Foreign Policy | Maduro’s Wag the Dog Moment

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 8.34.05 PMPETER WILSON SEPTEMBER 22, 2015 / 23 sep 15

With tanking poll numbers, an economy in free-fall, and an opposition that’s out for blood, is Venezuela’s president manufacturing a national crisis to buy himself time?

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 8.32.01 PMWhat’s a leader to do if confronted with sagging popularity, widespread food shortages, the world’s highest inflation rate, and soaring crime just months before elections? If you’re Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the answer is to take a page out of the late Hugo Chávez’s playbook and pick a fight with Colombia. Or at least that’s what Venezuela’s opposition claims is happening as the Dec. 6 parliamentary elections begin to draw near.

One month ago, Maduro closed border crossings in the southwestern state of Táchira after three Venezuelan soldiers were wounded in a shootout with alleged members of a paramilitary gang. But the Venezuelan leader — whose approval rating has sunk to near 24 percent — didn’t stop there. Days later, Maduro ordered the country’s security forces to begin rounding up and deporting undocumented Colombians living on the Venezuelan side of the porous frontier, and to bulldoze their houses to ensure they wouldn’t return. Since the border crisis began, more than 1,500 people have been deported and another 16,000 have fled for fear of reprisals. Maduro also declared a “state of exception” in Táchira, restricting personal liberties and later invoked similar measures for the neighboring states of Zulia and Apure.

“The government is evidently trying to create a short-term situation to give them a reason to suspend or postpone elections,” Jesus Torrealba, the executive secretary of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (known by its Spanish acronym, MUD), an umbrella opposition coalition, told Union Radio on Aug. 26, a few days after the president acted. Venezuela’s opposition has lost 18 of 19 elections — including presidential, congressional, and regional contests, as well as several constitutional votes — to Chavismo parties, initiatives, and candidates since 1998.

But this time around, support for Maduro and his brand of Chavismo seems beyond salvage.

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 8.36.32 PMAccording to the latest IVAD poll from the first half of August, 57.9 percent of those surveyed said they plan to vote for opposition candidates, compared with 19 percent who expressed a preference for candidates from Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Nearly 23 percent said they were undecided.

Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed said the country is headed in the wrong direction, while 76.8 percent rated Maduro’s presidential performance negatively. If the PSUV loses the legislative branch on Dec. 6, it would be a body blow for Chávez and Maduro’s socialist revolution, now in its 17th year. More pointedly, a defeat would boost momentum to recall Maduro in 2016.

So Maduro — like his predecessor, Chávez, who often booted the Colombian ambassador out of Caracas while making a show of force amid various disagreements — has sent troops to the border and accused the Colombian government of turning a blind eye to assassination plots being hatched in Bogota.

Stoking the crisis might well buy Maduro’s party some time. Elections could be suspended or postponed for a variety of reasons, especially if a state of exception were called for the entire country or if rioting or violent demonstrations broke out in major cities. The latter is a distinct possibility: Protesters have recently taken to the streets across the country to voice their anger over the treatment of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who was sentenced on Sept. 10, after a farce of a trial, to nearly 14 years in prison for his reputed role in demonstrations that turned violent last year.

For months, Maduro and the country’s electoral agency, which is under the control of his supporters, have given grist to fears that elections could be postponed due to the PSUV’s falling support. Despite local and international pressure, the National Electoral Council had long delayed setting a date for the vote. “Suspending the elections is a possibility,” says Tarek Yorde, a Caracas-based political consultant who has advised PSUV candidates in the past. “I think the government will wait till the end of October to decide whether to proceed.”

Throughout the past year, the government has declared at least seven opposition leaders ineligible to run for office for alleged offenses and crimes. Opposition leader and Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski has been hobbled as well, after his PSUV-controlled state legislature ruled that he couldn’t leave Miranda to campaign for opposition candidates. The electoral agency also changed the rules of the game: On June 25, it declared that women must make up 40 percent of each party’s candidates, just days after the MUD held its primary to select candidates, forcing it to re-tinker its slate.

On top of this, the government is likely to use its powerful political machine to influence voters, holding out gifts of food and other hard-to-find items. The press has also largely been co-opted, with many opposition newspapers being purchased by government sympathizers, or forced to reduce their print runs due to a shortage of newsprint. “The government can do other things to affect a favorable outcome,’’ says Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm. “They already changed the rules of the game with the quota for female candidates, and they could take similar moves.”

The opposition, which boycotted the 2005 parliamentary vote two cycles ago, has also been its own worst enemy. Due to their decision not to run candidates, the PSUV-dominated National Assembly passed amendments to the country’s election laws, changing the way congressional seats were distributed and giving more weight to the country’s rural states, where Chavismo is strongest. In 2010, the PSUV won 48.2 percent of the vote, and 98 seats in the unicameral legislature. The opposition won 47.2 percent of the vote, and only 64 seats.

Today, Venezuela’s six most-populous states elect only 38 percent of the assembly’s members — even though they comprise 52 percent of the country’s population. Yorde forecasts that the opposition will win a simple majority of up to 10 seats if fair elections are held.

Even so, with discontent at its highest point since Chávez died in March 2013, the opposition is confident that the congressional vote is its best chance for a decisive victory in years.

There’s plenty for voters to be angry about. The Venezuelan economy is in shambles, with GDP expected to contract by more than 7 percent this year. The currency, the strong bolivar, has lost almost all of its value over the past three years. Although the government maintains that the official exchange rate is 6.3 bolivars to the dollar, the black market rate is more than 700.Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 8.36.47 PM

On top of this, inflation is raging — some analysts have pegged it at nearly 700 percent a year.

Prices are rising so quickly that the central bank stopped publishing inflation statistics in February. And shortages of basic foodstuffs such as milk, corn meal, wheat flour, rice, pasta, coffee, sugar, meat, and poultry abound. When these items do appear in stores and supermarkets, long lines form, often under police supervision to prevent looting.

These hardships have disillusioned former supporters of the PSUV. “Chavez promised to change the country when he took office,” Maria Londono, a 44-year-old housewife in the central industrial city of La Victoria, told me last weekend while looking for groceries. “I didn’t think he meant that we’d become a nation of paupers where we have to spend hours each day in line to buy food. I rue the day that I ever voted for him. I can’t wait to vote for the MUD in December.”

By starting a fight with Colombia, Maduro is hoping to write a narrative that blames his neighbor for his country’s woes, including food shortages and crime. It also serves to stoke nationalism and “rally voters around the flag,” says Grais-Targow.

Only there’s a good chance the plan could backfire.

Televised scenes of deportations, amid allegations of excessive force by the Venezuelan security forces, have embittered many naturalized Venezuelans of Colombian descent, who make up about one-fifth of Venezuela’s population of 27 million. Many came to find a better life or escape their country’s civil war. In 2004, Chavez granted nationality to millions of Colombians, Peruvians, and Ecuadorians in order to secure votes to turn back a recall referendum. Many of them have consistently voted for the PSUV in subsequent elections, but are now considering abandoning the party.

Guillermo Urdaneta, a 47-year-old farm worker in the central state of Aragua, fled Colombia in 1983 because of constant clashes between government forces and guerrilla groups outside Cúcuta, a city on the frontier. Urdaneta received Venezuelan nationality in 2004, and has always voted for Chávez, Maduro, and the PSUV. That’s going to change in December, he says. “I listen to Maduro speak about my country, about my countrymen, and it sickens me,’’ says Urdaneta. “He is looking for scapegoats for problems that his government has been unwilling or unable to solve. First, he picked fights with Spain and the U.S., and then Guyana. Now it’s Colombia’s turn.”

To be fair, Venezuela’s border with Colombia has long been problematic, with regular incursions from guerrilla groups and paramilitaries, as well as drug traffickers. Chávez tacitly supported the FARC and other Colombian guerrilla groups, arguing that their struggle against the Colombian economic elite was justified, which had the effect of opening the frontier to cross-border problems.

But economic motives have accelerated these issues. Up until 2002, Venezuelans often traveled to Cúcuta to buy food and clothing to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate. When Chávez imposed price and foreign currency exchange controls in 2003, the situation reversed itself as the Venezuelan currency plunged against the Colombian peso. Smugglers took advantage of Venezuela’s insanely low domestic gasoline prices (literally $0.01 per gallon) to spirit the fuel across the border for resale at international prices. The same occurred with foodstuffs, prices of which were kept artificially low once controls were implemented.

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 8.37.03 PMThe problems are real, but Maduro has chosen to ignore a key component in the problem, analysts say.

Smuggling and the drug trade occur with the tacit approval of Venezuela’s corrupt National Guard.

“Contraband is largely carried out by the military or with their complicity,” says David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. Blaming Colombians for Venezuela’s crime is also misleading, he says. “The violence largely comes from marginalized young people” in Venezuela.

Colombia has sought to defuse the crisis by enlisting the aid of its neighbors to broker talks. On Monday, Santos, who has previously refused to meet Maduro for fear of political grandstanding, traveled to Quito, Ecuador, to talk with the Venezuelan leader. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Uruguay’s President Tabare Vazquez are both expected to participate.

Colombia has also sent out reports to the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and other international bodies, detailing Venezuelan human rights abuses surrounding the deportations of Colombians.

Santos has also increasingly taken a harder line against Venezuela, saying that Maduro’s attempts at scapegoating his country for Venezuela’s problems aren’t going to succeed. “The revolution is self-destructing because of its own effects, not because of the Colombians,” he said on Sept. 9, referring to Venezuela’s socialist movement.

Many Venezuelans, including Urdaneta, agree. “Venezuela’s problems are of its own making,” Urdaneta says. “To blame Colombia is a farce.”