By Armando Chaguaceda & Maria Isabel Puerta
HAVANA TIMES – This post represents an overview of the variables and scenarios currently at play in Venezuela as it moves toward the critical parliamentary elections scheduled for December 6. Political, economic and social factors all entwine to produce a crisis of legitimacy and support for the government of Nicolas Maduro. This crisis may be resolved through a post-electoral transition, or possibly via diverse strategies aimed at impeding or discounting an eventual opposition victory.
The economic situation in Venezuela is dire: the free-fall in oil prices and the pressures on foreign exchange have precipitated severe shortages and scarcities that began to manifest themselves in the interior of the country some two years ago; at that time Caracas, the capital, was left relatively shielded from the constant blackouts in electricity and the lack of access to products of basic necessity. It wasn’t until mid-2014 when these effects from the drop in oil prices that the provinces had been feeling for a long time began to reach the capital city. This caused a huge impact in public opinion. The long lines to buy regulated products weren’t limited to the low-income sectors; instead, these images became more and more frequent among the more prosperous middle classes, foreshadowing an ever more difficult situation with ever less income from oil.
The social networks became the place for information and exchange of goods, with medicine and food among the most important. But the crisis has also affected all areas of society, from a reduced productive capacity to the limited service sector. The calamity raised its head at the beginning of 2014 when one after another of the international airlines ceased operations in the country due to the government’s inability to pay off its large debt because of the exchange rate. This problem was then aggravated when other economic groups like the Clorox factory also closed their operations or abandoned the country because of the price controls in effect.
By 2015 a more critical economic panorama was predictable. The scarcity of food and medicine has reached alarming levels, to the point where there have been deaths due to a lack of medical treatment as well as surgeries interrupted by problems in the electrical service. The difficulties have reached almost all segments of society. Those who assemble vehicles stopped receiving units in 2014 chiefly because of the lack of foreign exchange, and this same problem has impacted not only the number of vehicles but also the inventory of spare parts, affecting public transportation. The scarcity and shortages run from the absence of raw materials to produce certain items to a lack of hard currency for imports.
As far as foods go, basic items such as coffee, dairy products, flour, sugar, rice, lunch meats and pastas are fast disappearing from the Venezuelans’ daily diet, in an involuntary solidarity that doesn’t discriminate between socio-economic sectors, a kind of democratization of the privations. The case of the bottling industry is dramatic in the extreme: due to the lack of containers there is no bottled drinking water, considered the only potable water. But in addition to the shortages and scarcities, the high cost of living has created its own challenging situation for a government that is trying by many means to retain power.
This aspect of the situation is even more difficult because it’s where the consequences of the material privations play out. Salaries are ever more devalued due to the rapid deterioration of the national currency with respect to the dollar; this makes the normal exercise of daily life ever more difficult for all sectors of society. The departments of Health, Education, Housing and Infrastructure have all been paralyzed. In the health system there’s an alarming shortage of medicines exacerbated by the flight of health professionals. In education, the salary problems have been a recurring cause of work stoppages among teachers over the last few years. At this very moment academic activities have been suspended in the eighteen public universities of the country due to budget shortfalls as well as the government’s inability to respond to the salary demands of that sector.
In terms of housing, the panorama is no less critical. A housing deficit already existed that the government’s strategies and policies hadn’t been able to correct; this has now deepened due to the increase in poverty. This situation was reflected in a 2014 survey on living conditions carried out by the Andres Bello Catholic University (UCAB). The survey yielded disturbing statistics regarding the resurgence of poverty, estimated as 48% of the population in the Venezuela of 2014, with projections of it rising to 55% in 2015. The organizations created to reduce the housing deficit have merely been able to fine-tune their strategies for proselytizing the Great Housing Mission. This has not translated into any lessening of the gap; on the contrary, as PROVEA (Venezuelan Program for Education and Action in Human Rights) reports, this area has suffered a reverse.
The state of the country’s infrastructure reflects the shortages and scant maintenance, as evidenced by a crisis in the electrical service that is several years old, and which epitomizes a country with many resources as an energy producer that nevertheless gave up attending to those necessities. Of course this isn’t an isolated fact. If we add the deterioration in the national oil industry and the iron and steel mills, a complete picture emerges of the general deterioration in the entire productive base of the country, so needed at this juncture to ignite an economic reactivation.
The polarization of the country has given way to the conformation of three blocks in which the Opposition has come out stronger, as seen in the polls from July, August and September. These reflect a favorable perception of the opposition that oscillates between 42% and 57%, while the approval rates for the current government fluctuate between 19% and 23%. Amid these circumstances, the government faces an accelerating deterioration in support – around 70.4% of those surveyed rated the government negatively according to the Omnibus July-August poll organized by Datanalysis.
Official measures for slowing this free-fall in approval ratings have included closing the border with Colombia to combat the economic war, considered by 69.4% to be a falsehood, and the Operation for the Liberation and Protection of the People, harshly criticized by public opinion and the Human Rights organizations for its repressive nature, with an alarming toll of deaths from the executions that have been known to occur in some cases. In all of this, the government has shown itself for be highly ineffective, reflected in the population’s assessment of the terrible situation in the country (74% in September according to Datincorp and 89% according to Venebarometro) and of the government as chiefly responsible for it, which according to the Datanálisis figures is around 59.3%.
The electoral scenario is chancy, since there are some situations that threaten the possibility of celebrating the parliamentary elections in peace. To begin with, there is the issue of the election observation which the government wants to carry out on its own terms. Brazil has already been forced to abandon the UNASUR mission, maintaining that the conditions for this mission have not been provided. Further, the government promoted the signing of an agreement to respect the electoral results; the opposition then responded that the government should be the one committing itself to recognize the results.
To complicate the panorama still more, conflicts among the opposition groups have offered the government the possibility of intervening in the internal affairs of the parties, as in the case of the COPEI party, opening the way for the interference of the Venezuelan Supreme Court whose probable decision will be to exclude the MUD coalition candidates and replace them with others not aligned with the opposition coalition.
Additionally, the declaration of a State of Emergency in some of the municipalities on the border has reinforced the belief that the government is seeking reasons to suspend the December 6 parliamentary elections. All of these actions can be considered as disturbing factors in the face of elections in which it is estimated that the government will lose the parliamentary majority.