Falling revenues, dire financial conditions and voter exasperation have curbed populist-socialist power in Venezuela and Argentina. The opponents have their work cut out for them.
BOGOTÁ — The recent triumph of the Venezuelan opposition in parliamentary elections was good news. Better still was the voting public's resounding rebuke of the ruling system and the likes of President Nicolás Maduro, parliamentary Speaker Diosdado Cabello — a man of highly dubious reputation — and Tibisay Lucena, a loyalist appointed head of the electoral authority.
Other news that has received less attention is the continued drop in the price of Venezuelan crude, which fell last week to just over $34 a barrel. But these two bits of news are related.
You can blame Maduro for many things, but perhaps his worst feat was prompting nostalgia for his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, through his own mismanagement skills that have led to the country's deterioration. Not that Chavez was really any better. He wouldn't have gotten much farther than Maduro with current oil prices, and without oil prices having hovered around $120 to $130 a barrel during his time in office.
With that much cash, you can buy almost anything, even charisma. You can buy arms and warships from Spain and the United States, negotiate favorable business terms for companies with the friendly Lula government in Brazil, sign big deals with China, Iran and Russia — whose scope and consequences have yet to be fully revealed — provide cheap oil to needy Central American states or pick up the tab for dysfunctional companies, from Costa Rica to Uruguay.
At $38 a barrel, Chávez and Maduro would likely be in the same predicament. So the terrible legacy Venezuelans face today is bequeathed by two presidents, not one, and a system they installed. That system remains in power, even after the recent election defeat.
The opposition now has an arduous path ahead and must remain united in order to progress. Chavismo is not overcome, only badly injured. It is ensconced in its power den, sharpening its claws. In this setting, the opposition must maintain the unity that brought it to victory.
Generally, the populist and authoritarian regimes that call themselves progressive are loathe to leave power. That's in keeping with their doctrine, but also because they fear returning to the bottom of the heap or being held to account.
The conduct of outgoing Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is a perfect example. To begin with, she has thwarted the transition of the incoming government, denying it critical administrative information. Incoming President Mauricio Macri doesn't know what he'll find once he takes office. And in recent weeks, Kirchner has rushed to appoint some 20 ambassadors and hundreds of civil servants, and run up debts the new government must pay in coming months. She even refused to participate in the traditional handover ceremony in the presidential palace.
It is an almost ridiculous attitude that may corroborate popular hearsay about Kirchner's mental health. Meanwhile, her supporters are urging resistance, seeking a remedy for their falling numbers in zealotry.
Like her ideological peers in the region, Kirchner is finding it hard to step down. This lot won't leave before they have trashed the place! And that, after years of failing to make good use of the enormous revenues from a unique period of high demand for their export commodities. They could have invested the money — instead of spending it to win political votes, feed their egos and finance extravagant social programs with eminently electoral motives. Expect also an increasing number of revelations about leaders, senior politicians, their partisans and relatives personally enriching themselves.
The pseudo-progressive ideology is on its way out because the cash ran dry and people are exasperated. But make no mistake, they are not giving up. They will bide their time, hoping people have short memories and will be disoriented by their day-to-day problems. And then, right on time, they will resume their perennial discourse of bombast and bleeding hearts.