International News

Miami's Venezuelans Party as Opposition Wins Congress

For the past 17 years, the "Chavista" wave started by Hugo Chávez and carried on by his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has held an iron grip on Venezuelan politics, from the national assembly to the presidential palace. While Maduro still holds onto his executive power, "Chavismo" has taken a historic blow at the polls this weekend.

Maduro conceded this morning that his allies had lost their grip on Congress, lamenting "these adverse results." In Miami's heatedly anti-Maduro Venezuelan communities, Caracas expatriates are partying hard this morning.

"It's a great morning. It's the first time in more than 15 years we're celebrating an election," says Janette Gonzalez, U.S. director of VEPPEX, an organization of Venezuelans exiled under political pressure. "But it's only the first step for us."

Venezuela's opposition parties rode a mood of deep discontent and a shattered economy to the election win. As oil prices have plummeted, Maduro has struggled to keep up the social programs that kept the Bolivarian Revolution in power. Long lines have greeted shoppers desperate for basic necessities as violence has also spiked nationwide.

According to Venezuela's National Assembly, opposition candidates won 99 seats in the election, enough to take control of Congress. Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost the last presidential election to Maduro, said "Venezuela had won."

With Maduro in power, what will the win mean for Venezuelans? Gonzalez says Congress can make significant changes; for one, they can boot Diosdado Cabello — the powerful speaker of the national assembly, whom U.S. authorities have tied to drug trafficking. 

Congress can also begin working to free political prisoners and ultimately could try to remove Maduro from office, Gonzalez says. 

"We can work to recall Maduro. We can fight for amnesty for political prisoners," Gonzalez says. "It's still a big fight right now, and I don't know where it will lead exactly."

David Smilde, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), says it's impossible to know yet how the results will affect governance because the country is entering "unchartered waters."

"The opposition has never held a branch of government during Chavismo," he says. "And there has never been a divided government under this constitution. So it's really hard to know." 

Even with the loss, Maduro's government is still powerful. Under Chávez, a pliant Congress granted many powers to the president himself, and opposition groups say Maduro has continued stacking the courts with loyal supporters.  

"They still have the entire power of government in their hands," Gonzalez says. "But step by step, we want to change this situation."
Gonzalez says now that results are finalized, opposition groups in Miami are planning a rally for later today, though the time and place haven't been finalized yet. At Venezuelan gathering places such as Doral's El Arepazo II, it's a safe bet that flags will wave all morning. 

"With this election, we have shown the entire world that we are wiling to fight for change," Gonzalez says. "We are the majority right now. They must listen to us."
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink