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Venezuelan elections offer insight into regional trends

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Our Canadian labour-ecumenical election observation team is home now from Venezuela. Some very specific goals were achieved: stronger links among postal workers and teachers in Canada and Venezuela are likely as a result of connections made during the visit. With Common Frontiers, we'll try to bring a delegation of Venezuelan labour leaders to Canada.

On the morning after the Nicolás Maduro won the election, we took a walk around central Caracas. We visited markets and pharmacies, perfume and jewellery shops, and a very nice Paramo coffee shop. There were lunchtime line-ups for pizza and ice cream, and for cost-subsidized arepas.

Near the national assembly building, Maduro supporters had set up an esquina caliente, a "hot-corner" tent, in which people were watching post-election commentary.

Amongst ourselves and with people we met, we talked about the meaning of the election. Only one woman told me she hadn't voted. Others wondered out loud: what would Venezuelans do if the country was no longer allowed to sell its oil? Would there be more sanctions, a military intervention, or something more along the lines of the "contra" war in Nicaragua in the 1980s?

Some asked: "What's up with Canada?" This country has worn its defence of Cuban sovereignty in the face of U.S. aggression as a badge of honour for nearly 60 years. Why does it not do the same for Venezuela? My thesis: Canadian industry covets Venezuelan oil, gas and minerals, and Canadian politicians do not want to step out of line while NAFTA is being renegotiated.

But a Canadian government that parrots U.S. positions is not news anywhere. In this hemisphere, what can Canada say that is distinct? That everybody in the neighbourhood must have a part in shaping our common future.

In 1998, Venezuela was the first of the so-called "pink wave" countries in Latin America that took a leftward turn. After decades of structural adjustment that chopped social spending to repay debt, and invigorated by new ideas for alternatives to neoliberal economics emerging from spaces like the World Social Forum and Hemispheric Social Alliance, progressive parties won a dozen or more elections.

Now, with Bolivia and Nicaragua, Venezuela is one of the last countries to place social goals ahead of narrowly-defined economic ones. Others (Brazil and Paraguay) have fallen to convoluted parliamentary shenanigans. There was a coup in Honduras. The new president of Ecuador turned his back on his party platform and is now ruling from the right. And conservatives won elections in Argentina, Chile and other places.

This year, there are elections in three of the region's biggest countries: Colombia, Mexico and Brazil. In the first two, centre-left candidates have a reasonable chance of winning, but their opponents tag them as "Castro-Chavista," and try to frighten people away from a progressive vote.

On May 27, Colombians will vote in the first-round of what will likely be a two-part process to elect a new president. Former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro represents perhaps the first-ever real chance for a victory by the left. But he faces a protégé of former president Alvaro Uribe in the person of Iván Duque who would roll back whatever has been achieved in the peace process of recent years. Colombians suffer from the most dramatic inequalities in Latin America. To advance equity and the peace process, as Petro proposes, are not bad goals.

Five weeks later, on July 1, Mexicans head to the polls. For months, former Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known to all as AMLO) has led the polls. But the business establishment doesn't like him, and the rush to get a new NAFTA deal through quickly is entirely related to the likelihood that AMLO will win. The machinery of two old-line parties, PRI and PAN, creakily warns that AMLO will turn the country into Venezuela.

In Brazil, former president Ignacio da Silva continues to lead in the polls, but he is in jail on very questionable corruption charges. Will he be able to run in the October election? Can his party nominate someone else who is able to win?

Guillermo Almeyra, an Argentinean columnist that I like to read in the pages of Mexico City's La Jornada newspaper, has written: "In the constitutional capitalist regimes, periodic elections serve the dominant classes so that they choose which sector of themselves will govern, to renew governing personnel, and to measure the political temperature, which is to say, the level of consciousness, organization and decision of the popular sectors."

Our side, he adds, competes from "conditions of inferiority." Even so, Petro and AMLO, inspired by experiences elsewhere in the region, struggle for the vote.

Venezuela's election was a bit different. Together with the ongoing process to re-write the constitution through grassroots consultation, this election was an effort both to educate Maduro loyalists and to separate the opposition into two groups: those who are open to reasonable negotiation and those whose position will never change.

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