Chavismo(s) at the Crossroads of the Barbados Agreement

Negotiating with the opposition created winners and losers within Chavismo. With the government about to blow it up by prosecuting the National Commission of Primaries, will the winners save it?

After the surprising voter turnout on October 22nd, the primaries seem now to face a bigger challenge than insufficient logistics and AD candidate Carlos Prosperi’s baseless fraud accusations. Chavismo is now saying that the participation numbers of the “far-right’s primaries” are inflated as part of a fraud. “Enough of the Machado woman, enough of the guarimberos, the fraudsters, the liars, the extremists!” screamed Nicolás Maduro in his television show. Of course, as it has happened before, Chavismo has been using its co-opted opposition—like Bernabé Gutiérrez’s AD, a single MAS member and more importantly alacrán José Brito, who denounced the primaries’ “irregularities” in the Supreme Tribunal of Justice—to toss its fraud allegations.

All of this has opened the door for judicial persecution against the members of the National Commission of Primaries, which is now being investigated for four different crimes by Attorney General Tarek W. Saab, something that could blow up the Barbados agreement and the six-months sanctions relief conditioned on the electoral guarantees agreed in the island.

Some Chavistas seem to be more committed to the Barbados Agreement than others. Predictably, Diosdado Cabello, the hardliners’ poster child, dived forward torpedoing it. Several others joined him. Yet, Rafael Lacava—the eccentric Chavista governor of Carabobo—gave a press conference on Wednesday with a different attitude. In it, he seemed to alert Chavismo—through threats to the opposition—about the consequences of blowing up sanctions relief.

On the one hand, Lacava recognizes the event as “opposition primary elections” and describes it—alleging Venezuela is a democracy—as “a demonstration of what is experienced in the country: a democratic spirit where opposing sectors are allowed to organize an electoral event to settle their opinions.” Unlike the other Chavistas, at no point does he directly talk about a fraud or give his version of the supposed “real” turnout numbers (which, by the way, vary depending on the Chavista leader or pundit who says them). Rather, he depicts the baseless fraud allegations as another petty intra-opposition conflict.

“They denounce on one side, they denounce on the other. There was no way to verify what one complainant said from what another complainant said,” Lacava says. He talks about manipulated voters and the opposition “using [the primary] to start a new plan to destabilize the country.”

Of course, at first Lacava—who is the most popular Chavista according to polls—seems to be throwing a bone to chavista grassroots angry or worried with the opposition’s mass mobilization on Sunday, like other PSUV leaders. Maduro, for example, announced a “Great Venezuela Woman Mission” to “attend and secure the rights of all feminist currents” soon after the opposition massively elected a woman to be its candidate. In fact, the idea of prosecuting the Commission was first publicly promoted by First Lady Cilia Flores—who hadn’t spoken publicly in a long time. Mujer contra mujer.   

Lacava calls María Corina Machado another “test balloon” and “failed experiment of the wet dreams of the small group of people who want to displace this government” like Juan Guaidó and Pedro Carmona Estanga. Practically, a new attempt at insurrection. But that’s where things get interesting. The governor is now saying that Machado’s supposed plans of insurrection could put into play the lifting of sanctions that ended “the political confrontation of the past criminal attitude” of opposition leaders. In his speech, a new wave of guarimbas and riots is what will lead to new sanctions.

Winners and losers

It is convenient for both the opposition and Chavismo that the Barbados Agreement lasts at least a year. 

Chavismo can bet on winning the 2024 presidential elections through massive public spending and a divided opposition, accompanied by as much indirect cheating as needed (gerrymandering, intimidation, etc). This would legitimize the regime and lift some sanctions permanently. Of course, the government can also just proceed with sham elections, like in 2017 or 2018, but sanctions would come back only after a year of oil windfall. 

On the other hand, the opposition is betting on some sort of fracture within the Chavista coalition that results from a semi-competitive process.

Barbados will be respected as long as the Chavista coalition believes in winning through asymmetrical competition or if they estimate that the cost of faking the election results next year will be lower than the benefits of a year without sanctions. Machado’s popular support reduces the likelihood of the first scenario and raises the costs of the second one. 

Chavismo is deeply divided in parcels of power that go beyond traditional political institutions: shogunates that can and have internally torpedoed the Maduro government’s plans.

The sudden oil windfall would be easy to distribute in a discretionary manner like in the pre-sanctions days, a public spending bonanza to assure an electoral victory. However, despite its clear benefits to the Chavista coalition, playing this game of temporary democracy can create some losers within it.

After the mass mobilization on Sunday, Chavismo is now trying to show a united front: Diosdado Cabello, for example, invited chief negotiator Jorge Rodríguez to his television show to bash on the opposition and the diplomats who met with Machado—despite both standing on wildly different sides regarding negotiations. Nevertheless, Chavismo is deeply divided in parcels of power that go beyond traditional political institutions: shogunates that can and have internally torpedoed the Maduro government’s plans.

Some Chavistas, such as Diosdado and the hardliners, fear out of risk aversion. More militaristic, repressive or doctrinaire, they don’t even want to pretend that there’s a democracy. Others fear the reorganization of power groups that would occur if they played democracy, even if only for a while. For them, there’s no benefit to be gained from Barbados. 

The winners, instead, could gain more influence and power in a system that is more economically open but also prone to maintain certain sectors that were once opposed to Chavismo. It’s not only Maduro benefiting from the oil windfall if sanctions are permanently lifted. It’s also the Rodríguez siblings, for example, who have built a sphere of influence and control over traditionally opposition actors like university authorities, financial sectors, guilds and even nominally-opposition parties. 

In fact, Jorge Rodríguez could now be torpedoing Barbados because the post-primaries opposition is returning to a more confrontative pro-democratic restauration stance and less to the cohabitation certain sectors have tacitly supported since the collapse of Guaidó’s interim government. This brand of Chavismo, which has pushed our lukewarm perestroika, wants openness to a certain extent. Not democratic restoration. 

Lacava, whose version of Carabobo is a sort of capitalist Chavismo’s Petri dish, could also rise in a more competitive Chavismo and push –as some allege– to become a candidate for the vice-presidency. In a semi-competitive context, Chavismo would benefit from its popularity in the polls and reduce the costs of allowing freer elections to happen. This displaces other power groups, encouraging them to kick the table. 

In fact, according to recent polls by Delphos, 15,3% of hardliner Chavistas prefer another PSUV candidate that is not Maduro. Among dissident Chavistas, the percentage rises over 70%. Thus, around 43% of the whole Chavista population would like a different PSUV candidate that isn’t Maduro. There’s even the possibility of Lacava becoming PSUV’s reformist and charismatic candidate if it decides to save itself as the dominant party, if it continues the way towards semi-competitive elections, by replacing Maduro.

Who is Lacava really talking to?

In this hotchpotch of Barbados-defined winners and losers, Lacava is seeing what the Barbados Agreement could mean for him.  

Although he is speaking to Chavista mayors, the speech is framed in a direct challenge to “Mrs. Machado” and other opposition leaders. But, by warning of the dangers of a new guarimba, Lacava also refers to the benefits that lifting sanctions will bring while blaming the opposition for the “misery” and “destruction” of the country. The sanctions relief, threatened in his view by the opposition’s supposed new attempt at insurrection, will bring well-paid salaries, new schools, more oil production, industries, etc. Practically, more public spending… like the one Chavismo needs to win semi-competitive elections.

So, once he warns the opposition not to return to the guarimbas and allows them to “do whatever it wants”, one has to wonder: Who is he really warning about the fragility of the agreement? Is the warning on bringing the sanctions back, through a supposed insurrection organized by the opposition, really a message of caution addressed to chavismo about not torpedoing Barbados and its economic benefits?Presidential elections might still be rigged next year, but pretending to play democracy requires real competition and reorganization of power within each coalition. Both have a lot to win if we play democracy for a year, but there would be losers within each side: the Carlos Prosperis on one side and the Diosdado Cabellos on the other. They will play selfish moves and try to torpedo the process, attracting attention and building personal leverage. However, it is important to identify those who would win within Chavismo and pay attention to their moves too.

Tony Frangie Mawad & Guillermo Arcay Finlay

Tony is one of Caracas Chronicles' editors, where he writes since 2016. He graduated in Journalism and Political Science from Boston University in 2021. Since then, he has written at Bloomberg, The Economist, Politico and others. Guillermo is a fellow at the Harvard Growth Lab and has an MPA from the same university. He is also a former senior economist at Ecoanalítica and macroeconomics professor at UCAB.