On Dec. 6, Venezuela's Bolivarian movement lost their hold on the country’s legislature for the first time since 1998. For many friends of Venezuela, it was a depressing day. But let's revisit some history, and see how, despite the bitterness, even this electoral outcome is an achievement of the Bolivarians.
What preceded this 17-year Bolivarian era? A corrupt power-sharing electoral machine (resulting from the Punto Fijo Pact, signed by the country’s main political parties and effectively keeping them in power) ruled Venezuela after a period of dictatorship ended in 1958. From 1958 to 1998, Punto Fijo administered poverty for the population, enforcing it through limiting press freedom, police violence, and even state-sponsored murder and disappearances. I went to a very moving event in Caracas in 2004 in which survivors of the “dirty war” of the 1960s and 1970s commemorated their lost loved ones.
The beginning of the end for Punto Fijo was the 1989 riots — known as Caracazo — that were sparked when people woke up to doubled bus fares. The army was called. Hundreds of people were killed. In 1992, a group of army officers, among them Hugo Chavez, tried to overthrow Punto Fijo. When the coup failed, Chavez went on television to call on the soldiers to stand down, took responsibility, and went to jail. When he got out, he advocated an electoral and constitutional path to change. Twenty successful elections later, the Bolivarians have lost the legislature.
Why did they lose? From 2008 on, and especially since the oil price drop in 2014, Venezuela's oil-dependent economy suffered, as did the Bolivarian social programs and the people that benefited from them. Macroeconomic mistakes by the government in an already difficult situation fed the black market in dollars and the smuggling economy (see analysis by Greg Wilpert), which led to major suffering, frustration and a loss of support for the government.
Continuing problems of corruption within the state, as well as crime, also hurt. Both of these problems preceded the Bolivarians, but the revolution was not successful enough in dealing with them. The opposition earned points campaigning on both.
The Bolivarians accomplished much since arriving on the scene. Massive barriers to health care and education were removed. Social services were built where there had been none. Before it became the target of smugglers, a program guaranteeing affordable prices for staple grocery and other items was very successful.
But here is the Bolivarian accomplishment to celebrate after Dec. 6: The opposition, who look nostalgically on the days of Punto Fijo, were only able to win by using the fair electoral system and constitution established by the Bolivarians.
The opposition had tried a military coup in 2002. They had tried a national strike and sabotage of the country's oil infrastructure from 2002 to 2003. They tried a recall referendum in 2004 and made false claims of fraud when they lost. They tried sabre-rattling and foreign threats. They tried skirmishes on the border with Colombia, and they tried infiltrating paramilitaries across the border to carry out acts of destabilization.
Most recently, there were violent opposition actions in the streets and another Venezuela-Colombia border problem. Day in, day out, for the entire 16 years of Bolivarian rule, virulent, false, anti-government broadcasts have been on Venezuelan television and in the Western media. The Bolivarian movement survived it all, always forcing the contest onto the democratic field of elections and winning. And when they lost on that field, they conceded defeat.
Much remains to be seen: how the Bolivarian president and the opposition legislature will manage, the extent to which the opposition will respect the democracy and the constitution that brought them into the legislature, whether the movement can regroup and find a way to resolve the country's economic problems.
In the meantime, it is worth remembering at this time that Venezuela's democracy is an achievement of the Bolivarians. Even in losing, they have won, at least for now.