Paralyzed by Chávez's absence, Venezuela's shaky government is inventing threats from abroad. But the hungry masses aren't buying it.
- By Peter WilsonPeter Wilson, a freelance journalist who recently left Venezuela after 24 years, is writing a book about Hugo Chávez and his failed socialist revolution.
CARACAS – Lidia Gonzalez doesn’t have time to look for counter-revolutionaries. She’s too busy looking for sugar.
Hours after Venezuelan Vice President — and current de facto leader of the country in Hugo Chávez’s absence — Nicolás Maduro told the nation that government security forces had uncovered a plot to assassinate him and the president of the National Assembly, Gonzalez was waiting in line at the store. Shelves were riddled with empty spaces where the food used to be.
An employee at the Agriculture Ministry here in Venezuela’s capital city, she was returning home when a friend called to let her know that sugar had just been delivered at their local supermarket. She promptly forgot about Maduro and his exhortations to beware of foreign agents looking to destabilize the country.
"I haven’t seen sugar in weeks," she says. "The revolution is important and I love our president. But I suspect Maduro was just talking nonsense. It’s just another farce, another show. They have cried wolf too often."
Maduro made his accusations before tens of thousands of red-shirted followers who heeded the government’s appeal to flood the streets of Caracas on Jan. 23 in a show of support for President Hugo Chávez. The president remains in intensive care in a Cuban hospital and hasn’t been seen or heard from since Dec. 11, when he underwent his fourth operation for cancer. Since then, there have been repeated rumors that he is unconscious, breathing with a ventilator, or dead. All have vehemently been denied by Maduro and the government. Doubts only grew after the Madrid-based El Pais erroneously published a photo of a man it claimed was Chávez breathing with the help of a machine. The paper subsequently said it had been duped and that the photo had come from a medical website. The Venezuelan government has vowed to sue the paper in Spanish courts.
Maduro said during the Jan. 23 rally — which was held on the 55th anniversary of the overthrow of Venezuela’s last dictator, Marcos Pérez Jiménez — that right-wing extremists from both Venezuela and abroad were involved in the assassination plot. He often had to shout above the din of his supporters, many of whom were chanting "With Chávez and Maduro, the country is safer!” and "They will not return!" in reference to the country’s pre-Chávez leaders.
"We have been following for some weeks groups who have infiltrated the country with the objective of making an attempt against the life of my colleague, [National Assembly President] Diosdado Cabello and against my life," Maduro said to the crowd. "The criminals who have slipped into our country aren’t here to ask us for cacao."
Maduro, who was anointed Chávez’s heir apparent on Dec. 8, provided no proof of his allegations, but said the government would shortly take action against the plotters. After the speech, Maduro left for Cuba where he said he would meet with Chávez, leaving others to give more details.
Interior and Justice Minister Néstor Reverol said on Jan. 24 that the groups had even given code names to their targets. Maduro, whose first job was driving a bus, was codenamed the "bus driver," while Cabello, a former military man, was "the little lieutenant."
"We’re not going to give the far right even one millimeter to destabilize the country," Reverol told journalists. "We have activated all of the police and intelligence officials. We have strengthened security measures for the comrades."
Reverol didn’t announce any arrests, and gave no reason why none had yet been made. State Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz told listeners of her radio program that they should "be alert" for plotters and people seeking to destabilize the country. A special prosecutor has been assigned to investigate, she said.
Assassination plots are nothing new in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. During Chávez’s 14 years in power, the president alerted the country to more than a dozen such plots against his life. Few arrests were ever made; no proof was ever given. The charges have usually surfaced at times when Chávez was facing domestic problems, and Maduro seems to be following suit, says Vanessa Neumann, an analyst who follows Venezuela at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
"It is a page right out of the Chávez playbook that fits well with the traditional Bolivarian narrative of a revolutionary force fighting evil, plotting imperialists who want to oppress the Venezuelan people and undermine democracy for their own benefit," Neumann says. "Chávez has used it to marvelous effect over the years to change the topic of domestic discontent. Maduro has shown us how much he has learned from Chávez and been groomed by the Cubans: he uses some of the same rhetoric as Chávez and has improved his public speaking markedly."
This time, Maduro’s playing of the assassination card coincides with mounting food shortages throughout the country, and rumors of a growing feud between himself and Cabello. Staples such as sugar, coffee, cooking oil, meat, wheat flour, rice, corn meal, and chicken are in very short supply, leading to long lines outside supermarkets. Toilet paper, toothpaste, and dishwashing liquid have also disappeared. Canisters of liquid natural gas, which Venezuelans use to cook their meals, are in short supply as well.
"There is no cornmeal, no rice, no pasta, no wheat flour," said Luisa Mendez, a 36-year-old housewife in the central industrial city of La Victoria. "And when supplies arrive they immediately vanish. What kind of revolution is this?"
Over the last few days, government officials have moved to seize stockpiles of foodstuffs held by companies, which have been accused of hiding products while waiting for prices to rise. The companies, on the other hand, have complained that the government is seizing the inventories they need to produce more goods. Pepsi, for instance, has complained about stockpiles of sugar it imported from Guatemala being seized.
The supply shortage is partly due to the government’s own economic policies and Maduro’s refusal so far to take long-delayed economic decisions. Chávez had been expected to devalue the country’s currency this month. The government derives nearly half of its revenue from oil sales, which are dollar-denominated. Any devaluation would give the government more bolívares to spend. Anticipating a devaluation, the black market bolívar has fallen to 18 to the dollar. The official exchange rate, however, still stands at 4.3 to the dollar.
There were also expectations that the government would raise the costs of many items, the prices of which are set by the state, including toothpaste, toilet paper, and dishwashing liquid. These items have been in short supply as producers, arguing that they can’t make a profit at current prices, have reduced output.
Key decisions on these and other policies now seem to be indefinitely delayed in the ongoing power vacuum. During his 14 years as president, Chávez eroded the autonomy of the country’s political institutions, and was personally involved in nearly every key decision. His absence has now paralyzed the government, with seemingly no one willing to take control.
Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, who unsuccessfully ran against Chávez in October and is expected to be the opposition candidate if new elections are held, criticized the government for not moving to solve the country’s problems. Those who don’t know how to govern "cover up the reality with insults and threats," he said at a local council meeting.
Maduro and others have said that Chávez is more and more animated, talking and showing signs of recovery, but doubts persist. Maduro said that Chávez appointed former Vice President Elías Jaua as the country’s new foreign minister and showed a document on television bearing the president’s signature. The opposition quickly pounced, saying that if Chávez was well enough to sign documents, why couldn’t he make a call to the state television station to let people know he was alive and recuperating?
"I think we would have heard from Chávez by now if he were able to speak," says Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with Eurasia Group. "That he hasn’t appeared suggests his condition is very delicate."
The country’s Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that Chávez could stay indefinitely abroad while remaining head of state. The justices also rejected opposition calls for an independent medical commission to examine the president to see if he is still fit for office.
The reason is simple: If Chávez were unable to serve, Cabello would become acting president and would have to schedule fresh elections within 30 days. Backers of the president may be stalling to allow Maduro more time to grow into the job while the deification of Chávez progresses.
Meanwhile, state television runs constant footage of Chávez embracing children and elderly women. They also released a remix of John Lennon’s "Imagine" with new revolutionary lyrics. "Imagine Venezuela, leaving forever in peace," the song suggests. But the president’s most fervent supporters have shorter term concerns, Neumann warns. "Venezuelans, even those who support Chávez, will be fed up after another month of this," she says.