Venezuela: in Maduro’s pyrrhic poll victory, `official winner’ is ‘biggest loser’?

Maduro claimed the spirit of Chavez spoke to him through a little bird

Nicolas Maduro (above), the hand-picked heir to former president Hugo Chávez, is claiming a narrow victory in Venezuela’s presidential election, with 50.7% of the vote against 49.1% for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, the BBC reports.

But the “surprisingly small” margin looks likely to be followed by a recount, correspondent Juan Forero told NPR’s Newscast Desk.

Maduro had been expected to easily win the election, “but instead, he barely took 50 percent of the vote,” Forero said, with only about 235,000 more votes.

Capriles is claiming that there was “a plot to change the result,” Reuters reports:

There was no word from the National Electoral Commission which only announces results when there is an irreversible trend. Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, called on the election authorities to close polling stations that were due to shut their doors at 6 p.m. (6:30 p.m. ET/2230 GMT), unless there were still lines of people waiting.

“We alert the country and the world of the intention to try and change the will expressed by the people,” Capriles said in a Twitter message.

A marginal, contested result was one of several problematic scenarios envisaged by analysts, but the opposition’s calls for a recount found support from a former Venezuelan oil minister and leading political commentator, who described the result as “a great triumph” for the opposition.

“This is not a whim of the opposition, this is a constitutional right granted by law,” said Moises Naim (left), an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“This is a big test for democracy in Latin America,” he said, calling on the region’s leaders to take a stand against electoral irregularities.

But whoever eventually assumes office will face the daunting prospect of “a really difficult economic situation” and fragile institutions, said Naim, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“We are entering an era of profound instability,” he said, adding that “unfortunately I think there will be an increase in social conflict.”

Even if the result is confirmed, the victory would be pyrrhic and Maduro would be vulnerable, analysts suggest.

“This is a result in which the `official winner’ appears as the biggest loser,” said Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales. “The `official loser’ –the opposition — emerges even stronger than it did six months ago. These are very delicate situations in any political system, especially when there is so much mistrust of institutions.”

“This is the most delicate moment in the history of ‘Chavismo’ since 2002,” said Corrales, referring to an attempted coup against Chavez:

The small margin of victory gives Maduro less authority to lead the broad ruling alliance that includes military officers, oil executives and armed slum leaders. It had been held together mainly by Chavez’s iron grip and mesmerizing personality.

“With these results, the opposition might not concede easily, and Maduro will have a hard time demonstrating to the top leadership of Chavismo that he is a formidable leader.”

If confirmed, Maduro’s narrow margin of victory “provides an inauspicious start for the ‘Chavismo’ movement’s transition to a post-Chavez era, and raises the possibility that he could face challenges from rivals within the disparate leftist coalition,” Reuters reports:

Chavez beat Capriles by 11 percentage points in October, showing how quickly the gap between the two sides has eroded without the larger-than-life presence of the former leader. …Even so, the result took most Venezuelans by surprise, and demonstrated that Capriles’ message on the campaign trail, where he slammed his rival as an incompetent and poor imitation of Chavez unable to fix the nation’s myriad problems, had hit home.

“The unpredictable narrow margin of the election results has proven how volatile the political scenario is,” said political analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos.

“The death of Chavez was a game changer that is leading to the gradual reorganization of political power in Venezuela, in which the armed forces will play a key role behind the scenes.”

The election raises doubts about the long-term appeal and durability of the movement that Chavez built, led and held together throughout his 14 years in power….Some supporters seemed to pay little attention to Maduro’s speech, and it was only when he played a recording of the late president singing the national anthem that they burst into life.

Maduro will also be more vulnerable to rival factions within the Chavista coalition, said analyst David Smilde at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“It will make people in his coalition think that perhaps he is not the one to lead the revolution forward,” Smilde said.

If he does take office, Maduro ”will be tested quickly,” according to the WSJ’s Kejal Vyas and Ezequiel Minaya:   

He inherits a country with the world’s largest oil reserves but with growing financial strains despite almost a decade of high oil prices. Inflation is expected to reach more than 30% this year. The government’s budget deficit ended last year at roughly 15% of annual economic output—far higher than crisis-hit European nations. And a lack of dollars has led to shortages of everything from milk to corn flour, the staple of the Venezuelan diet.

Making matters worse, rates of violent crime are among the worst in the world, power outages regularly plunge parts of the country into darkness, the state oil industry is suffering from a lack of investment and corruption is widely seen as worsening.

“I don’t know why anyone would want the job because the challenges are so many; all the problems are tightly bound around the mismanagement that took course over the 14 years of Chávez,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. “There’s going to be contraction in the economy, and Venezuelans are going to wake up and realize that the party is over.”

Should his appeal prove successful, Capriles’ “task is not much easier,” says The Economist:

Although he has consolidated his status as the undisputed leader of the Venezuelan opposition, he will now be under pressure to prove his claim that he was cheated of victory. With no independent institutions to turn to, his battle will be a political rather than a legal one.

“Meanwhile, there were also signs that the strident, Chávez-style anti-American message that Maduro used during the campaign would now be set aside to improve Venezuela’s strained relations with the United States,” The New York Times reports:

Chávez…. built his political career on flaying the United States and its traditional allies in the Venezuelan establishment, and Mr. Maduro followed his mentor’s script throughout the campaign with an acolyte’s zeal.

He accused former American diplomats of plotting to kill him, suggested that the United States had caused Mr. Chávez’s illness, and had his foreign minister shut the door on informal talks with the United States that began late last year. …But over the weekend, with his election victory looking likely, Mr. Maduro sent a private signal to Washington that he was ready to turn the page. Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, who was in Caracas as a representative of the Organization of American States, said in an interview that Mr. Maduro called him aside after a meeting of election observers on Saturday and asked him to carry a message.

“He said, ‘We want to improve the relationship with the U.S., regularize the relationship,’ ” Mr. Richardson said.

Maduro not only lacks Chávez’s charisma, but also the Teflon factor that allowed him to evade responsibility for the country’s glaring problems, says another analyst.

“As one of those bumbling and corrupt nomenklaturi under Chávez, will not enjoy a similar impunity,” writes Jon Perdue, the director of Latin America programs at the Fund for American Studies:

Nor is he likely to enjoy an unprecedented windfall of inflated oil proceeds to fulfill the similarly inflated expectations of Chávez supporters for subsidies and giveaways in exchange for their votes and deflected blame…………….

As the fragile ground of Chavismo without Chávez begins to crumble under the feet of Maduro’s unsure steps, those once willing to tolerate the rabid clownery and the imperialist scapegoating of Hugo Chávez may begin to seek more solid ground. The rule of the diplomatically uncouth, though it makes for a good sideshow for the politically unserious, may finally be nearing its expiration date.

“With Chávez gone, Venezuela is on the cusp of a new era,” says The Economist:

But it remains bitterly divided, into two almost equal and apparently irreconcilable political camps. The government has no mandate for imposing the radical socialism to which it is wedded. But nor can it retreat without triggering a bitter squabble over Chávez’s legacy. Mr Maduro’s difficult election marks the beginning of an even trickier presidency.

RTWT

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‘Pared down’ Magnitsky list disappoints rights activists

The US Treasury State Department today published a list of 18 Russian officials subject to financial sanctions and visa travel bans because of their alleged human rights abuses.

But the pared down list disappointed rights advocates who noted the omission of several senior officials known to be complicit in human rights violations.

The sanctions are the result of the Sergei Magnitsky Act, passed by the US Congress and named for the tax lawyer arrested in 2008 after revealing that Russian officials had orchestrated a tax refund fraud to transfer $230m of state funds to a criminal syndicate. He died in jail after being assaulted and denied medical treatment.

“Persons on this list are banned from receiving or holding visas to enter the United States,” said the State Department. ‘Their property and interests in property subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and transactions in such property or interests in property are prohibited.

The list includes tax officials and police officers who imprisoned Magnitsky after he accused them of corruption, including Interior Ministry investigators Pavel Karpov and Oleg Silchenko; Judge Aleksei Krivoruchko who endorsed the extension of Magnitsky’s pretrial detention; and two Chechens – Letscha Bogatirov, who is reputed to have killed the dissident Umar Israilov in Austria in 2009, and Kazbek Dukuzov, a suspect in the 2004 murder of “Forbes” editor Paul Klebnikov (right).

“Magnitsky’s former client, London-based investor William Browder, who has campaigned to bring those responsible in his death to justice, claimed that one of those tax officials, Olga Stepanova, has bought luxury real estate in Moscow, Dubai and Montenegro and wired money through her husband’s bank accounts worth $39 million,” AP reports.

The list suggested that “the US presidential administration decided not to take the path of aggravating a political crisis with Moscow,”said Alexei Pushkov, a senior Russian legislator.  

A senior State Department official denied that political or diplomatic considerations were a factor in drafting the list.

“I’ve learned not to try to take action based on what you think the Russian reaction might be. It’s better to do what’s in the law and what’s right and what reflects American interests and American values on human rights, and then you let the chips fall where they may,” the official said. “We played this one straight. We haven’t tried to game it.”

But analysts and rights activists were surprised that “senior officials from Putin’s entourage who had been expected to be included were left off, including Russia’s top police official Alexander Bastrykin,” the BBC reports:

Some 250 names had originally been put forward by US politicians. The final list includes people from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, 16 of them linked to the Magnitsky case. The others are officials deemed to have participated in recent Kremlin moves to restrict Russians’ political rights.

“The list disappointed lawmakers and human rights activists who pressed the administration to apply the new law aggressively,” The New York Times reports:

Human rights activists said that the law should be applied beyond Mr. Magnitsky’s case to cover a wide array of infamous episodes. Among those who should be on any list of human rights violators in Russia, they argued, were Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, who has been accused of widespread abuses, and Aleksandr I. Bastrykin, the head of the country’s investigative committee, who was reported to have taken a journalist to a forest and threatened his life after a critical article was published.

Representative James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who helped pass the law, named for Mr. Magnitsky, had sent the administration a list of 280 Russians compiled by Mr. Magnitsky’s family for possible sanctions, including senior officials like Yuri Y. Chaika, the country’s general prosecutor. …..But the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control required a higher degree of evidence, because it will have to justify depriving people of financial assets if challenged in court. Some human rights activists said Congress may have to re-examine the question and rewrite the law to make sure it covers a wider range of figures.

“While the list is timid and features more significant omissions than names, I was assured by administration officials today that the investigation is ongoing and further additions will be made to the list as new evidence comes to light,” McGovern said. “The fact that a name is not on the list does not mean that person is innocent.”

The publication of the list will severely strain US-Russian relations, said President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman.

“The appearance of any lists will doubtless have a very negative effect on bilateral Russian-American relations,” Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Human rights advocates took solace from the fact that the Magnitsky Act establishes an annual mechanism for gauging Russia’s human rights violations and applying sanctions to officials responsible for abuses.

“The key now is to keep this as an ongoing process by which more names can be added,” said David J. Kramer, the executive director of Freedom House.

 

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Five (mostly bad) scenarios for Venezuela

“Venezuela’s first post-Chávez presidential election, taking place on April 14, has the unfortunate likelihood of suffering from the same shortcomings of the contest that occurred when Hugo Chávez was re-elected this past October: the vote was neither free nor fair but extraordinarily distorted by incumbent advantages and political intimidation,” note two leading analysts.

“For nearly 14 years, Chávez labored with tireless energy, undeniable charisma, and ruthless design to destroy the opposition, silence critics, and intimidate skeptics, all while leaving the Potemkin façade of a ‘democracy’,” according to Thor Halvorssen, president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, and Stanford University’s Larry Diamond:

These conditions have made Venezuelan elections under Chávez utterly unfair. Judges who ruled against Chávez were imprisoned. Those that remain openly declared their fealty to him. The previous opposition presidential candidate is in exile. Businessmen who support opposition candidates were investigated and expropriated. Labor leaders who oppose the government were imprisoned. Opposition radio and TV stations were shut down, denied permits, and fined. Those that survived engaged in self-censorship.

Most polls indicate that Chavez’s anointed successor Nicolás Maduro is likely to defeat opposition candidate Henrique Capriles [left] , but he may come to rue the day, says analyst Andres Oppenheimer.

“Judging from what I’m told by well-placed Venezuelans, there are five major scenarios of what may happen after Sunday’s vote,” he writes:

First scenario: A clear Maduro victory by more than 10 percentage points, and six years of rule by Chávez’s designated heir. Maduro’s conclusive victory leaves Capriles with no option but to concede, and the defeated candidate’s complaints about a tainted election process… sound like sour grapes. Globovision, the last anti-Chávez television network, is silenced after its recent sale to government cronies. Venezuela becomes an elected dictatorship, with no opposition media.

Second scenario: A clear Maduro victory, followed by chaos down the road. Maduro wins by 10 percent or more, but his government implodes over the next two years because of a combination of Venezuela’s skyrocketing inflation, which is the highest in Latin America, its inability to keep state subsidies amid stagnant oil prices, and internal divisions within the Chavista corruptocracy. …..

Third scenario: A not-so-clear Maduro victory, followed by a temporary calm before the storm. …. Cuba, which micro-manages Maduro’s government and wants stability in Venezuela at all costs to preserve Venezuela’s oil subsidies, recommends Maduro to resume talks with the U.S. to normalize relations. But as Venezuela’s economy collapses, Maduro needs a scapegoat, and resurrects his conspiracy theories that the U.S. government inoculated Chávez with cancer, and that former U.S. diplomats are trying to kill him. Venezuela enters a period of instability, followed by chaos, and within two years Maduro has to call for early elections.

Fourth scenario: A questionable Maduro victory by 2 percent, which Capriles immediately denounces as fraudulent. Maduro, who doesn’t have Chávez’s wits nor folksy personality, declares victory on Sunday, but the election results are much closer than expected. Opposition students take to the streets to defend what they see as a stolen election……The Maduro government cracks down on protesters, but the scenes of violence start a process of gradual loss of legitimacy …. which accelerates the regime’s implosion.

Fifth scenario: Capriles wins by more than 3 percentage points, and the Maduro government has little choice but to concede. Much like happened in Nicaragua’s 1990 elections, when the opposition defeated the Sandinista regime despite the government’s huge advantage in the polls, a victorious Capriles takes office. But faced with a pro-Chávez Congress, and virtually all other government institutions dominated by Chavistas, Capriles has to form a de-facto coalition government. In addition, he has to take unpopular austerity measures, for which he will need some degree of Chavista support.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the third or fourth scenario in Venezuela — a clear Maduro victory with a period of calm before the storm, or a not-so-clear Maduro victory that will mark the beginning of the end of the Chávez-era populist fiesta,” Oppenheimer writes.

Since Chavez’s death, Maduro has “ratcheted up the rhetoric,” CNN reports:

His steady stream of accusations have included claims that people within the Pentagon and the CIA were plotting to destabilize Venezuela and suggestions that the United States may have caused Chavez’s cancer.

Chavez’s criticisms of U.S. imperialism were a hallmark of his presidency and played well with his supporters. And some analysts say it’s no surprise that the accusations — which the United States has denied — have escalated with Maduro on the ticket to replace Chavez.

But Maduro hasn’t always taken an extreme tack, one observer suggests.

“On the one hand, he has been behind some of the most radical, crazy foreign policy decisions of the Chávez administration. Support for Libya, you name it, all the radical decisions, he has been behind them,” said Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “But he also has been behind some of the most pragmatic and conciliatory decisions, including the turnaround in relations with Colombia.”

Should Capriles have contested the presidency? ask Halvorssen and Diamond, a senior advisor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.

“Absolutely. Despite the likelihood of defeat, democratic forces must participate in competitive authoritarian contests and grab a piece, no matter how small, of the political space allowed,” they write for The Atlantic.

And there’s a lesson for Egypt’s anti-Brotherhood opposition too, they suggest:

If democratic forces contest, there is the possibility of keeping the ruling autocrats on the defensive, of establishing a message of unity, and of providing organizing skills to democratic forces. Abandoning the electoral arena leaves little room for assembly or to coordinate the disparate remnants of civil society–as Capriles and his allies well understood. Moreover, as the experiences of Serbia, Ukraine (and quite possibly Malaysia this year) show, accidents can happen on the autocrats’ road to reelection, enabling a transition to democracy through the ballot box, against the odds.

“The passing of Chávez offers a singular opportunity to Venezuela’s democratic forces,” Halvorssen and Diamond contend:

While campaigning with hope and energy, Capriles’s campaign would be wise to frontally address every flawed aspect of the electoral process. Such a posture would give democratic governments and movements outside Venezuela clearer cause to reject the outcome as illegitimate and keep Maduro’s hardliner tendencies in check. 

“Either way, if he wins, Maduro faces a grim future,” notes Oppenheimer.

“He will inherit a crumbling economy, courtesy of a Chávez legacy that has left Venezuela more oil-dependent, less industrialized and more poorly educated than ever despite having benefitted from the biggest oil export bonanza in recent memory.”

Maduro will also inherit a legacy of economic mismanagement and the myth that Chávez improved the lot of the country’s poor.

“Venezuelans have more money in their pockets than when he first came to power, which is unsurprising, because he coincided with an incredible oil boom, and billions of dollars rained into the treasury every week,” says Rory Carroll, formerly The Guardian’s Caracas correspondent and author of Comandante, a new book on Chavez.

“He basically rained petrodollars over the country, certainly in his first seven years in power. And in that sense the poor did benefit,” he told NPR:

But the problem is that his management style was so chaotic and he was always prioritizing politics over governance and basic economic management, that dysfunction and atrophy kicked in. And we can see this, for example, in the fact that the currency has lost 90 percent of its value, that inflation is among the highest in the Western Hemisphere, and that insecurity, violent crime, kidnappings, murders, spiraled out of control. And the biggest victims of all of that are the poor.

 

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Cuban dissident Payá’s lesson in dignity for Beyonce and Jay-Z

“Why would Cuban security agents choose to kill the island’s leading dissident while he was in the company of two Europeans who might bear witness to the crime?” asks The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt:

To outside observers, it’s an intriguing mystery. For those directly affected, even to ask the question is, in some sense, to surrender to the malign influence of authoritarian control. That was one message this week from two inspiring young women, daughters of courageous democracy activists from opposite sides of the world, who happened to be in Washington at the same time.

“I’m not so anxious to understand the perverse logic of repression,” Rosa Maria Payá, 24, (above, with her father) replied when I asked why agents might have targeted her father that way.

“I don’t think there is a reason to kill anyone,” she added. “And I shouldn’t have to be having to answer that. This is a question to put to the people who threatened his life on a daily basis,” she told a forum at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Her “quiet dignity … was unmistakable as she asked the international community to pressure Cuba’s government into allowing a plebiscite on democracy and for an investigation into the murder of her father,” writes The Heritage Foundation’s Mike Gonzalez. “Her poise also offered a sharp contrast to the spectacle unfolding in her country with a visit there by celebrity Beyonce and rapper Jay-Z.”

Payá told the NED forum that she decided to call for the inquiry after the vehicle’s driver revealed to the Washington Post that it was rammed from behind by a car bearing official license plates.

“Violence, censorship and imprisonment are the obvious weapons of dictators, from Cuba to China. But the tools of repression also include caprice,” Hiatt writes:

If no one can be sure who will be targeted and who will not — when rule by whim replaces rule of law — then everyone must live in fear.

That is the dictator’s hope. Payá and Ti-Anna Wang, 23, decline to play along.

Wang’s father, Wang Bingzhang (right), is a democracy activist who was living in exile in North America 11 years ago when he traveled to Vietnam for a meeting with Chinese labor activists. He was kidnapped, bundled across the Chinese border, held incommunicado for six months and then, after a closed one-day trial, sentenced to life in prison on spurious charges of terrorism.

Why was Wang targeted and not other exile leaders? For that matter, why has his daughter not been granted a visa to visit her father for the past four years? Each application has been denied — without explanation. Ti-Anna Wang said she refuses to waste time speculating on motivation.

“The arbitrariness is designed to break your spirit,” she said. “We really can’t dwell on wondering why they do what they do, or fear what they might do, because those thoughts are crippling.”

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China – ‘feudal answers for modern problems’?

 

“The corruption, income inequality and environmental degradation that have accompanied China’s breakneck economic development over the last 30 years have provoked social unrest,” writes Yu Hua.

2010 witnessed 180,000 “mass incidents” – the official euphemism for protests — a fourfold increase over the previous decade and the principal reason why Beijing now spends more on domestic than national security.

The ruling Communist party faces the potentially fatal existential challenge that every authoritarian regime fears.

“Methods of social control that once worked like charms are now losing their efficacy,” Yu writes in The New York Times.

But officials “are often finding that it’s the old feudal customs, so repugnant to Mao, that help them keep a grip on society,” as in one southern Chinese city where thousands of outraged residents blamed the authorities for exposing their ancestors’ graves to flash floods:

Instead of mobilizing the police, however, the canny district chief summoned a dozen or so practitioners of feng shui. They calmed the protesters, assuring them that when the graves were swept away it signified a fortune in the making. As folk wisdom has it, water is wealth — and an encounter with water means you will get rich. The protesters didn’t trust the government, but they did trust the feng shui masters.

A Canadian reporter once asked me: “How much longer will Mao’s portrait hang on Tiananmen?”

“If Mao knew his China would be reduced to this,” I replied, “he’d insist that his portrait be taken down right away.”

RTWT

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