroying the cars parked in the building’s vicinity.
But during the last two presidential campaigns, Capriles began to undergo a surprising transformation. In his predictable and perfectly logical pre-election promises to not give a single drop of oil to Cuba if he were elected president, Capriles first timidly, and then with increasing boldness began to refer to himself as a “center-leftist” and to claim he supported “President Lula’s ‘Brazilian model’” (this after the fact that Lula himself had called on Venezuelans to support Chavez just six months earlier, and just a week earlier, Maduro).
After 14 years of Chavez rule, one of the changes that have taken place in Venezuelan society is that it has become impossible for right-wingers to come to power without wearing the mask of the left. If just a year ago Capriles made jabs at Chavez’s social “missions”—state-run programs that provided education, health care, and socio-cultural protection for the more vulnerable members of the population—then now, in the run-up to the most recent presidential campaign, he pledged to preserve these missions and even “increase their effectiveness.” This change in tactics on the side of the right has become particularly apparent after the death of Chavez. Since Chavez became and has remained an unbeatable opponent for the left, the opposition’s bet today is to contrast Maduro with Chavez under the perpetually repeated slogan, “Maduro is no Chavez.” The campaign headquarters of the anti-Bolivarian Capriles took on the name of Simon Bolivar, while the opposition candidate himself—who spent the last 14 years of his life fighting Chavez—suddenly began to use Chavez’s phrases, allowed (or recommended) his campaign activities in poor neighborhoods to be accompanied by the songs of the Venezuelan Communist bard, Ali Primera, and even admitted that he “misses” the deceased leader.
At the same time, Capriles promised that if he were elected president, he would raise the minimum wage (which is already the highest in Latin America) by 40% and “forgive the debt” of millions of Venezuelans who received discounted homebuilding credit from the Chavez government. Observers say these tactics are part of the “secret” method that helped the opposition candidate garner an unexpected 49% of the vote in the last election.
On March 5, 2013, the day Chavez died, Venezuela expelled U.S. Embassy Air Force attaché, Col. David Delmonaco and assistant air attaché, Maj. Devlin Kostal and declared them persona non grata. The two diplomats had been meeting with Venezuelan officers and offering them money in return for information and cooperation in efforts to destabilize the ruling government. A few days before the election, the military intelligence unit of the Venezuelan National Armed Forces (formally known as the National Armed Forces of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela) discovered and detained a group of foreigners who were armed to the teeth and lead by Salvadoran paid mercenaries — former army officers who distinguished themselves during the war against leftist partisans in the 1980s. Their activities were coordinated by the CIA representative in Caracas, Sharon Vanderbilt, an employee of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Regional Affairs.
That same day, on March 5, Wikileaks published documents that confirmed what was already widely known: that during his diplomatic service in Caracas from 2004 to 2007, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield gave $15 million from the Agency of International Development to more than 300 Venezuelan non-governmental organizations to support their participation in efforts to destabilize the Chavez government. The overarching plan had five main goals: to strengthen democratic institutions in Venezuela, penetrate the political inner circles of Chavism, create the conditions for the breakup of the Chavist leadership, protect key U.S. business interests and promote the international isolation of Chavez. The funds were partly used to finance meetings and conferences in Venezuela and neighboring countries with the participation of leading right-wing political leaders and intellectuals, including Mario Vargas Llosa,Jose Maria Aznar,Carlos Alberto Montaner and many others.
On the eve of the April 14 presidential election, a wide array of public-opinion services—both pro-government and pro-opposition—agreed in their prediction of a sure victory for Nicolas Maduro. The only variation was in the numbers: the 20 percent difference in votes that was initially predicted shrank to 8-10 percent in the final days before the vote.
Election day itself was exceptionally peaceful and calm. The only notable disturbances that day were the hackings of Nicolas Maduro’s and the National Electoral Council’s Twitter accounts — which few people found surprising in the wake of much more significant acts of sabotage carried out by the opposition. According to the country’s election laws, the electoral council can only release the preliminary election results when the vote count appears to be decisive. The polls began closing after 6 p.m. Caracas time. After accounting for the expected difference in votes between the leading candidates, the winner would have been declared after another three hours, at approximately 9 p.m. But that didn’t happen. At 10:46 p.m., after nearly two hours of anxious anticipation throughout the country, the electoral officials had counted up 99.12 percent of the votes and declared a victory for Maduro, with a 1.5 percent lead over Capriles. This gap increased slightly after the rest of the votes were counted (the final result was 50.75 percent for Maduro and 48.98 percent for Capriles), with a total voter turnout of 79 percent (unlike many other countries in the region, in Venezuela voting is voluntary, and citizens who live abroad can take part in the vote). As a reference, in the Oct. 7, 2012 presidential election, Chavez won 55.07 percent of the vote while Capriles won 44.31percent; the ruling party had lost more than 600,000 votes in the course of just six months.
Immediately after the release of the initial election results, Capriles rejected Maduro’s victory, claiming the election results had been falsified by the government, and demanded a recount of all the votes. At the same time, he called on all of his supporters to take to the streets and force the country’s election officials to review the results. His message was taken up by local TV and radio stations, 80 percent of which have remained under opposition control despite 14 years of “Chavez dictatorship.” Social media exploded with calls to teach the “communist scum” a lesson. And the response of the “democratic opposition,” which was waiting for the signal to act, was not long in coming.
The likelihood that the election results were falsified—a topic that is now widely discussed by the media, but not by a single one of the experts and international observers who were actually present at the polls—is slim to none. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who had served as an election observer in Venezuela on several occasions, recently called the country’s electoral system “the best in the world,” saying its technology is reliable, transparent and fully accountable to observers at any given moment, thereby excluding any possibility of falsification. His opinion is shared by practically every expert who is familiar with the Venezuelan system.
Henrique Capriles, accusing the authorities, said their “armed representatives, threatening with weapons, kicked out 2,800 observers from across 286 election stations.” Strangely, not one of the 3,000 international and 3,800 Venezuelan observers who were present at the polls saw this happening.
The Venezuelan election process has 18 active systems of control that reinforce one another and are operated by technical experts from every political party represented in the election. The voting takes place completely electronically:
After verifying his identity by means of fingerprint recognition, the voter casts a ballot for one of the candidates with the press of a button, and receives an electronic certificate verifying that the vote went through. The computer at every polling station produces eight copies of a final report that includes a list of everyone who voted and the total number of votes each candidate received. These copies are then signed by the representatives of each candidate, as well as by independent observers, and are electronically added to a central database. At every step, the process remains under the full control of the technical representatives of every political group taking part in the election.
In the 18 elections that have taken place during the last 14 years of Chavez’s rule, the governing party has lost only one—a referendum on changes to the constitution in Dec. 2007—and it immediately conceded to the results.
The first night after the election, upon the request of the opposition, the National Electoral Council conducted a review of 21,500 randomly sampled polling stations, which amounted to 54 percent of all the polling stations in the country. Afterwards, it conducted an additional random sampling among one percent of polling stations that had not been included in the earlier test, without finding a single violation. To check the other 45 percent of polling stations, Venezuelan law requires that the opposition file an official request, but none was ever submitted.
Instead, the next morning, opposition media began to publish photos depicting boxes stuffed with ballots that the “Cubans were hiding in their medical center.” Crowds of opposition members broke into the accused hospital and beat up doctors and patients. The photographs had been leaked to the press by a Venezuelan journalist from the ultra-right Catholic sect Opus Dei and showed the collection and destruction of votes following the 2010 elections, but no one in the opposition hurried to point this out. The same journalist had become known back in the day for “killing” Chavez ten or 12 times before his actual death. In many countries, the photograph incident would constitute a federal offense and the press would carry part of the responsibility for knowingly providing false information and inciting violence. But under the current Venezuelan “tyranny,” the sole response of the “democratic press” was to replace the old and already exposed lie with a new one. Was it a pure coincidence? A chase after cheap thrills? Or was it all part of a plan? The “democratic press” in Chile acted the same way before the ousting of Salvador Allende; only many years later was it revealed that the CIA made a million dollar “donation” to Agustin Edwards, the owner of Chile’s leading El Mercurio newspaper.
Still, there remains a question: Why, after 14 years of rule by a government that in fact represents the interests of the vast majority of Venezuelans, does the country find itself split apart today, with nearly half of the voters supporting the opponents of the Chavez project? The most dangerous thing to do would be to place full blame on the CIA, the local “fifth column,” and the 600,000 “deserters” from among the Chavez supporters of yesterday.
Another unresolved problem of the Bolivar revolution is the street crime that is rampant in the country’s larger cities. Chavez believed the reduction of poverty and the cultural growth of the population would cause crime to deteriorate—that its roots are purely social and, having eliminated them, it would become possible to contain crime without using force. The realities of today show this is not the case. Caracas has the third-highest murder rate among Latin American capitals. In analyzing the problem, it would be fair to recognize that part of the crime (in particular, the supply of weapons and drugs to destitute regions) is the fault of local ultra-right-wing groups and Colombian “paramilitaries,” who actively take part in destabilizing the government; and the police that are expected to control them are likewise substantially corrupt.
The presidential campaign and victory of Nicolas Maduro
From a communications perspective, Maduro was up against a tremendous challenge: he had to replace Chavez, undoubtedly the greatest orator in Venezuelan history, with whom any comparison, whether intended or unintended, would not serve in Maduro’s favor. Unfortunately, Maduro tried to imitate Chavez during his campaign and inevitably disappointed many voters. The phrases that seemed artful, humorous and smile-inducing coming from the lips of Chavez, sounded clumsy in Maduro’s rendition, and only served to support the favorite thesis of the right-wing opposition that “Maduro is no Chavez.” The most notable examples—including Maduro’s story about his conversation with a “little birdie” that visited him during a campaign prayer and turned out to be Chavez, or his comment that “Chavez, up there in the heavens, applied himself” to the selection of an Argentinean Pope (not to mention his extremely unfortunate idea to embalm Chavez’s body, which he thankfully abandoned in time)—were used as fodder by the opposition. In response to the “little birdie” incident, the opposition immediately flooded social media with a witty caricature accompanied by the text, “The high decree of the Bolivar leadership hereby bans the bullying of little birdies on the entire territory of Venezuela, for one of them could be our Comandante Chavez.” Most likely, Capriles supporters were not the only ones who got a good chuckle.
Despite the fact that Chavez was the undisputed leader of the process, Chavism itself was a political project aimed at bringing about fundamental changes in society. A large part of Maduro’s campaign was directed at the personality of Chavez and not on the purpose of his vision. Rather than campaigning on his own conception of the country’s problems, he spoke about Chavez’s ideas, and in that way gave the right-wing opposition the perfect opportunity to steer the campaign toward a battle of personalities and away from a political discussion about the two fundamentally different visions of society presented by Chavism and the opposition. This largely reduced the campaign to an exchange of personal attacks and accusations, a frivolous aspect that was only exacerbated by appearances from Venezuelan TV stars, who spoke out in support of one or the other candidate.
In the final months of Chavez’s life, Maduro was forced to make the decision to devalue the bolivaragainst the dollar (from 4.3 to 6.3 bolivarsto the dollar), which certainly didn’t add to his popularity—especially given the fact that only a few weeks earlier, the government said there was no reason for a currency devaluation.
In one of his last public appearances, Chavez reiterated his belief that power belongs and should always belong to the people, and that the people should arrive at full control of power through new channels of political, social and economic participation in the governance of the country. Sadly, the governing party essentially ignored this key topic during the course of the campaign and only mentioned that it would “protect the current level of public participation” in the political process, rather than recognizing the need to deepen and develop it. This, too, caused displeasure and disappointment among many civic groups and organizations.
Today, the physical absence of Chavez and a new offensive from the radical right has served to reveal, as never before, the inherent problems and contradictions in the Bolivar revolution. As the country’s new president, Nicolas Maduro has a chance to turn this negative into a positive precisely because he is “no Chavez:” by reforming the pyramid-shaped, hierarchical power structure that has formed in the Venezuelan leadership, and by turning the Bolivarian leadership into a collegiate body under collective rule, thus eliminating the careerists and free-loaders who inevitably emerge in any vertical structure.
It seems the only way to achieve this is by increasing direct public participation in politics—in other words, by increasing the public’s role in government decision making. The current government will be able to defeat corruption and crime only if it enlists the peoples’ full participation and overcomes bureaucratic inertia, which has already partly neutralized the revolution. How should they carry out this “revolution within a revolution” without repeating the mistakes and tragedies of the past? How can they free themselves from the dictatorship of the mass media while observing the democratic and constitutional structures that were chosen and built by the Venezuelan people? How can they clean out the government apparatus without succumbing to Stalinist paranoia? How can they save themselves from the bureaucracy and corruption that can quickly eat away at any government, especially that of an oil-rich nation? Clearly, government can save itself by relying on the people, trusting the people, not doubting the people. Otherwise, the latest presidential election will turn out to be the last for the Bolivarian revolution.