Venezuelan Elections: Madison Avenue Style

September 25, 2007

Venezuelans are preparing to go to the polls on December 4 to elect their sixth consecutive presi- dent since overthrowing the dic- tator Marcos P&rez Jim6nez in 1958. Democracy does not come cheaply here. The cost of the cam- paign, in high gear for the last Gloria Lacava, a Venezuelan journalist, is a doctoral candidate in Latin Ameri- can history at New York University. year and a half, will reach well over $225 million. With a voting population of eight million, this makes the Venezuelan effort to woo voters by far the most expen- sive in the world. The electioneering cost, how- ever, has not been reflected in the quality of the debate. In the midst of the worst economic crisis in 25 years, the traditional party cam- paign is again a Madison Avenue style contest which avoids serious discussion of the issues and gives preference to vituperation and personal attacks. As in previous campaigns, lip service is paid to the need to revive agriculture and the ailing construction industry, and create new jobs. Charges of corruption and mis- management are being levelled AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland greets AD presidential candidate Jaime Lusinchi in Washington in April 1982. NACLA Report 36update . update . update update Herrera Campins-"returning the country mortgaged three times over. " at both the ruling Christian Demo- crats (COPEI) and their Social Democratic challenger, Democrat- ic Action (AD), the latter for the excessive spending in its last presidential period, 1973-78. AD held office between 1958 and 1968 and since then has alternated power with COPEI. Venezuelans' discontent is man- ifested in declining enthusiasm for the two-party dominance of AD and COPEI. Thus, although September polls give AD's Jaime Lusinchi a commanding 40% of the vote and COPEI's Rafael Cal- dera, 25%, the combined total Nov/Doc 1983 they are likely to receive falls far short of the 90% garnered by both parties in 1978. "1 no longer be- lieve a switch of government is going to take the country out of the crisis," said a small-business woman from Puerto Cabello, 250 kilometers west of Caracas, who in the past voted for AD. Candidate is Ex-Guerrilla Over the last five years the Left has been the clear beneficiary of voter dissatisfaction with the ma- jor parties. Banned from partici- pation in the political process for most of the 1960s, parties today claiming a socialist ideology have emerged as the third force in Vene- zuelan politics. After taking 7.7% of the presidential vote and 13.1% of the congressional vote in 1978, the Left formed a united front in the 1979 municipal elections and captured 18.5% of the vote. They now control municipal councils in several important cities, including the industrial Ciudad Guayana, and have managed a series of significant victories in key labor and professional organizations. The most potent force among Left groupings is the Movement to Socialism (MAS) which is running ex-guerrilla, Teodoro Petkoff, for president. The polls give Petkoff 12% of the vote, more than double his nearest rival on the left, Jos6 Vicente Rangel. Rangel heads the People's Unity Alliance (AUP), a loose coalition including the Com- munist Party of Venezuela. But the real battle for Socialists is the congressional elections, also scheduled for December 4, when they hope to increase their total representation to 25%. MAS alone is expected to gain 17% of this total. If this projection proves cor- rect, the combined Left could very well outweigh the Christian Demo- crats in Congress. At any rate, election results should confirm Venezuelan socialism as the largest leftist electoral force in present- day Latin America. A major factor in the growing weight of the Left in Venezuelan politics has been the economic stagnation of the last years. After the oil boom of the mid-1970s, government revenues have shrunk by $4 billion since early 1982 be- cause of declining oil prices. The nationalized oil industry provides 97% of foreign exchange and 70% of all fiscal revenues. Monetarist restraints imposed 37update * update * update* update by ruling COPEI President Luis Herrera Campins have brought inflation down to 6% in 1983 from the 16% rate registered in 1980. But as a result, GDP growth has fallen to a minuscule 0.6%. The highest social cost of the Christian Democrat austerity measures has been a steep rise in unemploy- ment, which labor experts esti- mate may reach a 25% rate by the end of this year. The rationale given by Herrera for tight money policies was the need to end the "gay and irre- sponsible merry-go-round" which had flourished during the AD Ad- ministration of Carlos Andr6s Perez (1973-78). Despite such righteous indignation, the Herrera Adminis- tration was equally inept at man- aging the economy and control- ling credit expansion. State enter- prises and autonomous public agencies, which are responsible for the lion's share of the foreign debt, contracted unchecked short- term loans to meet long-term obli- gations, becoming insolvent by the end of 1982. In addition, the government did nothing to prevent the cash outflow frenzy in the two months preceding the imposition of exchange controls on February 18. Mortgaging the Country President Herrera will leave be- hind a foreign debt of $33 billion, the fourth largest in Latin America. As candidate Petkoff says, "Her- rera accused the former adminis- tration of mortgaging the country, but he is returning it mortgaged three times over." Now the COPEI Administration has been pressured by the IMF to refinance its debt with 400 foreign banks, but Herrera has managed to postpone discussions until af- ter the December elections so as 38 to shift political responsibility for the coming austerity measures onto his likely AD successor. Given the unpopularity of the ruling Christian Democrats, U.S. media expert David Garth advised COPEI presidential candidate and party founder Rafael Caldera to divorce his image from the Her- rera Administration and present himself as the country's savior. Caldera, who was president be- tween 1968 and 1973, represents the conservative wing inside CO- PEI, traditionally an elitist-oriented, Church-based party. Running for the fourth time, he is supported by the laissez-faire entrepreneurs to whom he has promised to hand back inefficient state-owned enter- prises. "But if any real political differ- ences existed within COPEI, they faded away during Herrera's rule," a highranking leftist candidate for Congress said. Due to his 1978 campaign claims of a government "for the poor," Herrera had gained the reputation of being like a wa- termelon: green (COPEI's official color) outside and red inside, but eventually his economic policies proved his conservatism. Political characterizations aside, Caldera's exclusion of Herreristas from COPEI's congressional slate now indicates that a clash, largely based on personalities, is very possible. "This could become so serious as to lead to a formal split of the party in the medium term which would certainly benefit the Left," the parliamentary candidate added. By contrast, front-runner Jaime Lusinchi, of the AD opposition, has the benefit of a united party behind his candidacy. He is strong- ly supported by ex-President P6rez who, after parrying judicial charges of corruption, has made a grand political comeback and is now considered to be the most influ- ential Social Democrat leader. Lusinchi is also backed by the party labor bureaucracy which controls the Venezuelan Labor Confederation (CTV), the largest union in the country with over a million members. Originally a mass-based populist force, the Social Democrats now rely on party bureaucracy, with their National Executive Committee in charge of all policy making. "Congress Is a Remnant" The leitmotif of Lusinchi's cam- paign has been the Pacto Social, a corporatist style arrangement which calls for the participation of CTV-appointed officials in the co- management of the public sector, now accounting for 70% of the economy. The Pacto Social will undoubtedly favor state and labor bureaucrats, not workers, over the entrepreneurial sector. But even so, "it is a pipe dream," a Venezuelan psychologist recently said, "for when Lusinchi becomes president, he will have to rule in the interests of the economic groups which financed his cam- paign." On the left, MAS's leader Teo- doro Petkoff also talks of co-man- agement, mainly in steel and alu- minum industries, but advocates workers' self-management in sug- ar mills and public transportation. Petkoff, who turned away from or- thodox Marxism and advocates "socialism with democracy," had been battling in the Senate to ex- tend participatory democracy to all levels of society. He proposes a reform of the electoral process by means of direct elections of governors and congresspeople, and shorter terms for congression- al and municipal representatives. NACLA Reportupdate update pdate update Former guerrilla Teodoro Petkoff promotes "socialism with democracy" as MAS's presidential candidate. "Congress is a remnant of the tradition of autocracy in Venezu- ela," Petkoff recently told this re- porter, adding that party interests prevail over those of the electors, a criticism unanimously voiced by the Left. His government program includes a tax reform, in a country where taxes are still relatively low and regressive, and the breaking up of private monopolies. A 1970 Communist Party split, MAS has grown from 40,000 mem- bers in 1977 to 120,000, constitu- ting the largest single party on the left. In order to enlarge its mass following, the party developed a strategy aimed at discarding the image of the Left as bearded ter- rorists bent on the violent overthrow of the system. Now MAS is striving for a kind of middle-class respect- ability and to be identified.with popular culture. With two senators, Nov/Dec 1983 eleven deputies and strong bases in the young, urban middle class, Petkoff strives to extend MAS "even to the last forgotten Indian in the Venezuelan backlands." Since its gradual electoral come- back beginning in 1968, the Left has never enjoyed such an ad- vantageous climate. Besides the political benefits derived from Venezuelans' discontent with tra- ditional parties, the Left has grown out of a slow process of internal reconstruction, following the 1960s legacy of disunity and isolation. Unlike AUP, led by Rangel, how- ever, MAS has projected an image of greater internal unity, a factor which seems to favor its future electoral performance. Ultimately, the Left's success at the polls--especially in the presi- dential vote-will depend on the ability of the government to gloss over serious economic problems, and allay fears in the financial community. An IMF intervention could weigh heavily on the future of Venezuelan politics. Social tensions resulting from IMF-imposed austerity meas- ures could lead to serious repres- sion with an increasingly active role for the armed forces. But if the incoming government is in a posi- tion to reschedule the foreign debt with international banks-as ma- jgr creditors are now predicting- then Venezuela's political system is not likely to be altered by struc- tural changes of an anti-democrat- ic nature. In addition, the crisis of authoritarian regimes in South America suggests that the sup- pression of democracy does not guarantee social and economic stability, a lesson surely not lost on Venezuela.

Tags: Venezuela, Elections, Rafael Caldera, Jaime Lusinchi, Luis Herrera Campins

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