BY JOSE FRANCISCO MUCI
During fifteen years of Hugo Chavez’s “revolution”— and the largest oil bonanza in Venezuela’s history—inflation rose from 23% to 56% and the homicide rate quintupled from 4,500 dead a year to 23,000 dead a year. The exchange rate slid from 0.56 BsF/USD in 1999 to 87 BsF/USD today, implying a 28% depreciation of the national currency every year. All the while, over a quarter million of the smartest and wealthiest left the country and external debt tripled. These are the type of numbers that characterize a failed state.
It’s unfortunate. After 40 years of mediocre “4th republic” governments that marginalized the poor, there was a candidate that offered change. He wasn’t white. He wasn’t upper middle class. Although he led an unsuccessful coup in 1992, it seemed his democratic convictions were genuine. He was a tremendously charismatic man named Hugo Chavez, and he promised a political project that was unlike anything the country had seen before. But sadly, it turned out to be just that—a promise.
In the beginning, some of Chavez’s policies were broadly welcomed by the public. Nationwide literacy campaigns and a plan to improve access to basic services in slums are clear examples of such reforms. In 2002 however, in reaction to a national oil strike and failed coup to oust him from power, Chavez’s government grew more radical. The fiery revolutionary narrative began to feed off of itself. Chavez began to select members of his government on account of their proven loyalty, not their credentials. And thus the administrative inefficiency took its roots.
Over the next twelve years, the government marched down a pyrrhic path. Distortions resulting from foreign exchange controls were arbitraged for at least twenty billion dollars and similar amounts were given away to Cuba and other allies. Increased autocratic tendencies raised eyebrows internationally. Government expropriations and unnecessarily hostile regulation devastated key agricultural sectors and closed 170,000 businesses. Flagrant cases of corruption went unpunished and sixteen new ministries were founded to solve problems that inept ministers had created in the first place. Freedom of speech was cut off with censorship laws and the sale of the last anti-government TV station. With a barrel of oil costing $100 in 2008, as opposed to $15 in 1999, the president could weather the effects of self-destructive policy.
Chavez died of cancer in 2013. His successor, Nicolas Maduro, was elected by a 1.5% margin thanks to the shameless financial, institutional and propaganda support of the government.
Fifteen years and well over half a trillion dollars in oil revenue later, Venezuela is worse off than in 1999. That brings us to the present protests that began in early February and have now spread all over the country. The opposition and its supporters are hoping to change a government that has the country on course to economic ruin, a government that forgets that human rights are unalienable and non-negotiable, and a government that has hijacked the judicial, legislative and electoral authorities.
For years, the opposition’s political strategy has been deficient. The Democratic Unity Roundtable, a coalition of anti-government parties, has failed to shake off the haunting smell of the 4th republic. The Roundtable has not understood that to compete with a project as grand as the Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution, it needs a political alternative of the same caliber. The opposition has not accepted that the politics in Venezuela changed forever after Hugo Chavez.
With no elections until 2015, Venezuela will probably only see a new government in the near future if Maduro resigns. Until the opposition can leverage the discontent of traditionally pro-government sectors, it will not achieve the critical mass of supporters required to impose a regime change. Henrique Capriles Radonsky, governor of Miranda state and two time presidential candidate, seems to understand that. Amid the current state-induced information blackout, he has favored making concrete demands to the government in organized protests over anarchic barricading in neighborhoods that already favor the opposition.
With no money, no media coverage, and the constant threat of political persecution, opposition leadership is divided and there is no clear path forward. The protests have taken on a life of their own and behind the scenes, internal rifts within the government might be the real catalyst for a regime change, independently of what opposition leadership does or doesn’t do.
Venezuela is adrift. Piece by piece, the regime’s legitimacy is falling apart as the death toll of peaceful protesters rises at the hands of heinous military and paramilitary repression. Videos of unspeakable human rights violations have begun to permeate the web. Every day, prices rise and there’s less food on the shelves. Maduro’s boat is sinking.
Stay tuned for Protests in Venezuela (Part II).