Venezuela’s government clings on by splitting the opposition and strong-arming the poor

CARACAS, VENEZUELA – MAY 3, 2017: Protest in Caracas, Venezuela. Deputy of the National Assembly holds a Venezuelan flag when the protest is repressed by the Bolivarian National Guard with tear gas. – Editorial credit: Reynaldo Riobueno / Shutterstock.com

Ryan Brading, SOAS, University of London

Despite a crippling economic crisis, alarming social turmoil and a 17% approval rating, Nicolás Maduro’s government has racked up successive electoral victories in recent months. It is now in a position to change the country’s constitution in its favour, and the opposition that rattled it so badly over the summer is in chaos.

After months of violence and killings, all the blood, sweat and tears Venezuela’s opposition activists, protesters and voters gave to the anti-Chavista cause seem to have gone down the drain. So how is this spectacularly unpopular government, which so recently seemed on the edge of collapse, shoring itself up? In a nutshell, with a combination of corruption, electoral meddling, and outright coercion.

One of its most powerful tools is the Carnet de la Patria (Homeland Card). This is an identity card ostensibly meant to improve the efficiency of government social programmes by linking everyone who requests and receives services and handouts to their government records. But, in reality, the card’s main function is to keep a tight grip on the state’s 2.8m employees and also the millions of people seeking government assistance, many of whose livelihoods depend on it.

Because 15m people are registered for the Homeland Card, it’s an effective means of controlling the poor population and ensuring their obedience.

Without registering for the card, Venezuelans cannot access public healthcare, universities, or much-needed subsidised food provided in the Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción (CLAP) box, a food package containing basic products such as rice, pasta, lentils, corn flour and oil.

Because most of Venezuela’s productive farming and food production industries have been expropriated, nationalised – and thereafter poorly managed or closed – this fertile country is struggling to produce enough food for domestic consumption. As a result, the basic foodstuffs in the CLAP box come from Mexico under a contract run by a company owned by Nicolás Maduro.

Maduro’s company is further bleeding Venezuela’s already cash-strapped state coffers by astronomical overbilling for the CLAP box’s contents. Cardholders are charged approximately US$34 to receive the monthly box, again inflating the suppliers’ margin.

In other words, food scarcity is another lucrative method for Los Enchufados (the “well-connected”) to further enrich themselves while keeping the masses under control. People have little option but to put up with it and do whatever they must to survive. It seems Venezuela’s current iteration of socialism works by keeping the masses perpetually close to the poverty line, forcing them to depend on handouts – and, by extension, on the leaders of an elusive “revolution”.

The Homeland Card also comes in very handy for the government when an election rolls around.

Arms twisted

Maduro-style socialism increasingly relies on outright electoral manipulation and intimidation. All cardholders were ordered to participate in July 2017’s hugely controversial Constituent Assembly Election. They were required to personally take a photo of their card as it was scanned by the voting machine and send it to a government official or line manager at work. Failure to do so would lead to the cancellation of government support and, for government employees, automatic dismissal from their jobs.

In other words, voters were forced to show loyalty by turning out at a manipulated election despite an opposition boycott. I personally know individuals who were fired from their jobs at local councils for not sending the expected photos to their line managers.

When the new Constituent Assembly ordered the electoral commission to hold state governor elections on October 15 2017, most opposition political parties decided to participate. According to reputable polling organisation Datanálisis, had the 23 state elections been transparent, the opposition could have won 18-21 governorships. But as many expected, they were instead a clear win for the government – and not a clean one.

Irregularities were widespread: more than 1.6m votes bore erroneous fingerprints. More than 700,000 voters in pro-opposition areas were relocated to pro-government areas, and states such as Bolívar and Miranda saw reports of serious electoral interference –discrepancies between votes in ballot boxes and votes cast at electronic voting machines. There are also reports of opposition observers being thrown out of voting centres by the military. In the end, the opposition won only five states.

Home and dry

The drama of the governors’ elections proved that the government has made great strides in its effort to keep the opposition divided. When prominent opposition leader Carlos Ocariz, the former mayor of the Sucre Municipality, announced he would run for the governorship of Miranda State, he was threatened with trumped-up corruption charges that would have barred him from office. Yet in the end he was permitted to stand.

Rumours soon spread that the government had offered to drop the charges against Ocariz if he revealed the whereabouts of an opposition agitator, Juan Caguaripano, who was arrested in August for his part in an attack on an army base. Rumours soon circulated that Ocariz had caved into the pressure and given up information leading to Caguaripano’s capture. It wasn’t clear if they were true, but once the rumours went viral, many Venezuelan social media users treated them as if they were. The story discredited Ocariz, his party and the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) opposition alliance in one fell swoop.

The final blow for the fragile MUD alliance came when four recently elected governors from the opposition Acción Democrática party decided to take their seats in the hated Constituent Assembly. Without accepting the country’s new institutional rules, they would not have been able to take office – in other words, they subordinated themselves to the corrupt Chavista revolution rather than stay united against this increasingly authoritarian regime.

It seems the government has, for now, come through. The use of food and medicines as political weapons, the push to split the opposition via the Constituent Assembly, to test the impact of the Homeland Card at the ballot box and strengthen state authority in the governor elections – all these brazen efforts to consolidate the government’s corrupt power have apparently paid off.

The ConversationAll the while, everyday Venezuelans are still living in crisis. For the Enchufados, Hugo Chávez’s slogan “Homeland, Socialism, or Death” still rings true, but for the people, “Homeland, Hunger and Death” is more in line with reality.

Ryan Brading, Research Associate, Department of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.