A Primer on the Venezuelan Elections

Photo by Beatrice Murch | CC BY 2.0

To an outsider, Venezuela can be a hard country to get your head around. The supposedly dictatorial government is pleading with the United Nations to send an international observation team to oversee the country’s presidential elections on May 20th, while the major opposition parties are demanding they do not, boycotting the very vote they had been campaigning for last year. Meanwhile, after calling for elections, the Trump administration, funding, training and supporting the opposition, announced months beforehand that they will refuse to accept the results.

Hugo Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, is seeking a second six-year term. Chavez and his brand of 21stcentury socialism is still popular; a 2017 poll found 83 percent of Venezuelans felt he was the country’s best leader. Maduro, however, does not enjoy his predecessor’s unifying charisma, nor his level of support, polling between a 20 and 30 percent approval rating. His first term was one racked by serious economic malaise, with severe shortages of goods and enormous inflation, some of the key issues in this election. His primary challenger Henri Falcón, a former soldier and governor of Lara state, claims his overriding priority is to end food shortages and he will do this by opening the country up to multilateral organizations like the IMF and World Bank.

One of the reasons it so difficult to understand the country is virtually all information about it comes mediated through the mainstream press. The election is widely characterized as illegitimate in the international media, The Miami Herald calling it a “sham”, “fraudulent”, a “charade”, and a “joke” in one article alone. That Venezuela is a dictatorship presided over by an authoritarian president has been taken as a given for 20 years in the Western press. And yet the notion is certainly not an uncontroversial one inside the country. Less than one in five opposition party membersdescribed the country as completely undemocratic on a scale of 1-10 in the 2015 Latinobarometro survey, the latest freely available. In fact, Venezuelans were more likely to describe their country as a perfect democracy than a dictatorship when responding to the bitterly anti-chavista polling agency. This outlook is barely even hinted at, let alone argued for, in reporting.

One of the principal reasons the upcoming elections are described as illegitimate is the barring of two key opposition politicians, Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles, from running. The good-looking, Harvard-educated Lopez is a media darling, one Newsweek article described Lopez’s “twinkling chocolate-colored eyes and high cheekbones.” A recent New York Times Magazine piece presented him as a brave and righteous non-violent revolutionary, comparing him to Martin Luther King. Nowhere in the 9000 word article did it mention his role in the 2002 coup, where he arrested the Minister of the Interior during the white, upper-class insurrection that featured the likely pre-meditated shooting of dozens of civilians, the imprisonment and/or torture of hundreds of political figures, the closing down of media, public floggings and the establishment of a one-man dictatorship.

It also glosses over his role in the 2014 La Salida demonstrations, the reason he is currently under house arrest and unable to contest the election. The event was an attempt to force out the government through a wave of violence, including the bombing of schools, health centers, buses, universities and the beheading of civilian passers-by, which the government claimed caused US$15 billion worth of damage. And yet, as I describe in my newly-released book, Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty years of Fake News and Misreporting, the media presented La Salida as a commendable peaceful protest against a dictatorship, The New York Times claiming “Faced with a government that systematically equates protest with treason, people have been protesting in defense of the very right to protest.” It often treated the idea that they were trying to oust the government illegally as risible, at best, despite the fact that Lopez was explicit that this was his intention. Fake news abounded on social media, as images from Spain, the Arab Spring and Greece purporting to show government suppression of the protestors were retweeted thousands of times, causing worldwide headlines.

The movement flared up again in 2017, with no less destruction. Protestors attacked social housing, government buildings, doctors, kindergartens and maternity clinics and gangs of armed white, upper-class youths looked for blacks to lynch. For example, Orlando Jose Figueroa was beaten, stabbed six times, doused in gasoline and burned to death. This fate befell two other Afro-Venezuelans. One protestor, Oscar Perez, stole a police helicopter and used it to bomb the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry. Perez was described as a “patriot” by The Guardian and his actions a “protest flight” by The Washington Post. One has to wonder if, for example, Black Lives Matter, started bombing the White House and killing police and national guardsmen whether they would be presented as patriots and peaceful protestors in the press. Despite this, and the fact that even the US State Department described him as “arrogant, vindictive and power hungry”, the Times Magazine called him “the most prominent political prisoner in Latin America, if not the world”. Considering his political positions the comparison to Martin Luther King may not be entirely appropriate.

The second high-profile politician barred from contesting the election is Henrique Capriles, as he was found guilty of embezzlement of public funds while governor of Miranda State. Capriles was the main opposition candidate in the 2013 presidential elections, which he narrowly lost. As detailed in Bad News from Venezuela, the Western media overwhelmingly presented the 2013 elections as unclean, too, a “David vs. Goliath” contest where Maduro had “slanted the playing field” with his enormous media empire leaving Capriles to “compete” the “cowed” private media and by “pressuring” millions of public sector employees to vote for him. As The Washington Post summed up, “Maduro will this grossly one-sided contest. If by some chance he does not, the regime is unlikely to accept the results.”

All of this was contested by the Venezuelan public, who rated their democracy as the second highest in Latin America on the Latinobarometro survey, by foreign election observation missions, and even by reports from Washington-based organizations the US government had paid to go there. The Nobel prize-winning Carter Center noted that Capriles “competed” on the “cowed” private media by receiving nearly three times as much coverage, the large majority of it positive and Maduro’s coverage negative, except on state media, which accounts for a tiny percentage of the market. It also noted that twice as many people reported feeling pressured to vote for Capriles than Maduro. The Carter Center’s founder Jimmy Carter described Venezuela’s elections as “the best in the world”. In reality, Capriles enjoyed enormous advantages; the Capriles family controls Cadena Capriles, one of the largest media empires in the country. Furthermore, he enjoyed the committed backing of the US state department. David and Goliath indeed.

The shadow of the United States looms large over the upcoming elections but its role in directly interfering is barely discussed in the media. On May 6thWashington increased its sanctions on the country, sanctions Western media claimed are “unlikely to create major economic hardship”. This is flatly rejected by the United Nations, the General Assembly’s Human Rights council condemning the US for its illegal actions that “disproportionately affect the poor and the most vulnerable classes”, called on all member states not to recognize nor apply them, and began discussing potential reparations. Little of this was reported in the press. The US, with the help of local business, is doing its best to create the economic conditions for regime change. The opposition is also actively making the country’s deep economic crisis worse. Its head of the National Assembly went on a tour of international banks demanding they do not lend to his country, while the Trump administration is threatening Venezuelan bondholders not to negotiate the debt. As economist Mark Weisbrot stated, “It is an attempt to topple the government by further destroying the economy and preventing its recovery…There is no other way to describe it.”

The US is also openly attempting to foment a coup, like it did in 2002. Senator Marco Rubio announced on Twitter,

The world would support the Armed Forces in #Venezuela if they decide to protect the people & restore democracy by removing a dictator.”

Trump has gone further, threatening a military invasion. In December he claimed, “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary.” Yet the media barely cover the idea of US meddling, generally only mentioning it as an accusation in the mouth of an official it has been demonizing for years. The New York Times notes that Maduro “is casting his campaign as a battle against imperialist powers bent on seizing Venezuela’s oil wealth”. This is generally treated as absurd. Yet Trump has already revealed his position is “we should take their oil” with regards to his enemies, while the appointment of the head of ExxonMobil to Secretary of State could barely be a clearer message. Furthermore, the media themselves are openly demanding a coup. The Washington Post published an article entitled “The odds of a military coup in Venezuela are going up. But sometimes coups can lead to democracy.” Foreign Policy warned against it, not on ethical grounds, but because it “could backfire and end up increasing Russian and Chinese influence in the Western Hemisphere.” In 2002 it was considered shameful that the media supported the coup against Chavez. Now it appears the only reason not to attempt one is it might hurt US corporate profits. Of course, the US has funded the opposition to Chavez since at least 2001. That this might be affecting the election is not discussed.

The opposition is split on whether to pursue an electoral path, as Falcon suggests, or to boycott the elections entirely, as Lopez had advocated. This split is a major reason why Maduro, despite his record, is predicted by many to win on the 20th. The voters will go to the polls amid the backdrop of economic chaos, with severe problems in housing, food shortages and frequent blackouts. The problem for the people is that the country is in gridlock between a government unable to solve the economic issues and an opposition that is actively committed to making them worse, safe in the knowledge they are backed by the US.

If the opposition wins, we can expect something akin to economic shock therapy of the 80s and 90s.  If Maduro wins narrowly his position will be insecure, and calls for a coup or an invasion will grow. If he wins convincingly, the opposition may give up completely on the electoral front and concentrating on ousting him forcefully, while Washington and the media will refuse to accept the results as legitimate. However, his position will be much more secure and may offer some small chance of increased stability in the chaotic nation.

Alan MacLeod (@AlanRMacleod) is a member of the Glasgow University Media Group. His book, Bad News From Venezuela: 20 Years of Fake News and Misreporting, was recently published by Routledge.