A leftist candidate won a close election in a South American country, threatening US interests in the region. The US president asked the CIA to “make the economy scream” to undermine governance and bring regime change, even if by violent means.
I am referring, of course, to Salvador Allende’s election in Chile, and Richard Nixon’s reaction, which eventually led to Augusto Pinochet’s coup, one of the most bloody in the troubled history of the region.
The reelection of Nicolas Maduro last Sunday has led to the denunciation of the election in the US, with Vice President Mike Pence calling the elections “a sham”, and suggesting the imposition of more economic sanctions.
The opposition’s repeated defeat at the ballot box, the persistent economic crisis, and the increasing pressure by the US and its allies, that led to the recalling of 14 ambassadors from Caracas in protest, and the counter expulsion of US diplomats, may create the conditions for a new tragedy in the region.
It is true that, as the opposition leaders have insisted, the majority of Venezuelans did not vote for Maduro last Sunday, in part a result of a boycott called by the main opposition coalition. Turnout was very low, around 46 percent, which is the lowest in recent history. The boycott resulted from the notion that the elections are always rigged and that an opposition candidate would have no chance of winning.
Francisco Rodriguez, the economic adviser to Henri Falcon, an ex-governor and ex-Chavista turned opposition candidate that ended second in the ballot, suggested before the election that if Maduro won, it that would imply the elections were rigged. In other words, even those in the opposition that were willing to participate in the electoral process argued beforehand that the only acceptable outcome was Maduro’s defeat. Anything less would be proof of cheating.
Note, however, that Maduro obtained almost 68 percent of the votes, according to the official bulletin from the National Electoral Council, which corresponds to about 31 percent of the voters. By comparison, Donald Trump‘s 46 percent of the popular vote, with a turnout of 58 percent, corresponds to about 27 percent of the voters.
The election result is not very different from what Rodriguez suggested a few months ago was the likely extent of Maduro’s support among Venezuelans (he suggested it was around 25 percent), and that means that the result was within the range of what an informed observer would have expected.
The main complaint by Falcon seems to be the alleged use of the so-called Red Points, stalls where the Homeland Cards were scanned to supposedly identify the beneficiaries of the government’s social programmes, as an instrument to pressure the poor to vote for Maduro. It is unclear to what extent that was an effective strategy. The qualifications for social programmes are not related to voting, and there is no way of identifying whom anyone voted for since the ballot is secret. Given the opposition boycott and the low turnout, he would have won anyway, just on the basis of his popularity (as low as it might be).
It seems that the reelection of Maduro is less the result of electoral fraud by the government, than a consequence of the inability of the opposition to unite and produce a clear alternative that can win an election.
So far, they have been unable to expand their support from the many impoverished Venezuelans that are suffering under the economic crisis, and that, at least so far, prefer to stick with Maduro for fear of the alternative.
Oil and the Venezuelan collapsing economy
The question then is what to expect from the very vulnerable situation of the Maduro government, under siege by an increasingly hostile external situation, with further economic sanctions, a brutal depression with a collapse of GDP by about 50 percent since 2013 according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and hyperinflation.
The problems point to the inability of the Chavista economic model to break with the dependency from oil exports, and the dire consequences of that pattern of specialisation when oil prices collapse – a problem that has plagued Venezuela for decades.
The more recent partial recovery of oil prices is unlikely to lead to a significant recovery of the economy, in part because the increase in oil prices is due to the collapse in the Venezuelan oil production. The collapse in production is not completely disconnected from the US restrictions, even though the US has fallen short of imposing a ban on oil imports.
The sanctions imposed by the Trump administration are directed mostly at the ability of US companies to buy Venezuelan debt and restrictions on the ability of Venezuela to sell its assets, making it harder for the country to finance its external obligations.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Venezuela already defaulted on $3bn worth of bonds, and must still pay another $6bn later this year. To make matters worse, US oil company ConocoPhillips has taken over Caribbean assets of the state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).
The sanctions and the collapse of the oil production make a default very likely, and in contrast with other countries in the region, like Argentina, that have received support from the US, there will be no IMF money for Venezuela.
There is no end in sight for the economic crisis, and there could be none unless the US government decides to intervene, providing aid, since Venezuela’s external obligations are denominated in dollars.
An imminent catastrophe
On top of this, there is a humanitarian crisis unfolding, with a large number of refugees moving to neighbouring countries. The US embargo has exacerbated the shortages, including of essential medical supplies, creating a situation in which leaving the country is the only alternative.
Given the current circumstances, it is clear that Venezuela is ready to explode. The economy and the Venezuelan people are screaming. The notion that this crisis is solely the fault of the Chavista government is misconceived. Mainstream media’s claims that Maduro is a dictator, the opposition are victims and the US government is a benevolent, and reluctant participant, in all this is a caricature of reality.
The US government has promoted regime change in several countries in the region to undermine leftist governments that challenged its neoliberal policies.
The sanctions, very much like Nixon’s instructions to the CIA in the 1970s, are designed to inflict pain to the general population, to intensify the demands for regime change within the country and to make it more likely.
The unwillingness of the opposition to participate in the elections suggests that they expect and support, not the ballot, but another kind of solution, which may require bullets. Not only the possibility of a default seems more likely, but that of a coup, with all the violence that it would entail, looks increasingly a likely outcome.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.