Photo: Slate, retrieved.
As his first term enters its final year, Donald Trump has survived accusations of varying legitimacy: ousting James Comey from the FBI, corruption, bribery, collusion with Russia, refusing to grant Ukraine aid. The Democratic establishment has become hell-bent on ousting Trump under whatever premise necessary since his first year in office and this same exercise, though in an extreme version, is what the Venezuelan opposition has engaged in over the past two decades, first with Chávez and then with Maduro, to no success.
A supporter of the Venezuelan opposition may see what’s happening in the United States as a bit of déjà vu; a president is bolstered by a period of historic economic growth, benefitting his chances for re-election, while the opposition struggles to achieve coherence and a rallying point beyond their dislike of the current administration. Indeed, Venezuelan commentators, such as Andrés Miguel Rondón, saw the writing on the wall and have tried to warn Democrats since Trump’s first month in office: accept the result of the election, try better next time, and don’t try to force him out.
Democrats should look at the choices made by the Venezuelan opposition that allowed chavismo to flourish in order to avoid making the same mistakes with Trump.
A Negative Identity
A supporter of the Venezuelan opposition may see what’s happening in the United States as a bit of déjà vu.
Democrats are merging their political identity with “becoming the opposite of Donald Trump,” a parallel with the “anti-chavista” label found in Venezuela. While this strategy may bode well when it comes to repudiating Trump’s less appealing personal characteristics, it doesn’t work as much when it comes to opposing the administration’s highlights: equity market record highs, strong GDP growth, leading a bipartisan policy of confronting China, signing fairer trade deals with our immediate neighbors, and killing terrorists that targeted Americans.
Whether Trump deserves any credit for these achievements is a debate that has no practical value in this discussion. Chávez wasn’t responsible for the oil price boom that provided years of prosperity to Venezuela and yet voters gave him full credit for it. Blind opposition to Trump during a period of record-breaking growth, much like the anti-chavista movement, has failed to gain the overwhelming traction necessary to oust a president due to the lack of a more nuanced approach. Democrats must be wary of the dangers that come along with this vague “opposition” label. Venezuelans identify non-chavista politicians as “oposición” rather than their actual political parties, a practice that dilutes and obscures what these politicians actually stand for.
When you look him up online, Henrique Capriles is labeled as “opositor” before his label as leader of the Primero Justicia party. Leopoldo López and Juan Guaidó didn’t fare any better in being associated with Voluntad Popular over their “opositor” tag. In the public sphere, these key Venezuelan political parties have been reduced to what they’re not: not-Chávez.
Primero Justicia is no longer a party identified with its original goal, a desire to reform the Venezuelan justice system and decentralize its institutions so that the poorest Venezuelans can participate in judicial proceedings. Twenty years after its start as a political organization, Primero Justicia is defined by the sole policy of opposing the Maduro regime, as is the case with the other parties that make up the opposition.
By allowing the umbrella “opposition” term to overshadow political party identity, the 50 plus parties that have participated in the opposition alliance Mesa de Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Roundtable) have dumbed down their message to one of ousting Chávez and Maduro. This message hasn’t been enough. Anti-chavismo, by itself, wasn’t enough to mobilize the Venezuelan population in large enough numbers and for long enough to oust Maduro during the peak of the economic crisis that has more than halved the Venezuelan economy.
Both Democrats and the Venezuelan opposition, however, have struggled to make the case regarding how they’d be suited to alleviate the problem of persistent inequality.
It took an economic collapse for the Venezuelan opposition to win the parliamentary elections decisively in 2015; the opposition’s messaging handicapped its chances of winning so significantly that it only succeeded when outside factors (the economy and government corruption) fell into its favor, unfair electoral practices aside. In the United States, there appear to be no outside factors that will convince voters to bail on Trump the way chavistas bailed on the PSUV in 2015. Impeachment has done little to Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings, and the United States added 225,000 jobs in January, beating expectations by over 40%. Despite some fluctuation, Trump’s approval and disapproval stand at the same spot where they were a year ago.
The American GDP entered its 121st straight month of growth in July 2019, surpassing the previous record-setting period from 1991 to 2001. What chance does anti-Trump rhetoric has when the president is overseeing the longest economic expansion in U.S. history?
A Losing Battle
The Venezuela oil boom allowed Chávez to deliver social programs that would have otherwise been impossible. Chávez’s base of support only started showing true cracks in its ability to win elections after the oil market crashed near his death, and the economic downturn highlighted his mismanagement and lack of investment, opening an avenue for the opposition. On a similar note, Trump ran on an economic message and has, so far, delivered. And by marrying himself to the economy and stock market, Trump has forced Democrats into a losing battle where their only way to win against the incumbent is to see a U.S. economic slowdown. The Democrats, traditionally the party that represents minority interests, is countered by Trump’s citing of the fact that the United States now has the lowest unemployment ever among African Americans. Chávez had similar success in touting how his government lifted a significant number of Venezuelans over the poverty line.
Both Chávez and Trump allowed inequality to rise, the former through the enrichment of his supporters and Trump through a deregulation that helps the enrichment of those already in power. Both Democrats and the Venezuelan opposition, however, have struggled to make the case regarding how they’d be suited to alleviate the problem of persistent inequality.
As Trump warns his supporters that Democrats would turn the United States into Venezuela—and Bernie Sanders lends credence to this argument by refusing to recognize Nicolás Maduro as a dictator—American voters may make the decision that die-hard chavistas have for two decades and counting: “Más vale malo conocido que bueno por conocer.”