Maduro's defiance hints 'chavismo' down, not out

Dec 11, 2015, 8:51 AM EST
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Source: Embassy of Venezuela to the U.S./flickr

All things considered, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro displayed remarkable calm – at first.

When it emerged after elections held Dec. 6 that the opposition party had won a majority of seats in the National Assembly, it marked the first time in 17 years that Maduro’s United Socialist Party had been pushed into the minority.

Opposition party stalwart Henrique Capriles, long a thorn in the president’s side, crowed over the victory, saying, “I always told you all this was the way: humility, maturity and serenity. Long live the people of Venezuela!"

Voters showed off their ink-stained fingers on social media, proud of their role in taking the first step in what could be the dismantling of chavismo, the socialist ideology named after the late Hugo Chávez, the party’s founder and Maduro’s benefactor.

Yet Maduro – under intense simultaneous pressure from a disaffected electorate, a simmering feud with the U.S., the continuing fallout from his abrupt closing of the border with Colombia, accusations that his administration has misused the country’s vast oil wealth and an embarrassing family situation trumpeted in international headlines – confounded his legion of critics by not immediately raging against the opposition or shifting into crackdown mode.

As the returns poured in from an election that saw an impressive 74 percent turnout, the embattled president faced the nation – and the music – and said, “We come to morally and ethically recognize the adverse results and to say to Venezuela that the constitution and democracy have won and that we accept the results reported by the electoral council.”

He appeared contrite and accepting of the decree of voters thirsting for an economy not defined by triple-digit inflation, row after row of empty supermarket shelves and a currency almost not worth printing.

Earlier this year, Maduro acknowledged that the economy was in freefall. Now his subdued response to this pivotal moment in his nation’s history could be seen as the laconic shrug of a man realizing that, while he has yet to escape the shadow of his legendary predecessor, his term in office does not end until 2019 -- and who knows? – by then, there might have been another turnaround and his party might once again be on top.

But that was on the day after the election, when it appeared that the opposition had gained a simple majority in the assembly. Two days later, Maduro, having learned that his foes actually now enjoy a supermajority, let the world know that he had quickly tired of playing the good soldier.

For a supermajority – three-quarters of the vote – empowers the opposition to directly challenge the president, including calling for a referendum that could see him get an unceremonious boot out of office at his term’s halfway point, which is rapidly coming up next April.

In an interesting bit of stagecraft, Maduro broadcast his weekly address from Chávez’s tomb and proceeded to rail against the “counter-revolutionary right,” vowing, according to The Independent, not to let his rivals “take over the country.”

And, as the article says, “To shore up the socialist ‘revolution,’ the government has already moved to force most of the Supreme Court justices to resign so that Mr. Maduro can appoint new ones whose terms will extend beyond the life of the new assembly.”

Maduro also made sure to burnish his socialist bona fides, tweeting out pictures of Lenin and Stalin and exclaiming, while hosting a Russian visitor to the broadcast, “Viva Lenin! Viva Trotsky!”

Was this the last gasp of a doomed leader who has seen the all-too-legible writing on the wall? Perhaps, but it bears noting that chavismo has been down for the count in the past only to rise again stronger than ever.

Although a whopping 85 percent of Venezuelans have voiced their discontent with the way things are going nationally and with Maduro’s leadership in particular, the opposition, too, has sputtered, struggling to present a united front or a cohesive platform.

The electorate will eventually come down from the euphoria of voting the socialists closer to obscurity and will fully expect the opposition to present a plan of action to pull Venezuela out of its economic doldrums.

But should the opposition again fail to unite behind a single message, it risks losing all it has gained by the latest election, not to mention being submerged by Maduro’s party – which, if nothing else, has largely remained faithful to Chávez’s memory and policies.

Meanwhile, as the president defiantly digs in his heels against the supermajority, the everyday reality on the streets of Caracas could get ugly. If the opposition devotes its time to ousting the socialists and not to alleviating food shortages and fixing other holes in the economy, those voters who so eagerly showed off their inky fingers may start rethinking their repudiation of chavismo.

And Maduro – who did, after all, enjoy a spike in popularity just before the elections – may get yet another chance to prove to chavistas that their patron saint was right, after all, to entrust him with his legacy and their troubled nation’s future.