In the regional and mayoral elections in Venezuela held on November 21, President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist coalition won 20 of the 23 governor posts and about 200 of the 335 mayoral posts. The opposition got three governorships, including the oil-rich state of Zulia. In the municipal elections, the opposition won about a hundred mayoral posts.
The elections were relatively fair and free, although the government had misused its powers to some extent. The European Union and the Carter Centre, which had monitored the elections, did not report any blatant rigging or other serious irregularities. The turnout was 42 per cent.
This is the first time that the opposition parties have participated in the elections since 2017. They had boycotted the previous presidential (2018) and parliamentary (2020) elections.
The opposition could have won more posts if the different parties were united. There were many cases of vote splitting between the main opposition coalitions, the MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable) and the Democratic Alliance. MUD won 59 of the mayoral contests, while the Democratic Alliance won 37.
Juan Guaido, the so-called interim president recognised by the US, had boycotted the elections and did not vote. He stands further isolated and discredited. The Lima Group, which stood by Guaido, has also lost its credibility after the new leftist government of Peru has switched back to recognition of President Maduro. The European Union, which had gone along with the US in supporting Guaido, has virtually withdrawn its recognition of Guaido. It has started dealing with the government of Maduro and had sent an observer mission to monitor the November 21 elections. This is a significant blow to Guaido. Realising his helplessness, Guaido has now called for unity of the opposition and continuation of engagement with the Maduro regime.
President Maduro has ruled out continuation of the negotiations with the opposition until 'the kidnap' of a prominent government envoy, Alex Saab, who was extradited to the US, comes to an end. Last month, Venezuela's government withdrew from negotiations in Mexico, which had started in August following Saab's extradition in October. Saab, a Colombian businessman, is accused by US prosecutors in Miami of money laundering for the Maduro regime.
The election results have strengthened President Maduro’s regime while exposing the weakness of the divided opposition. President Maduro now has an upper hand in dealing with the opposition as well as with the US, which seeks ‘regime change’ in Venezuela. It seems that the opposition has to live with the reality of Maduro as president till 2024. This means the temporary end of the internal political crisis.
It is time for the opposition leaders to do some serious introspection and formulation of effective strategies to put an end to the authoritarian Chavista regime and restore proper democracy. They need to do this internally and constitutionally without running to Uncle Sam for external intervention.
On the other hand, the economy has stopped bleeding and started healing. After having suffered consecutive GDP contractions since 2014, the country will see positive GDP growth of 1 per cent in 2022. Even the inflation, which had soared to 1,32,060 per cent in 2019, has now come down to 2,719 per cent in June 2021.
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Learning from its mistakes, the government has changed its strategy. It has opened the door for the private sector to do business and make money. It has lifted price controls on basic goods and allowed tariff-free imports. There is virtually no tax enforcement on businesses and individuals. Most importantly, the US dollar, which was long scorned by the ruling regime as a tool of imperialist control, is now considered the de facto national currency. Remittances from the Venezuelan emigrants are adding to the foreign exchange reserves.
At the same time, the rich, who had kept dollars abroad, are bringing them back to the country to take advantage of the new profitable business opportunities. The government no longer subsidises food, fuel or services, and private companies are given the opportunities to fill the gap. Shortages of food and medicines have been eased because vendors, who used to be burdened by rigid price caps set by the state, can now charge hefty prices for their goods and services. Stores are filled with imported goods for those who can afford to pay in dollars. The government has allowed even the opening of casinos.
For now, Venezuela’s dark days are over, on both economic and political fronts. The situation can only become better in the coming years.
The author is an expert on Latin American affairs.