Venezuela is Haunting the Argentina Elections, Again

Our country’s economic disaster remains a cautionary tale that candidates use as warning against their contenders. But in the current bizarre fight between a libertarian and a Peronista, both say the other is the next Chávez

On October 22th, Argentina held presidential elections. Around 35 million Argentinians were called to cast their vote to elect their next president. The election resulted in a surprise victory for Sergio Massa, the current minister of economy and candidate of the ruling center-left to left Peronist coalition Unión por la Patria, though he was three points away from reaching the 40% share of the vote that was necessary to win the presidency that day. On November 19th, he will face a runoff election against Javier Milei, candidate of the libertarian right-wing coalition La Libertad Avanza. 

The campaign brought back an “old ghost” to the conversation: the Venezuelan crisis. Along the entire electoral process, Venezuela has been used as an example of what could happen if Massa is elected. In August, during the primaries elections, two opposition candidates used the Venezuelan example repeatedly: Milei and center-right Juntos por el Cambio candidate Patricia Bullrich. 

Milei has a very well documented record of using Venezuela for his speeches. When he won his seat in Congress in 2021, there was a Venezuela flag behind him. He constantly compared the Alberto Fernández presidency with Nicolás Maduro, regarding insecurity and inflation. 

Bullrich, on her side, has backed opposition candidate María Corina Machado for a long time. This former Security minister from the Macri administration was an international observer in various elections in Venezuela, during her term as congresswoman. When famous Argentine journalist Jorge Lanata was arrested in Caracas, she led the international pressure for his release. More recently, she presented a report to the DEA warning about the possible visit of Maduro to Buenos Aires during the CELAC meeting, all this while accompanying marches of the Venezuelan community in front of the summit hotel. 

This hard approach against Kirchnerism was useful for both; Bullrich easily won the Juntos por el Cambio nomination over the centrist Buenos Aires´s mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, and Milei surprisingly was the most voted candidate of all parties in the Simultaneous and Mandatory Open Primaries (PASO) in August 13th. 

El panqueque

Massa has also used the Venezuelan crisis for political momentum, but in very different ways. Known in Argentina as a “political pancake” for how easily he flips, he was really close to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a left-wing peronist who is a firm ally of the late Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. But after leaving office, Massa started to distance himself from Kirchnerism, to the point that in 2013 he competed in a new center-right Peronist coalition against Cristina´s Kirchneristas in the populous province of Buenos Aires. He won a seat as a lawmaker in Congress. Two years later he competed in the same coalition for the presidency, finishing third, and in the runoff he supported Cristina’s main enemy: Mauricio Macri. 

Actually, Macri initially thought Massa was going to be an ally, but he was wrong. Massa betrayed him, starting an enormous political rivalry between them. During these years, Massa supported many activities of the Venezuelan opposition’s Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) in Venezuela and even supported the proclamation of Juan Guaidó in 2019. Later that year, he returned to Kirchnerism. He was the first candidate for deputy in Buenos Aires accompanying the Fernandez- Fernandez de Kirchner ballot. 

With the election of Alberto Fernandez as president, Massa was appointed as speaker, which allowed him to remain away from the catastrophic management of  the pandemic, the economic crisis and the public fights between the president and the vice president, Cristina Kirchner. Last year, in a historic move, Massa assumed office as minister of economy after a cabinet crisis hit the government. After this move, with a debacle of Alberto Fernandez´s power, Massa managed to become the strong man of Peronism and the lead figure of the government.

Inflation has reached 150%, the peso has devalued constantly and poverty has skyrocketed. And a couple of days after the election, there was a shortage of gasoline in many provinces. The scenario has resonances with the Venezuelan crisis, and these resonances are, right now, part of the speech that gives coherence to  Milei´s coalition. 

Fearmongering from the right

Before the general elections, the Juntos por el Cambio campaign led by Bullrich focused on fighting Kirchnerism, while Milei´s campaign put the spotlight in attacking Bullrich and “la casta” (caste). Milei called Bullrich a montonera (1970s Peronist left-wing guerrills) for her militancy in the Peronist youth. He also accused her of killing babies in guerrilla insurgencies and of being an alcoholic. These attacks ended with Milei being brought to justice by Bullrich. But after the election, the victory of Massa presented a landscape no one expected: the possibility of the current government getting reelected. With the intermediation of Mauricio Macri, Bullrich accepted public apologies and supported him for the ballotage. The justification she presented was simple: if we don’t beat Massa, Argentina will be Venezuela. 

A Bullrich ally alleged that low turnout allowed Hugo Chávez to win in 1998, trying to allure moderate voters to decide for Milei. Journalist Jonatan Viale uses this example in many of his programs, even interviewing Juan Guaidó to corroborate it. Viviana Canosa –the “Argentinian Tucker Carlson”, formerly a nemesis of Milei– now says she’ll vote for him to help prevent Massa from being the next Chávez. 

Fearmongering from the left

In the same way, Massa has also figured out a way to use Venezuela in his fear campaign against Milei. One of the reasons many political scientists believe Massa won the first round was his ability to scare the electorate with the idea of a Milei presidency, for instance questioning the dollarization proposal –one of the key measures of the Milei platform– by stating that adopting the dollar didn’t solve the economic problems in Venezuela. The Union por la Patria campaign has also compared the violent rhetoric in Milei´s speeches with Hugo Chavez. This is also because Massa is focused on avoiding being related to Kirchnerism, which is so close to Chavismo. He likes to say he’s only a Peronist, pure and simple. 

When Venezuelans on the internet accuse Massa of being Chavista or say that Argentina is already like Venezuela, Peronistas respond that comparing them to Chavismo is ignoring Argentinian history and idiosyncrasy. There are even fears that this activism of the Venezuelan community may cause xenophobic attacks by Kirchnerism. 

The fact is that, two weeks before the election, both contenders accuse each other of being Chavistas. The next couple of days we will have a debate, more interviews of candidates and probably more mentions of Venezuela in the most polarized election in Argentina’s current history.