To anyone who has traveled frequently to Venezuela, the deterioration of the country is palpable. By day, people fear driving and getting stuck in traffic because motorcycle thugs will tap on their window, show a gun, and demand the handover of cell phones and cash. By night it is worse: going out on the town could involve robbery, kidnapping, and risk of death, so the streets are empty on Friday and Saturday nights in a city that previously boasted an active nightlife.
Shopping is another sad tale — commercial malls show a lack of maintenance, and stores have little merchandise. The common refrain you hear everywhere is “no hay,” or “there aren’t any.” You hear that when asking for anything from cell phones to toilet paper. You hear it in restaurants, too, where chefs somehow manage to figure out how to cook without basic staples such as cooking oil or flour.
If you can even get an airline ticket to Venezuela—international carriers are prevented from taking their profits out of the country, so they are curtailing flights—you will find prices depend entirely on the exchange rate you are able to obtain. If you change money at official rates you will pay $25 for a sandwich and a cup of coffee. If you are lucky enough to obtain the parallel exchange rate—which is running upwards of 10 ten times the official rate—the same meal will cost you $2.50.
How do Venezuelans cope with living this way? There are significant segments of society that still support the government of Nicolás Maduro despite its inability or unwillingness to tackle the huge economic problems the country faces, and which they have mostly caused. As the economy worsens, however, it seems unlikely that even the poorest segments of Venezuelan society who supported Hugo Chavez and now Maduro will continue to provide that support.
Recently I attended a meeting of graduates from the CIPE sponsored EmprendeAhora program run by Instituto Invertir in Peru, who gathered to develop an alumni network that can continue to help them with their new businesses (we have featured blogs on this very successful program). Seeing these 60 youths work diligently toward establishing an ongoing network using their personal time and resources was inspiring enough, but probably the most impressive aspects of the event were some of the personal stories I heard. Margarita Calle has one of those stories to tell and I would like to share it with you here:
“My way of being and seeing the world completely changed between 2011 and 2012. I was studying economics at the National Central University of Peru in Huancayo, and my short-term goal at that time was to apply for a job in a private firm or in the public sector, and to find a ‘good’ job that would allow for my professional development while working to establish my career. This plan was based on working for someone and finding happiness in it, which is the path that society usually persuades us to take.
On Sunday night, CIPE partner Democracy in Development (DENDE) pulled off a victory for democracy in Paraguay that surpassed their own expectations: the first true presidential debate in the country.
Not only did all four leading presidential candidates participate, the debate was broadcast over the six principal television networks in the country, as well as on 150 commercial radio stations and more than 500 community radio stations. No debate on this scale has happened before in Paraguay, and probably not in all of Latin America.
DENDE was not alone in pulling off this event. Its principal partner in country was the Center for Regulations, Norms and Studies of Communication (CERNECO). The event has been a year and a half in the making and was preceded by series of grassroots organizing events in forums for the business, social and political sectors of the country. Through these forums and the citizen surveys that DENDE conducted, a policy framework was developed to guide the political, economic, and social priorities for the country and which helped steer the debates.
The presidential inauguration in Venezuela has come and gone and President Chavez was a no-show, still presumably recuperating from a post-operative respiratory infection after his fourth surgery to “remove malignant cells” from his pelvic area. In reality, little is officially known about his actual medical condition and whether he will ever be able to return and reclaim the presidency. He has not been seen in public since December 11.
Until Wednesday’s decision by the Venezuelan Supreme Court, the lack of information about what would happen on inauguration day left Venezuelans unsettled. Police and military were in the streets of Caracas to fend off any disturbances that might occur.
Unsurprisingly, the court ruled in favor of viewing the inauguration as a formality and saw no legal obstacle to Chavez continuing as head of state for an unspecified period of time. The decision provoked an outcry from opposition forces that claimed a rupture in constitutional democracy in the country. However, former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles accepted the decision calmly, claiming that the opposition “can’t be seen as trying to gain via a technicality what we have yet to achieve via the vote.”
The private sector has a long history of involvement in Venezuelan politics, some of it quite controversial. For this reason, the peak organization representing the private sector, Fedecámaras, was very careful about maintaining an appropriate profile during this year’s presidential election process.
The president of the organization held a press conference before the election calling upon the Venezuelan people to vote in this very important election. After the election, in which Hugo Chávez was re-elected for a fourth term despite a record showing by the opposition, the Fedecámaras president hailed the peacefulness of the process and asked for the country to seek a path in which private initiative and the state could cooperate in stimulating the economy and creating jobs.
Looking well beyond the election outcome, in August, Fedecámaras introduced “Progress and Well-Being,” a program that they had planned to implement regardless of the election outcome. The program’s goal is to develop a path through which Venezuela can depart from a state-oriented approach to development and replace it with a shared vision for a future that will generate a million jobs in three years and triple private investment in the country.
Last week I was invited by the opposition Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD) in Venezuela to serve as an election observer in the presidential elections where Hugo Chavez was seeking reelection after 14 years in office against the opposition candidate, the young, marathon-running Henrique Capriles Radonski. By the time Sunday dawned, there were high hopes that the Capriles candidacy could make great strides in obtaining votes, and perhaps win the election.
On Sunday morning, October 7, my international group of observers was ready to set out. We had received our credentials from the MUD office, but the government electoral authority (CNE) did not recognize our electoral observer status. Only observers from friendly countries of the UNASUR pact were allowed: no Carter Center, no European Union, and no Organization of American States delegations were permitted full observer status. My group was hoping that the local polling stations would be open and friendly enough to allow us in, despite our compromised status.
That was a big assumption, given that we were headed to one of the biggest Chavez supporting areas of Caracas, La Vega, which also is very poor and sometimes violent. My group of Spaniards, Argentines and me, the lone American, were ready to take on our assignment. But we did not know what to expect.
A Venezuelan voter casts her ballot in Sunday's opposition primary. (Photo: Staff)
By 11am on Sunday, February 12, the sun was already beating down strongly on the many Venezuelan citizens waiting in line to vote. Despite the nearly unbearable heat, nobody was complaining. In fact, the exuberance of the people waiting for three, four, or five hours in line to vote for their candidate in the Democratic Unity Table presidential primary election was contagious. Nothing like this had happened any time recently in Venezuela history and the excitement in the air was palpable.
As an election observer invited by the party — here it’s referred to as the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) — I was lucky enough to experience what many hope will be an historic day for this country. The government of President Hugo Chávez had mounted a disinformation campaign that asked people not to vote in the opposition primary election organized by the MUD and forbade government workers and members of the Chavez political party PSUV from voting. The government told people that no more than 800,000 people would vote and the results would be insignificant. Even MUD supporters were fearful about low voter turnout given the risks many people might have to take in order to go to the polls. Government workers feared for their jobs, contractors thought they would lose their government contracts and business people worried that they would be persecuted by government authorities. Their most optimistic projections were that two million people would come out to the polls.
What happened that day was a remarkable exercise of the democratic process. People lost their fear and came out in droves. Young people mixed with octeganarians at polls I visited. Even some government workers decided that they preferred to honor their democratic rights rather than remain intimidated. The government here frowns on international electoral observers, but when we were introduced in the polling station both the staff and the voters broke out in applause. Even the military personnel who guarded the polls seem to get caught up in the optimism of the moment.
Other than the long lines the election process went very smoothly. In past elections, machines were used that did not provide paper receipts so verification of the results was impossible. New machines were present at this election that allowed each participant to check his or her vote before depositing it in the ballot box. Despite widespread fear that it would happen, no government intimidation happened at the polls I visited.
Last night at 9pm, the results were announced by the MUD — more than three million voters overcame their fears and voted. The winner with 1.8 million votes was Henrique Capriles Radonski, who has promised a government of unity for all Venezuelans. He invited all the candidates he ran against to join him on the stage to demonstrate the unity that exists within the MUD. It is expected that some of them will join his government should he win the election. Now, the challenging work for the MUD will begin: to build a winning campaign that might unseat Hugo Chavez, with his willingness to employ all the powers of the state to stay in office. But for this day, the Venezuelan people enjoyed a breath of fresh air and the promise of a new dialogue on where the country is headed.