Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, faces demands from a segment of the Venezuelan population to resign, is ostracised by the majority of Latin American countries, and has a humanitarian crisis and the exodus of his citizens on his hands. How did the dream of the Bolivarian Revolution end here?
To understand the Venezuelan situation, we might not need to look to the other side of the Atlantic, but to a country closer to home: Zimbabwe. Hyperinflation? Check. A government arrived to power by democratic means, but that later refuses to leave? Check. Power in the hand of the military and security sector? Check. A broken economy in a wealthy country? Check. Protests repressed by the armed forces? Check.
The tensions that have erupted in recent days after Juan Guaidó, head of the Parliament, declared himself the interim president of the country are not new; they have been brewing for more than two decades, ever since Hugo Chávez came into power in 1998.
Chávez brought his version of 21st-century socialism to the Venezuelan state. This model of state delivered some substantial initial improvements with regard to education, health and poverty, and gave attention to a segment of the Venezuelan population — the poor — that had been largely ignored by politicians for decades.
Chávez was never a unifying actor in Venezuela. The tensions surrounding him were evident in the failed 2002 coup d’etat. The coup was aborted by the majority of Venezuelans, who rejected his ousting.
The attempted coup led to increased distrust by Chávez of political opponents, and he pursued a more centralised model of government in which several ministries, and several vital government posts, were given to members of the armed forces. As a military man, Chávez trusted his fellow soldiers more than his fellow citizens.
The increase in oil prices supported his ambitious social projects. The oil price both fuelled and led to the demise of the Chavista project because of Dutch disease, the negative effect on an economy of anything that gives rise to a sharp inflow of foreign currency. Although oil revenues enabled spending on social projects, these resources made other industries less competitive.
This, and conflicts between the government and industrials, reduced the capacity of local industries to manufacture goods and products. Although the government’s income multiplied almost fourfold during the Chávez years, the joy of a booming economy was short-lived.
Governance was also affected by graft and corruption taking hold in the government. Those close to the government profited from tenders and were given control of government-owned companies.
Despite growing corruption and mismanagement, Chávez remained popular and was re-elected in 2012 while fighting the cancer that ultimately took his life. The majority of the population was reaping the benefits of improved education, health and the reduction in poverty. Although Chávez won, his victory was by a margin of 10% of the votes cast. The support of Venezuelans for Chavismo was changing.
Maduro, although charismatic, was not able to mobilise the same public support as Chávez. He arrived to power as the heir of Chavismo, and used his closeness to Chávez to get elected on the promise of the continuation of the Bolivarian Revolution. He was elected to the presidency with a margin of just 1.5% of the vote. This, and accusations of electoral fraud in his favour, reduced his legitimacy and raised further questions about the democratic practices of Chavismo.
The economy was already suffering several problems, as a product of Dutch disease, centralisation and mismanagement, but the final blow to the economy was the drop in oil prices by half between 2014 and 2015. As a result, the government lacked the resources to buy the goods the country was unable to produce and to continue its social programmes. This led to shortages of basic goods such as sanitary towels, flour, powdered milk and toilet paper.
Protests against Chavismo had taken place under Chávez , but these intensified and widened to include more diverse sectors of the population under Maduro. The Venezuelan state responded with a gradual increase in repression, and a militarisation of its response to protests. In spite of this political closure and the use of violence, Chavismo was defeated in the parliamentary election of 2015, when the opposition won the majority of the seats in Parliament.
Maduro’s response to this was to call for the creation of a new Constitutional Assembly, mandated to develop a new Constitution for the country. In accordance with the existing Constitution this call should have involved and included the Parliament and citizens, but the process bypassed both. This was deemed illegitimate and considered a fraud by international observers and various bodies. The opposition boycotted the vote for the Constitutional Assembly. As a result, the Constitutional Assembly is constituted primarily of Chavismos, and functions as a “ghost parliament” for Maduro in parallel with the National Assembly.
The effect of this crisis has eroded the progress achieved in the early years of Chavismo, and has brought Venezuelans’ standards of living back in time by several decades. This is why in recent years about 10% of Venezuela’s population has sought refuge in other countries.
Because not only government institutions, but also parastatal service providers were unfunded and mismanaged, the provision of basic public services was compromised. Medicine became scarce in hospitals, and electricity blackouts began in 2017.
This, and inflation of more than one million percent in 2018, meant salaries were not enough to buy goods, even when these goods were available. By way of illustration, if a cup of coffee cost R10 at the beginning of 2018, it cost R130 000 by the end of the year. Although the government increased the minimum wage 35 times in 2018, in practice the high inflation levels meant that a full salary, able to buy several goods at the beginning of the year, was not enough to afford even a single cup of coffee by the end of the year.
As poverty skyrocketed, the sight of Venezuelans fleeing their home country became common. The situation is so dire that pregnant women, women with infants and children, and groups of young men often leave Venezuela on foot. For them, displacement is a better option than to stay in Venezuela. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and various international and local organisations scramble to respond to this humanitarian tragedy, the stories of despair, anguish and dashed hopes accumulate.
Now Venezuela has two presidents: Guaidó and Maduro, and two legislative bodies: the Parliament and the Constitutional Assembly. Governments across the world are taking positions on who they support and on what Venezuelans should do.
In some cases, as in the United States, China and Russia, this support is not necessarily based on the interests of Venezuelans, and is rather linked to the interests of these countries in Venezuela’s oil fields and deposits, and relates to the geopolitical chess games taking place globally between these superpowers.
Small factions in the military are calling for a coup against Maduro, or are asking for weapons from the US, and there has also been speculation about the US stationing troops in Colombia. These calls for a coup and for arms have been unsuccessful thus far, and will probably remain so, given that an important segment of Venezuelans do not want foreign intervention, and because of the loyalty of the armed forces to the government. Given this, there are two possibilities:
A negotiation process between the Chavismo and the opposition could bring reform. Because there is a mutually hurtful stalemate, no side will win decisively. Without the army the opposition cannot wield power, no matter the extent of their international support, and without the support of the majority of the people Maduro cannot govern.
Such a political negotiation would require a compromise candidate, able to carry the support of the armed forces and offer the promise of reform. There are two plausible candidates for this role — Diosdado Cabello, head of the Constitutional Assembly, or Vladimir Padrino López, the minister of defence.
Both can be seen as Venezuela’s version of Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and will inevitably be central to any transition.
The second possibility is that violence will set Venezuela alight. Transitions and power vacuums are spaces of instability, which are likely to end in some cases with internal violence, and even the decomposition of statehood.
For many Venezuelans, both options are the legacies that remain of Chavismo and his Bolivarian project.
Fabio Andrés Díaz Pabón is a Colombian political scientist and writer, who is currently a research associate at the department of political and international studies at Rhodes University and a researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies