Imagine being ruled by an even more openly leftist version of Donald Trump—for 17 years straight. That’s what life was like under Chavismo, Venezuela’s socialist movement.
Now, after 17 years, it may finally be the beginning of its end. And not a moment too soon.
On Sunday, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) won a landslide victory over the United Social Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the ruling party led by President Nicolas Maduro and previously by Hugo Chavez.
According to the Consejo Nacional Electoral, Venezuela’s election commission, the opposition won 99 seats, almost 60 percent of the 167-seat National Assembly. The governing party only won 46 outright, a landslide loss of 100. Twenty-two seats are still too close to call, meaning the opposition’s majority could expand even further. It’s the opposition’s first electoral victory in almost two decades over authoritarian Chavista socialism, and it’s a huge deal.
With its comfortable new Assembly majority, the MUD will enjoy powers unthinkable just a few weeks ago. The opposition can now call an assembly to rewrite the constitution. It can even level a referendum against the president or a member of the legislature. More immediately, the most useful new power for the opposition will be offering amnesty for political prisoners like key leader Leopoldo Lopez who have been arrested in the past year and a half of opposition protests.
Venezuela has long been a polarized country, divided between its wealthier, cosmopolitan northern cities and its poorer, rural southern regions. Chavez retained power for 14 years by playing these regions against each other, relying on his rural Chavista base to counter the opposition movement at the ballot box and in the streets.
How did Venezuela go from very nearly giving Hugo Chavez essentially dictatorial powers in 2008 to rejecting his legacy just seven years later? Harsh protester crackdowns in 2013 and 2015 did the government no favors, but those could easily be dismissed by Maduro’s supporters as CIA-backed attempts to overthrow the government.
There was something else at work here. As James Carville would tell you, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
It might have been good at throwing college students into paddy wagons, but the government couldn’t fix its own bankrupt economic policies. Sinking oil prices drove current problems, but it takes a special brand of socialism to turn a country with more oil than Saudi Arabia into one poorer than Brazil. Plenty of OPEC nations around the world are tightening their belts as oil prices decline, but at the end of the day they still have things like readily available food, toilet paper, non-triple digit inflation, and condoms cheaper than $775 a pack.
The fuel on the file was Venezuela’s price controls, import barriers, and rationing, which removed the market’s information signals that help it address shortages. Unsurprisingly, things got worse. A lot worse. We’re not just talking long lines at the grocery store. We’re talking commuters getting murdered in the streets for spare parts off their motorcycles. The capital, Caracas, has the second-highest homicide rate in the world, a jaw-droppingly huge 115.98 per 100,000 people.
The oil boom was always going to be temporary. Venezuela’s strict capital controls and toxic business environment kept foreign investment away. That’s how the state-owned petroleum industry accounted for 90 percent of the country’s exports, ensuring a hefty economic hangover when prices changed. It’s also why there are fewer resources around for basic consumer goods—the government is prioritizing food imports and servicing the national debt instead of letting capital flow freely.
The Democratic Unity Roundtable’s victory is a huge opportunity for Venezuela to roll back its decades of artificial stagnation and join the twenty-first century. MUD’s success comes alongside free-market reformer Mauricio Macri’s recent triumph over Argentina’s Peronist President, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner. Kirchner, like Chavez and Maduro, similarly mired her country in authoritarianism and economic crisis. Meanwhile, a libertarian student movement is gaining steam in Brazil to oust leftist President Dilma Rousseff, who is accused of much the same.
Chavismo’s defeat is the latest phase of South America’s awakening. A new generation is realizing the stagnation state control has wrought, particularly on countries with the resources to be much more prosperous, if only given the chance.