Venezuela is known the world over for its controversial, retro-leftist president Hugo Chávez, who was especially infamous in America for relentlessly bashing the US. Earlier this year the South American country was rocked by protests against Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, and the world held its breath, half-expecting another revolution to erupt. But its attentions were always much more focused on the uprising in Kyiv occurring at the same time, and the media dropped the story quickly.
So what happened? Did the protests fizzle out, or did Russia’s annexation of Crimea just distract the media? And what were the protests all about, anyway? If Chávez had so much popular support, why were there protests?
Let’s start with a little background first.
Hugo Chávez was indeed a popular leader, but he achieved his popularity by driving a big fat wedge through Venezuelan society. His movement was primarily class-based: coming from a poor background himself, he spent much of his time railing against capitalism and oligarchy and striving to provide for the poor. He grew up during the Cold War, an era with a tense ideological climate, and read revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. For the most part those days are over, but Chávez gave them a new lease on life, both by spreading a doctrine of socialism and land reform around Latin America and by relentlessly castigating the US, Latin America’s traditional bogeyman.
So Chávez’s policies were mostly aimed at the poor and benefited them over the upper classes. He provided subsidized health care, education, food and oil and created a welfare state. All of this was mostly financed by Venezuela’s vast oil supplies; Venezuela’s economy was marred by mismanagement and tight regulation. He treated the upper classes as the enemy and often accused them (or anyone who criticized him) as being in league with el imperio(America). Chávez was probably ultimately most notorious for his personality: to put it bluntly, he was a giant blowhard. He loved giving overlong speeches and clearly had an overinflated ego. While this won him lots of enemies, he also nurtured a fanatical and devoted fanbase (called chavistas, of course).
Last year, Chávez died. Venezuela is now governed by his anointed successor, Nicolás Maduro. Maduro is carrying on Chávez’s policies, but there’s one major problem: he’s not Chávez. Thanks to his poor, rural background, Chávez always had a folksy, lovable side, a natural charisma that won over the majority of Venezuela. Maduro doesn’t have all that. Now that Chávez is gone, it’s become more and more clear just how ridiculous most of his policies were.
And that’s what fueled the protests. Venezuela’s been going through a gradual but dramatic economic collapse. Inflation has reached 56% (at least in 2013; the Central Bank has refused to release updated figures), fuelling critical shortages of goods from toilet paper to food and even electricity. Foreign investors have been scared away (Venezuela is now ranked as one of the world’s worst places to do business), and business is always in danger of being nationalized, like the electronics chain that was seized last year. Meanwhile, the country is also being stifled by ever-increasing crime, which is often violent and more and more widespread. The government also hides homicide rate figures, but Venezuela is usually considered the most murderous country on Earth (along with Honduras). To be fair here, Latin America in general has a problem with crime, but Venezuela’s inept police and dire economic conditions make the situation especially acute.
It was violence that actually ignited the protests in the first place, when Monica Spear, an actress, was gunned down while on vacation in January, and a college student was sexually assaulted on campus. But since Venezuela’s been cracking down on democracy lately, they are pretty much the last way for its opposition to make its demands known. Maduro was elected last year, but in a flawed election. The government has carried on a steady campaign against the media, smothering unfriendly TV channels and jailing dissidents. Leopoldo López, leader of the radical protestor faction, was jailed, while armed thugs broke up protests, presumably on behalf of the government.
The problem is, since Chavismo has driven such a huge wedge through Venezuelan society, this movement is mostly fueled by the better-off, the upper and middle classes who’ve been unsympathetic of the rabble-rousers from the very beginning. The impoverished masses, attached to their government benefits, have stayed put. But the economic crisis pinches them too, as do the rampaging criminals. As store shelves dry up all over the country and the shine comes off Venezuela’s government, they might start shifting sides.
Protests in Venezuela are continuing. The latest irritant is a proposed fingerprinting system to be introduced in supermarkets in November that is officially meant to crack down on smuggling (which is a major problem), but many fear will be used for rationing. Alleged torture of jailed dissidents, persistent criminal violence, and deteriorating hospitals are other problems that send people out into the streets.
But it’s true that the political climate in Venezuela has cooled off somewhat. Lopez’s arrest is part of the reason, but Henrique Capriles, leader of the moderate wing and Maduro’s opponent in the presidential election, can’t really decide what to do. The protests have been met with violence and repression, and talks with the government have led nowhere, but Capriles disavows violence. Venezuela is still a partial democracy, remember, and presumably Capriles feels he must honor the democratic process and keep his country from spiraling into a mess of coups and political instability that it’s not exactly unfamiliar with.
Chávez is a complex and interesting figure, and in some ways he’s admirable. He genuinely cared for the poor, and he displayed real courage in standing up to the military in the 2002 coup attempt. I’m a bit of a lefty myself, and in general I have sympathy for the socialist and leftist movements around Latin America across time; the region’s oppressive society and economic system have beleaguered the masses, especially natives, since time immemorial.
Yet it should be crystal-clear by now that Chávez’s legacy has failed. Venezuela’s economy has been driven into the ground. Blaming everything on America won’t help. For as much as they’ve plundered and exploited Venezuela in the past, foreign businesses need to be accommodated more; about 3/4 of Venezuela’s food is imported, so it’s dependent on foreigners to stock its markets. Long queues stretching out of stores make Venezuela look like the USSR (and some of the government’s Communist imagery doesn’t help, either).
Therefore I am sympathetic to the opposition. Chávez and Maduro have failed and have demonstrated that they are unwilling to negotiate and admit their mistakes. Even complaints from within the ruling party have been smothered. Maduro would rather turn himself into a dictator than dismantle the currency controls that are hamstringing the economy.
Still, the crucial swing factor here is the poor. They were the crux of Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution”; they have to be brought on board the protest movement to keep it from being seen as yet another reactionary move against their liberators. Other countries in Latin America have proved that free market and free trade reforms can pump up their economies; Venezuela needs to reconsider its political ideology and be more like Colombia or Brazil and less like Cuba.