A year after his death, Hugo Chávez is still wrecking Venezuela. Why won’t his opponents just say it?
- By Peter WilsonPeter Wilson, a freelance journalist living in Venezuela, is writing a book about Hugo Chávez and his revolution.
The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has proved as divisive in death as he was in life. At a military parade in central Caracas commemorating the one-year anniversary of his passing on March 5, thousands of marchers — both soldiers and civilians — paid their respects to the country’s "Eternal Commander." Before a crowd that included Chávez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, Cuba’s Raúl Castro, and Bolivian President Evo Morales, Chávista Venezuela was on display.
Beneficiaries of the late Venezuelan president’s various social programs waltzed by in carefully choreographed groups, smiling and singing while dressed in bright red, the color of the revolution. Billions of dollars worth of new arms from Russia and China were also paraded through, along with units of the country’s National Guard, decked out in anti-riot gear, and informal "people’s militias." To honor the late president, Maduro even unveiled a new insignia for the armed forces featuring Chávez’s likeness.
"Chávez was the great protector of the people," Maduro intoned before the parade began. "There never existed a leader who would love the country like he did, and who would respect the poor."
Only blocks away, however, opponents of Chávez and Maduro showcased a different Venezuela, continuing spirited anti-government protests that have rocked the country since Feb. 2. Residents of the middle class neighborhood of Chacao woke up on Wednesday to find an effigy of Maduro hanging from a traffic light on the main boulevard that runs through eastern Caracas. Barricades constructed from concrete blocks, tree trunks, and garbage remained in many parts of the city, causing traffic snarls. Across the country Maduro’s opponents launched protests and built barricades in most major cities, provoking violent clashes with security forces.
Since the protests erupted a little more than a month ago, at least 20 people have died and hundreds more have been arrested or injured in the worst rioting since Maduro assumed the presidency in April 2013. The government response has been two-faced: calling for dialogue and convening a peace conference on the one hand, and unleashing the police and National Guard on the other.
One year after his death, Chávez remains an important source of legitimacy for the regime. Maduro and his backers have done everything in their power to keep the memory of El Comandante alive — and to deflect scrutiny away from their own embattled government. A caricature of Chávez’s eyes and forehead forms the official insignia of Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Visitors arriving to Caracas via the main highway leading to the central part of the country are greeted by a massive billboard with his distinctive bushy eyebrows and steely eyes looking down on them.
Chávez is a constant feature on state television stations, which daily run film clips of the late president, most showcasing his dedication to the poor. Every Sunday, choice clips from Chávez’s television show are rebroadcast.
"Chávez changed Venezuela for the better," says Omaira Yeuliz, a 46-year-old housecleaner whose new apartment in the capital was given to her under Chávez’s housing program. In her living room, a large picture of Chávez hangs on the wall. "He was the first president to take an interest in the poor, and to try to improve our lives. Before Chávez, they — the oligarchs — neglected us. We were excluded. Not now."
Maduro, who lacks the charisma and speaking style of his predecessor, has spared no effort to remind Venezuelans that he was personally handpicked by Chávez to be his successor. The 51-year-old former bus driver has gone as far as claiming the late president appeared to him once as a bird to give him advice. Calling himself a "son of Chávez," Maduro peppers all speeches with references to the fallen leader, whose death, following months of cancer treatment in Cuba, remains shrouded in mystery. Neither the government nor Chávez’s family has released details about what kind of cancer claimed the Venezuelan president. Rumors abound that he lingered in a vegetative state for weeks before his actual death.
"It’s readily apparent that Maduro is no Chávez," says Margarita Lopez Maya, a historian at the Caracas-based Central University. "He lacks Chávez’s charisma and his ability to mobilize people. That has made him more reliant on the military and limited his freedom of action."
Chávez, of course, would be a difficult act to follow for almost any politician. The career military officer rocketed to national fame with his abortive coup on Feb. 4 1992. Although the coup was short-lived and ended in his surrender, Chávez asked for and was granted permission to make a brief television broadcast to his followers, asking them to lay down their arms. In his speech, which lasted just one minute, Chávez became a national savior to many, saying his struggle for a better Venezuela would continue even though the coup had failed "for now."
Seven years later — two of which were spent behind bars — Chávez was sworn in as president.
"He was our first president to look Venezuelan," says Yeuliz. "He was brown like us, not white like the oligarchs." Chávez spoke to his countrymen in a very down-to-earth manner, discussing his relationships with women and even his intestinal problems on national television. He took issue with capitalism and U.S. imperialism, famously referring to President George W. Bush as "the Devil" in a speech at the United Nations. Chávez called for a multipolar world, free of U.S. domination.
But having come to power promising to make government more efficient and end corruption, Chávez instead laid the foundations for a monolithic state, which opponents claim is based on the Cuban model. Under his watch, Venezuela’s bureaucracy burgeoned as more and more ministries and state agencies were created to oversee and administer his revolution. More alarmingly, Chávez gradually consolidated control over the country’s independent political institutions.
The courts, the National Electoral Council, the attorney general’s office, and even the National Assembly found their independence restricted in the name of the revolution. When the country’s Supreme Court ruled against Chávez, he expanded its membership to make it more malleable.
"Chávez destroyed much of the country’s political fabric," says Lopez Maya. "There was multipluralism before. Now, dialogue is difficult."
Chávez did enfranchise the poor, incorporating them into the country’s political system. But the costs were considerable. Millions of people who signed recall petitions against him in 2004 were marginalized, banned from working in the government or state companies. Many who were already employed lost their positions. Political opponents, including the now imprisoned Leopoldo López, were likewise prevented from holding office. Television and radio stations that criticized the government lost their licenses, and Chávez brought in hundreds of Cuban security personnel to oversee the army and police apparatus.
At the same time, however, Chávez laid the foundations for a second oil boom. Before his presidency, Venezuela had constantly flouted OPEC quotas, causing global oil prices to plunge. By the time Chávez took office, they were in the single digits. In response, he cut Venezuelan production and worked for unity within the oil cartel, touring of OPEC capitals and preaching adherence to quotas. Prices soon rebounded, giving the government a windfall in petrodollars that he quickly spent on social, health, and education programs — and arms from abroad.
Although they succeeded in reducing extreme poverty, Chávez’s economic programs — which included the nationalization of key industries; the unilateral rewriting of oil contracts, taxes, and royalties; and the expropriation of private properties — also laid the foundation for the country’s current crisis. Foreign investors are now reluctant to put money into the country and the government is suffering from an acute shortage of foreign exchange.
"I will remember Chávez as being the man who destroyed Venezuela, the economy, and the country’s riches," says Susan Purcell, the director of the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy.
The numbers speak for themselves. Venezuelan oil production has declined by 25 percent since 1999, when Chávez took office. The country has the world’s largest oil reserves, but has struggled to develop them. Chávez raised taxes and royalties on oil ventures, and decreed that state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) hold a majority stake in any enterprise. He also decreed that any business disputes between PDVSA and its partners be heard in the country’s notoriously corrupt courts, rather than abroad. Oil companies such as ExxonMobil, BP, Conoco, Petronas, and Lukoil have since left the country.
Venezuela also has the world’s highest rate of inflation — 56 percent — and a currency that has no value outside the country.
Production of cement and steel — industries both nationalized by Chávez — have plummeted since their expropriation in 2008. The late president further isolated Venezuela from the global economy by imposing currency and price controls during a nationwide strike to force him from office in 2002-2003. Access to U.S. dollars was strictly controlled, and the exchange rate to the dollar fixed. Prices on about 40 basic items were also set by the government.
Now, Venezuela is facing massive food shortages. Maduro says the shortages are caused by an "economic war" being waged by his opponents. Most analysts blame the shortages on the lack of foreign exchange needed to import goods. The country imports 70 percent of all products.
"The government warehouses are bare," says Roberto Briceno, who manages a government-owned grocery store in a working class neighborhood Caracas. "I used to open the store every day. Now I only open it on Friday because I have nothing to sell."
Maduro has tried to address the foreign exchange disaster by creating new agencies and auctions to distribute dollars, but he has been hampered by infighting within his own government. Corruption is partially to blame. The controls imposed by Chávez led to the development of schemes to take advantage of the rules and regulations. Many in Maduro’s inner circle have seemingly gotten rich off of them.
"It is true that Chávez spent billions on social programs but I think it’s also true to say that much more was lost in corruption," says Purcell. "He created a kleptocracy in the country."
Venezuela will soon have three official exchange rates. The main government-mandated exchange rate, used for basic foodstuffs and medicines, is 6.3 bolivars to the dollar. A second exchange rate is 11 bolivars to the dollar, which is used for most other imports and remittances. On March 10, a third exchange rate — determined by an auction in which private companies and individuals will be allowed to participate — is expected to result in a rate of close to 20 to the dollar.
The black market rate — which has become the de facto rate for many products and services — is 90 to the dollar, or nearly 14 times higher than the main official rate.
"It seems like I spend all day shopping," says Elianys Alonzo, a 21-year-old housewife. "I go from market to market to look for milk or cooking oil or pasta. I see a line, and I join it without asking what it’s for."
Chávez’s opponents have in a way helped perpetuate his image as the savior of the country by failing to link the late president to the woes afflicting the country — even though its Chávez’s policies that Maduro is following. Aware of Chávez’s strong appeal one year after his death, the opposition has preferred to focus on the less popular Maduro’s shortcomings.
"The only thing that could get them [average Venezuelans] to reject Chávez is if some leader came forward with messages explaining to people how their situation is due to the decisions made by Chávez," says David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. "But the Venezuelan opposition has long thought that they can obtain power while holding their cards close to their chest."
Not surprisingly, Chávez partisans believe that the country’s current woes are due to Maduro’s incompetence and inability to follow through on the late president’s vision — or the result of insidious actions by the country’s "fascists" or "counterrevolutionaries."
"If Chávez were alive, things would be better," Yeuliz said wistfully. "I have no doubt that the shortages and riots wouldn’t be happening."