Western Hemisphere Intelligence Brief

Issue 229: October 28, 2015
Venezuela: Time Running Out on Maduro
Latin America: Elections Show Democracy’s Strength

 

Venezuela

The government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela has experienced several critical blows to its credibility in recent weeks as it tries to manage severe economic and social crises and seeks to organize national assembly elections scheduled for December 6th. … Last week, a Wall Street Journal front-page story disclosed that, “U.S. authorities have launched a series of wide-ranging investigations into whether Venezuela’s leaders used [the state-run oil company] PdVSA to loot billions of dollars from the country through kickbacks and other schemes.” … The Journal named former PdVSA president Rafael Ramírez, currently Venezuela’s U.N. ambassador, as a target of multiple ongoing federal probes that are “attempting to determine whether PdVSA and its foreign bank accounts were used for other illegal purposes, including black-market currency schemes and laundering drug money.” … Similar accounts of high-level corruption in Venezuela subsequently appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other major international outlets. … One industry analyst speculated that the criminal investigations potentially exposed about $8 billion in PdVSA-owned assets (refineries, pipeline networks, and storage terminals) located in the United States. … This troubling economic news was followed by several political setbacks. … Franklin Nieves, the prosecutor who helped condemn opposition leader Leopoldo López to a 14-year sentence for allegedly inciting violent protests last year, fled Venezuela this past weekend and released a video denouncing “pressure exerted by the executive branch and [his] superiors to continue defending false evidence” against López. … “López is innocent; this was a totally political trial that should be annulled,” Nieves declared in a subsequent interview. … For months, the U.S. State Department, regional statesmen, and international human rights groups have demanded the release of López and dozens of other political prisoners as well as impartial electoral observation. … Maduro received additional bad news on the latter front, as well, when Brazil’s respected electoral tribunal withdrew from a South American Union (UNASUR) observation mission leading up to crucial December elections. … A statement issued by the Brazilian tribunal blamed Venezuelan authorities for rejecting its chief-of-mission and failing to approve a work plan “for auditing the electronic voting system and starting an assessment of compliance and fairness….” … It remains to be seen what credibility the UNASUR electoral mission will have, especially since the international community has been pressing for a more independent mission under the Organization of American States.

 

  • For the first time since Hugo Chávez took power in 1998, the legitimacy of his political movement is at stake with important sectors of the international community. Maduro is struggling to manage a deteriorating economy, shortages of food and medicine, and widespread violent crime at home while honoring international bond obligations (with $4.3 billion due in November) and preserving a semblance of political legitimacy abroad (by elections December 6th). This recent spate of bad news is threatening Maduro’s international credibility as well as his grip on power. The revelations in the Wall Street Journal , following an article in May implicating National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello and Aragua state governor Tareck El Aissami in narco-trafficking, make clear that eyewitnesses to the regime’s corrupt activities are cooperating with U.S. authorities. As a result, several powerful rivals, notably Cabello and El Aissami, are jockeying for control over vast criminal enterprises in an effort to protect their interests if the regime loses power or the economy collapses. One thing the two criminal chieftains agree upon is that Maduro cannot be counted upon to manage these multiple crises and protect them from U.S. law enforcement. The elections are an artifice to project an image of democratic legitimacy, because it is clear that Cabello and company cannot afford to yield power to opposition leaders who might hold the regime accountable for apparent corruption. The lack of a credible observation mission and the revelations about the political persecution of López may expose the elections as a farce, exposing the government’s illegitimacy. Another question is whether the Obama administration will allow federal prosecutors to indict Venezuelan political leaders or publish any indictments that already have been formalized. In any case, time seems to be running out on the Maduro regime.

 

Latin America Elections

A number of open and orderly elections this past weekend demonstrated that if the democratic process has been undermined by neo-authoritarians in some countries in Latin America, in others it is still proving capable of reflecting public opinion in even the most complicated settings…. On Sunday, voters went to the polls to elect national and local leaders in Argentina, Guatemala, Haiti, and Colombia. … The most unexpected result occurred in Argentina, where the center-right former mayor of Buenos Aires Mauricio Macri came within two percentage points (36.7%-34.5%) of President Cristina Kirchner’s hand-picked successor Daniel Scioli. … Some had predicted Scioli would win the presidency outright by securing 45% of the vote in the first round. … Now, a runoff election between Macri and Scioli will take place November 22nd. …. In Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, a former comedian, won Sunday’s presidential elections by a landslide, defeating the left-leaning former first lady Sandra Torres 67.4% to 32.6%. … Morales seized on recent political turmoil in the country — which saw the resignations of both the president and vice president on corruption charges — to run as an outsider on a socially conservative, anti-corruption platform that promised voters a clean, representative government. … Unlike parliamentary elections this past August, the presidential election in Haiti on Sunday appeared to be relatively stable and violence-free, albeit with initial reports of low turnout. … The results are still unknown and not expected until next month. … A runoff election for the presidency will be held on December 27th. … Municipal elections were also held in Colombia on Sunday. … In one of the most important races, after over a decade of leftist leadership in the capital, Bogotá voters elected the centrist Enrique Peñaloso, who served as mayor from 1998 to 2001, to serve as mayor once again. … Elections in Colombia were otherwise marred by one of the country’s left-wing guerrilla groups, the ELN, which launched a deadly attack against soldiers protecting election ballots in the state of Boyacá, killing 11 and taking two others hostage.

 

  • The most significant result of the weekend was the surprising strength shown by Mauricio Macri in forcing Argentina’s presidential race into a second round. Both Macri and Scioli campaigned on the priority of jump-starting Argentina’s moribund economy, but many observers believed Kirchner’s imprimatur and the Peronist machine would be enough to push Scioli over the first-round threshold. What pollsters evidently missed was the level of popular dissatisfaction with more than a decade of kirchnerista rule. In the run-up to November 22nd, all eyes will be on the supporters of third-place candidate, dissident-Peronist Sergio Massa, who won 21% of the vote. The question will be whether they return to the Peronist flock in Scioli or whether they make a clean break for Macri. In the past year, Guatemala has seen numerous peaceful public protests against corrupt, unrepresentative government that culminated in the resignation of Otto Perez Molina and his vice president as a result of an investigation by a U.N.-sponsored team. Entertainer Jimmy Morales successfully tapped that widespread popular anger to win the presidency. However, Morales’ party, the National Convergence Front, did not enjoy the same success, winning just 11 out of 158 congressional seats. This will likely be a significant obstacle for President-Elect Morales in implementing the sweeping changes he has promised. In Colombia, local candidates aligned with President Juan Manuel Santos appeared to have done well, which will be good news for the President as he wraps up peace negotiations between the government and the FARC guerrilla group set to be signed by next March and then submitted for the Colombian people’s ratification.

 

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