In Venezuela, the declining popularity of the political left and the policies of former President Hugo Chavez could have important implications for Russian foreign policy in Latin America.
A mural of Venezuelan's late President Hugo Chavez decorates a wall outside a polling station where voters wait to enter during congressional elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015. Photo: AP
Importantly, the right-of-center opposition won the elections in Venezuela by a large margin. The opposition Democratic Unity Alliance (MUD) won 99 out of 167 seats in the National Assembly. The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) lost and will have only 46 representatives in the National Assembly. The fate of 19 seats has not been decided yet, but it is clear that the forces opposing former President Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, a leftist social movement and political process in Venezuela, will have an absolute parliamentary majority after the elections.
This marks the first serious defeat of the revolutionary forces, but it was not entirely unexpected. The Venezuelan economy is going through some tough times: in the third quarter of 2015, GDP dropped by 9 percent and the 2015 inflation rate will likely exceed 100 percent. Every day, people experience a shortage of key products and suffer from high crime rates. The approval rating of Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro, dropped to 22 percent.
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Therefore, election results were predictable, and Maduro acknowledged his defeat. His adversary Jesus Torrealba, the leader of the opposition that unites a wide range of political parties from the far left to the far right (even though liberal factions prevail), promised, "The country wants changes, and they are going to start today."
What does the shift to the right in South America mean for Russia?
Venezuelan elections cannot be analyzed outside the new political context of Latin America, especially that of South America. The end of 2015 shows a definite presence of a shift to the right in South America.
Not too long ago, conservative politician Mauricio Macri won the presidential election in Argentina, and the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies dominated by right wing forces initiated the impeachment of current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff by accusing her of using illegal funding during her election campaign. The rating of the leftist President of Brazil these days does not rise above 10 percent. According to French researcher Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, "Electoral tendencies lately have been favorable for conservative and anti-government candidates in Latin America.”
There are several causes of the left-wing retreat in the region. Some of the main factors include the economic recession in large countries of the continent, people's general discontent with their financial situation, the crisis-driven shrinkage of the middle class, and the lack of charismatic leadership.
Only ten years ago, two different branches of the Latin American left wing movement represented by Socialism of the 21st century and the Workers' Party were led by such magnetic politicians as Chavez and Luíz Inácio da Silva, former President of Brazil (2003-2011). The personality and charm of their successors Maduro and Rousseff definitely fall short in comparison.
However, the emerging right-wing shift is potentially dangerous not only for various leftist parties and organization of South America, but also for Russian influence in the region. Left and left-of-center administrations have been Moscow's main partners in Latin America due to their traditional anti-Americanism and adherence to the concept of a multipolar world. To the contrary, right-wing forces in Latin America are more interested in political and economic partnership with the U.S. and Western Europe.
The issue for the Russian Foreign Ministry is that it erroneously cooperates only with the current leadership and completely ignores the opposition. For example, during the fall election campaign, Russian President Vladimir Putin and current President of Argentina Cristina Kirschner held a joint videoconference, and Valentina Matvienko, the Speaker of Russia's Federal Assembly, met with Daniel Scioli, a presidential candidate of the ruling party.
However, the left-of-center alliance lost the election, and it appears that Moscow was not prepared for the success of the opposition. In this respect, the U.S. approach to Latin American diplomacy is more flexible and sensible.
What should Russian diplomats be preparing for?
The same applies to the Russian foreign policy in Venezuela. In the beginning of October, St. Petersburg hosted a large scientific forum dedicated to the relations between Russia and Ibero-American states. The organizing committee of the forum was planning on inviting Henrique Capriles, former presidential candidate of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and he gave his preliminary consent. But ultimately it decided not to give the go-ahead. Capriles' visit was canceled. Yet again Moscow showed that it preferred to deal with those in power.
Since the opposition won most of the seats in the National Assembly of Venezuela, as Professor of Law Simon Gomez points out, they can "use parliamentary procedures to question ministers, file corruption charges, and pardon political prisoners." According to Victor Jeifets, a Professor at St. Petersburg State University, who several years ago predicted the “right wing coup” in Latin America, some of the opposition are looking up to the U.S., and now that they have complete control of the parliament, they can easily block new commercial contracts between Venezuela and Russia.
Up until now, Caracas has been Moscow's main ally in South America. There has been great rapport and understanding on all global political issues. For example, recently Maduro announced that on behalf of his compatriots he "supports and applauds Russia's decision" to launch air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East. Russia and Venezuela are actively developing military links, and Venezuela is among the few countries that acknowledge the independence of the two Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
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It is also necessary to remember that Russian corporations, such as Lukoil, Rosneft, Gasprom, and Surgutneftegaz, are seriously involved in the development of Venezuelan energy resources. A joint venture is developing a heavy oil site in the Orinoko area. Further, in 2011, a Russian-Venezuelan bank opened its doors, and the two countries are global partners in shipyard construction, commercial aviation, and in the automobile industry. From now on, new global initiatives that have to be ratified by the parliament are up in the air.
Of course, the most important factor in Latin American countries such as Venezuela remains the presidential election. Even though they lost control over the National Assembly, Chavistas still have the executive power, and Maduro can actually remain President until the beginning of 2019. It is obvious, however, that the joint opposition will do everything in its power to get Maduro to step down ahead of schedule. Moscow definitely has to be ready for any scenario that plays out in this country.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.