Sun | Mar 18, 2018

Editorial: Cohabitation Venezuelan style

Published:Tuesday | December 8, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Something important happened in the aftermath of the election for Venezuela's national assembly, which, if it holds, augurs well for that deeply divided country.

President Nicolas Maduro immediately conceded the defeat of the Chavistas - the United Socialist Party. There has, so far, been none of the street violence that has come to characterise Venezuela's politics, such as when scores of people died after Mr Maduro's win in 2013.

But it is early days yet in what is likely to be an uneasy cohabitation between the Chavistas and the victors, the Democratic Union Roundtable (MUD), who hold sharply contrasting visions of Venezuela. In the event, it is a development to which Jamaica should place close attention, not only as a friend wishing the best for the Venezuelan people, but also because of its potential impact on this country's economy. Think PetroCaribe.

This, undoubtedly, is a major victory for Venezuela's until-now-mostly-fragmented opposition, which has been largely on the losing end of most electoral contests since the late Hugo Chávez first won the presidency in 1999, pledging to put his country on a socialist course that has included the nationalisation of significant chunks of the economy.

The death two years ago of the charismatic Mr Chávez coincided with the slump in oil prices, exacerbating the inherent weaknesses of regulated/command-style economies.

For instance, national output is expected to slump this year by 10 per cent; unemployment is heading towards 20 per cent; a Byzantine currency system has contributed to a black market in currency, long queues for food and billowing inflation - around 100 per cent. Healing the economy will demand Venezuelans to gulp down what, at least initially, will seem like very unpleasant medicine, starting with tight fiscal adjustments.

But herein lies the problem. We are not clear that the opposition has carried that message with sufficient clarity. Many voters who decamped the Chavistas' tent did so not because they spurned its ideology and embraced the Opposition's creed. Rather, they hoped for something better than existing privations.

Many people, especially the poor, will not want to see a reversal of the social programmes in housing and health care implemented by Mr Chávez when the country swam in petro-dollars.

major overhaul

In orchestrating reforms, the Opposition, even if it gains a super majority of the assembly that would allow it to undertake a major institutional overhaul, would be advised to trod carefully lest it trigger a new round of political instability that further weakens social cohesions and undermines any possibility of consensus.

The danger of this is apparent in the contrasting rhetoric of some opposition leaders in the first flush of victory. Jesus Torrealba, the MUD's general secretary, offered an olive branch, saying it was not their intent in the assembly "to trample the minority", while another leader, Henry Ramon, predicted that President Maduro would not serve the rest of his term. He will be forced out, albeit by "constitutional means".

From the perspective of Jamaica and others in the Caribbean and Latin America, an important issue will be the new assembly's attitude to PetroCaribe, the scheme for Caracas' preferential provision of oil to beneficiary countries. The programme has provided a critical cushion for Jamaica, but many people in Venezuela would like to see it go.

How the Venezuelans resolve their problems is not only their business. We, too, have a stake as economic partners and Caribbean neighbours.