Oil-rich Venezuela’s dream of fashioning a better society through a third way between communism and capitalism has turned into a nightmare with riots on the streets.
When the bearded former philosophy professor who was Venezuela’s Ambassador in Moscow handed me his AK-47 and explained President Hugo Chávez’s ‘Bolivarian Misiones’ programmes to feed and educate the poor, I realised why government’s like his were so appealing to European left-wingers.
Sadly, over the decade since that intriguing diplomatic meeting, Venezuela has disintegrated. It is now suffering from food shortages, a rocketing crime rate and increasingly violent political instability, as an unpopular government tries every trick in the book to cling on to power.
Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ started so promisingly. Despite being a democracy since 1958 and possessing the world’s second largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela had long been governed corruptly. As a result, it suffered from massive inequality and poverty was rife. Former military officer Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998 on a promise to solve these problems.
For a time, he succeeded. The ‘Bolivarian Misiones’ established by Chávez and named after his hero, the Latin American anti-colonialist freedom fighter, Simón Bolívar, were a massive programme of support for Venezuela’s most neglected people. The Misiones used the country’s oil revenues to improve the poor’s access to education, healthcare, food, energy and housing. As a result, the poverty and infant mortality rates fell and literacy rose significantly. Many of those who benefitted joined idealists from other sectors of society in offering fierce loyalty to the Chávez government. Their support saw him through a coup attempt in 2002, a recall referendum in 2004 and three further Presidential elections.
Chávez made many powerful enemies along the way. They sought to undermine his rule whenever possible. Large proportions of Venezuela’s better off citizens resented his attack on their privileges. And Chávez’s Latino-strongman brand of ‘socialism’ was a red flag to the bull that was George W. Bush’s US administration.
Chávez was hardly an innocent victim though. By the time of his death in 2013, Venezuela was facing chronic problems that were almost entirely of his government’s own making. Chasing out expert foreign contractors from the oil industry diminished production and combined with the falling world crude price to reduce the funds available. Large amounts of money were wasted through inefficient management. Corruption merely moved into new hands and was not addressed. Police reform failed and crime exploded, not helped by the government’s alleged collusion with street gangs known as colectivos to enforce its writ.
The ebullient Chávez enjoyed playing the anti-US card that sometimes goes down well in Latin America. This led him into unwise relationships with some of the world’s worst regimes, such as Iran and Russia. Hence the AK-47 brandished in the Ambassador’s office. The Venezuelans had recently purchased a large quantity of the rifles from Russia. The British government was concerned that some could leak to the FARC terrorists in Colombia, with whom Chávez had dubious connections. When I was sent by our Embassy to ask about this, the Ambassador boisterously showed me how the guns were all embossed with traceable serial numbers designed to make such a transfer impossible.
The seeds for the collapse that is now consuming Venezuela were sown before Chávez died. But these troubles have accelerated alarmingly under his nominated successor, Nicolás Maduro. As a former bus driver, President Maduro has street cred in a literal sense but none of Chávez’s charisma. The corruption and ineptitude of Maduro’s administration have eliminated whatever gains were made under Chávez. Poverty has increased, as have violent crime and shortages of essential items such as food and medicine.
The chronic failings of the Maduro government led to his United Socialist Party losing the December 2015 parliamentary elections to the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable alliance by a distance. This was a watershed moment in Venezuelan politics. The loss of its majority in the National Assembly marked the end of the democratic mandate the government had always justifiably been able to claim under Chávez.
Since then, anti-government protests have grown exponentially. The already febrile atmosphere ramped up further after the government’s attempted constitutional coup in March. This involved the Supreme Court deciding to dissolve parliament and take on its legislative powers for itself. In the face of massive opposition, Maduro formally reversed the court’s decision.
But Maduro continues to abuse his ongoing control of the Supreme Court and the security forces to rule by decree and bypass the elected National Assembly. His government’s latest gambit to cling to power is to create a body to draft a new constitution. This step epitomises Maduro’s desperation. The constitution he is seeking to replace was instituted by his mentor, Chávez. It contained popular enhancements of citizens’ rights and received huge public backing in a referendum.
The near-daily demonstrations are seeing steadily increasing levels of violence around the fringes of what is a largely peaceful movement. A significant proportion of this violence has come from the government, with many of the 90 people who have been killed during the protests being shot by the National Guard or the pro-government colectivo gangs.
The protests were previously dominated by students and better off Venezuelans. This is now changing as the social and economic situation becomes increasingly desperate. Many more formerly regime-supporting working-class citizens are now also protesting against the government.
Maduro’s attempts to override Chávez’s constitutional legacy seem to be causing the first cracks to appear within the ‘Bolivarian’ elite too. Some retired generals have criticised the government. Other disillusioned insiders have opted for more direct expressions of dissent, such as the police officer who recently buzzed the Supreme Court menacingly in his helicopter.
The problem for all of those who oppose Maduro’s government is their disunity. The formal opposition parties are widely mistrusted by the poor and working classes, many of whom do not believe these parties can represent their interests. In their view, the opposition is dominated by the type of people who neglected and ignored them for decades, thus leading to the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ in the first place.
The potentially crucial figure emerging out of this mess is the recently deposed Attorney-General, Luisa Ortega Díaz. Ortega was a long-standing human rights activist who became part of Chavez’s inner circle early on. For her, the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ was the way to enhance the rights and improve the lives of all Venezuelans. Such was Ortega’s loyalty to and belief in the system, she initially continued to fulfil her role under Maduro. This even extended to playing a full part in his 2014 crackdown on the opposition, including overseeing the sentencing of prominent opposition politician Leopoldo López to 14 years in prison (he has recently been released and placed under house arrest).
Ortega finally snapped after Maduro’s attempt to direct the supposedly independent Supreme Court to usurp the powers of the elected National Assembly. She publicly criticised the government for its assault on democracy. Since then, Ortega has continued to oppose Maduro’s dictatorial attempts to rewrite Chavez’s constitution. She is clearly troubled by the lengths to which Maduro and his cronies are prepared to go to preserve their positions. She has also objected strongly to the use of force against protestors and their trials taking place in military courts.
By taking a stand, Ortega has put herself at great risk. Maduro’s Supreme Court is attempting to remove her from her post. It has already frozen her bank account, seized her assets and banned her from leaving the country. Her supporters fear the regime’s next step will be an attempt to imprison her.
Given Ortega’s background and beliefs (not to mention her earlier role in locking up some of their leaders), it is difficult to see her working with the main opposition parties to oust Maduro. Nor have any other senior ‘Chavistas’ joined her yet in denouncing the President’s betrayal of their original ideals. Some of them, particularly in the powerful military, may be too deeply implicated in corruption to do anything other than cling on to the bitter end.
It is difficult to see how this situation can end without worse bloodshed. Tension and social breakdown are rising across the country. Incidences of rioting and mass looting are increasing alarmingly. Government supporters recently invaded the National Assembly and assaulted deputies. All the while, the regime remains fixated on its squalid attempts to cling on to power through political chicanery and buying off special interest groups in return for support. Meanwhile, the opposition cannot find a way to create a genuine broad front encompassing all sectors of society.
Venezuela is an extreme example of a prosperous and stable country that tolerated rampant inequality for too long. As a result, it made poor democratic choices, became politically polarised and collapsed economically when a bunch of incompetents were left in charge of handling the fallout. British readers are free to draw their own parallels.
Paul Knott is a writer on international politics. He spent 20 years as a British diplomat, with postings to Romania, Dubai, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Russia and the European Union in Brussels