What to make of the elections in Venezuela?
Punishing the Socialists? Approving the new centrist coalition? A slap in the face for the chavista legacy? Not as much pro-opposition, but more anti-government?
At Canning House in London, three experts debated the results of a most fascinating election, where the ruling left-wingers lost their majority in the country’s one parliamentary house to a huge group of opposition parties.
Julia Buxton, a professor in comparative politics at the Central European University, is a seasoned Venezuela watcher. She was joined by Catherine Nettleton, British ambassador to Venezuela from 2010 – 2014, and the Latin America editor at the Financial Times, John Paul Rathbone.
For the former ambassador, this was the “beginning of a new stage, not a fundamental change to society”. Ms Nettleton said the opposition would now feel under pressure to stay united. This was not the time for celebrations, said Ms Buxton. She warned of a “high potential for instability and disorder” and “a rollercoaster ahead of us”. Caution was the way forward, she said. For the FT’s Latin America editor, it was simple: Venezuela has to change. Mr Rathbone was unsure if now we would see “confrontation or transition”.
The journalist despaired of an “economy in dire condition…[with] too many vested interests”. He reeled off a list of serious problems that needed addressing, including the high risk of default, low foreign reserves and the plunging oil price.
That last point was important for Mr Rathbone. It all boiled down to three letters, he said: “O-I-L”. There were “distortions in the exchange rate…attempts ongoing to reschedule due debts…[and an] audit of state finances was needed”. He summed up his thoughts by sighing that the government’s measures “were not economic policy – this is a lottery”.
Bearing in mind how long it has taken to get the country into this parlous state, this blog asked the panel if there were any quick fixes that could be applied to satisfy an exasperated public.
Catherine Nettleton said several small steps were required across a wide range of policy areas, whereas Mr Rathbone suggested deinstitutionalisation and a sorting out of the troubled and distorted exchange rate.
Julia Buxton highlighted the dearth of a leftist alternative to the current Socialist party leadership, blaming the chavistas for falling out of touch with their grassroots. The election defeat was the price that president Nicolás Maduro had to pay for “sclerosis” and the politics professor went on to hint that the result of the vote “may prove to be fatal for Maduro”. That said, she declared that it would be “disastrous to try to roll back the Bolivarian Revolution”.
Opposition/MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable)
The drivers of that revolution were “still very much in power” for the former British ambassador. Catherine Nettleton underlined the need for the opposition to “prove themselves”. Advice for the opposition’s next move came from Ms Buxton saying they must not “assume they have free rein” and that they “run the risk…[of being] revanchist and revengeful”. John Paul Rathbone did feel though that the “country desperately needs some clear thinking”.
Security was raised by a fellow audience member as one area where the two sides could hope to find some common ground. Julia Buxton said that she felt the “military was still an important actor”.
Catherine Nettleton looked to the wider region to provide support for Venezuela and Ms Buxton weighed up whether the result was “a protest vote against the government or indicative of a deeper political shift”. She argued that “a strategy of co-existence, co-habitation and dialogue” was necessary. Mr Rathbone looked at the market reaction and left wondering if “the economy is going to be in a tougher place next year”.