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Q&A: “The Challenge in Venezuela Is to Consolidate Democracy”

Fabíola Ortiz interviews MARCELO SERPA, an expert on election campaigns in Latin America

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 23 2013 (IPS) - The challenge for Venezuela is to strengthen democracy, and for its new president, Nicolás Maduro, it is to overcome a potential recall referendum and to further the interests of his political supporters, Marcelo Serpa, of the Latin American Association of Election Campaign Researchers (ALICE), told IPS.

Chavismo, “the political movement that awakened Venezuela,” will remain in force for many years to come, although “it will not rule forever,” said Serpa, a Brazilian economist with a doctorate in communication from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “But no government that does not pay attention to the poorest sectors will be possible,” he said.

Maduro was elected on Apr. 14 as the candidate of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), founded by Hugo Chávez (1954-2013) who was president since 1999 and died of cancer on Mar. 5.

Marcelo Serpa has worked on several election campaigns in Venezuela. Credit: UFRJ

Marcelo Serpa has worked on several election campaigns in Venezuela. Credit: UFRJ

President Maduro must consolidate his administration and face up to hazards such as the appearance of Chavista dissidents within the leftwing Bolivarian movement, said Serpa, who has worked on several electoral campaigns in this country and has just published the book “Eleiçoes Espetaculares – Como Hugo Chávez conquistou a Venezuela” (Spectacular Elections: How Hugo Chávez Conquered Venezuela) in Brazil.

Q: How did Chávez manage to conquer Venezuela and win the affection shown by so many people, even after his death?

A: He tried two ways: the old Latin American-style coup d’état (as an army lieutenant-colonel in 1992), and after doing jail time and being amnestied, he converted his Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 (MBR-200) into a party to reach power in a democratic manner, almost as the saviour of the country.

Q: What was the context in Venezuela when Chávez emerged on the political scene?

A: There were several other attempted coups apart from Chávez’s. Venezuela’s recent history is marked by political instability.

The socio-demographic profile when Chávez became president was this: (the upper-income) categories A, B and C together made up four percent of the population, and the rest belonged to (the lower-income) classes D and E, in an economy that was wholly dependent on oil.

Q: How was he able to attract so many followers?

A: During the two years that he was in prison (after his aborted military uprising), he drew up a government plan and several proposals, including a reform of the system that would take into account the rentier privileges from oil.

The country’s economic model was focused then on oil, which was in the hands of a small élite. Chávez wanted to end the rentier economy, and he wanted all the profits from PDVSA (the state oil company) to go towards spending in Venezuela aimed at putting an end to poverty.

With the new constitution rewritten in 1999, Chávez appropriated those resources for the social programmes and managed, for instance, to eradicate illiteracy.

Q: There has been a great deal of speculation about the lack of transparency in the handling of information about the illness and death of Chávez. What is your analysis of this communication process?

A: I have been to Venezuela several times, and have worked during elections as a communication professional, and in my view the information flow has always been very good.

Chávez had a problem with the international media in particular, and then with the closure of RCTV, the main Venezuelan television channel.

That was controversial, but I have never seen greater freedom of the press than in Venezuela. To say that the press there is not free is not true. Chávez gave interviews to all journalists and gave press conferences every Sunday. He was greatly misunderstood by the international media.

Q: What is his legacy to his political successor?

A: Before Chávez, Venezuela was impoverished; the recipients of oil rents were wealthy, but none of that wealth went to the poor. Today Venezuela still has many problems, but the poorest classes have their needs met to a certain extent. They receive enormous assistance from the state thanks to the oil resources.

Private enterprise has shrunk, which has compelled the state to take on certain functions and commitments that are beyond its possibilities.

Q: What is your view of the Apr. 14 presidential elections?

A: The victory of Chavismo came about on the back of a spectacle-ridden discourse, in which emotion was frankly predominant over reason. When Chávez announced he had to go (to Cuba) for further surgery and that, if he were unable to govern, the people should elect Maduro, polls indicated that 35 percent of Venezuelan respondents did not know who Maduro was.

In October 2012, Chávez beat (opposition candidate Henrique) Capriles by a difference of 10 percentage points. But in this election, it was difficult for Chávez’s prestige to be transferred wholesale to Maduro. I had already forecast a difference of two percentage points between the two candidates.

Q: What is your view of the role of the opposition in this process?

A: The opposition made the same mistake as Chávez: it tried to get to power first by force, and then by democratic means.

Venezuelan politics are aggressive. The opposition was never silenced. Capriles himself was imprisoned (for alleged involvement in a violent protest outside of the Cuban embassy after the 2002 failed coup against Chávez) and then amnestied by Chávez. But the opposition was absent for a long time, and is now trying to reconstruct itself and paying a high price for it, which allowed Maduro’s victory.

Q: What do you predict for the future?

A: A new era is beginning, of Chavismo without Chávez. Venezuela’s path is to strengthen democracy. Chavismo will not remain in government eternally. After so many years of rule, it has a problem of image attrition.

But another kind of government, that does not pay attention to the poorest sectors, will not be possible. A number of (social) programmes have been installed that will have to be maintained. Chavismo has made its mark and will continue to be present for many more years. It was certainly Chavismo that awakened Venezuela.

The presidential term is six years, and a constitutional provision allows for a recall referendum after the halfway mark, in certain circumstances. It is probable that the opposition will try to hold a referendum against Maduro.

What is at stake is whether Maduro is capable of surviving, as much by maintaining his mandate as by furthering the interests of his party. There may even be some Chavismo dissidence within leftwing Bolivarian socialist thought.

 
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