Much of the talk about Venezuela for the past 14 years has been, no doubt about it, Hugo Chávez. Before that, maybe baseball and beautiful women winning beauty pageants made it to the headlines, but not with the intensity of this political phenomenon. That came as a surprise to many as he made his way to win the electoral bid in 1998, given his eager intent to diminish the power of the traditional political ruling class.
Fourteen years later, we observe a devastated oil producing country, food and energy shortages, unrestrained delinquency, and above all, a clear sense of outlaw rule in a crumbling institutional system.
If we go to the roots of all the major public problems occurring in Venezuela, they predominantly relate to poor decision-making. That includes questionable and vindictive laws that operate not as regulations but as obstacles directed at the private sector, along with isolating policies of nationalization and price controls. Combined, they have inevitably brought the country to this sort of chaos, where finding basic goods has become, in many cases, a daily struggle — literally.
Under these circumstances, with the failure of government to respond effectively to these urgent demands, many Venezuelans yearn for some kind of “final event” that would rescue the country from this severe crisis. On the one hand are the radicals, that in the pursuit of a fast-track solution advocate for military intervention — much in the Egyptian “Arab Spring” style. There also the “birthers” who proclaim that Nicolás Maduro holds Colombian citizenship, due to a lack of confirmation of his true nationality, amid silence from both the Venezuelan and Colombian governments. On the other hand, some are more pragmatic and believe the electoral option is still more convenient than any radical adventure that could replicate the events of April, 2002.
This gives one an idea of how diverse the opposition is. Even its leadership have very different and sometimes conflicting points of view.
On the other side, the government does not have it any easier. After the passing of Hugo Chávez, his followers entered a mourning period combined with the enthusiasm of giving a new electoral victory in his honor. The goals were met, but his successor has not managed his part of the deal, which was to keep his legacy alive.
Some of his fellow Chavistas say, bitterly, that Maduro has wasted the vast political assets he inherited, given his lack of leadership, charisma, and knowledge of government management. In some sectors of the armed forces, for example, those not aligned with the government’s political strategy give very little hope for Maduro completing his term. They note his incapacity to lead the country as his greatest weakness.
Of course there are also unconfirmed but very logical rumors that indicate a fracture within the highest level of government and a power struggle. While united by a need to maintain a hold on the government, each member is seeking to strengthen his role. That power struggle has manifested in the lead-up to the upcoming local elections of December 8. Opposition leaders have labeled it as somewhat of a referendum on Maduro’s performance, but this has coincided with internal conflicts in Chavismo. Specifically, their constituent bases are divided, given the decision of the government to promote the candidacies of public figures such as artists and ball-players, instead of proven community leaders for the Mayoral race.
The Failed Policies
The economic decisions have been neither the best nor the most coherent, and they’ve been so critical given the crisis we face. Political decisions like the Enabling Act that Maduro has requested as of October 8 do not even potentially improve the situation of the country. Maduro and his government first claimed that in order to defeat corruption (one of the most critical problems the government faces) they needed the special powers, but now as the economic and financial crisis has worsened, he contends that those powers will be focused to the “economic battle“ against the sabotage that both imperialism and opposition are leading.
For a government that controls the judiciary, the parliament, the electoral, and citizen powers to then blame external factors is a recognition of great weakness. The opposition must be so powerful that they can create the conditions for food shortages, even when the state owns a considerable portion of the industries associated with that sector, including businesses expropriated to pursue “food sovereignty.”
Similarly, this government controls a country that used to be one of the main energy producers in the region, but now it faces power shortages on a daily basis, due to the lack of investment, maintenance, and appropriate management. Their continued performance is evidence of their failure to use the immense resources the country received from oil revenue to improve the lives of its citizens.
Running Out of Money to Buy Friends
Venezuela, for the past 14 years, has literally bought support with oil revenues, for the so-called “Bolivarian Revolution.” While the country experiences frequent power outages, there are Central American countries that have received power plants. While universities in Venezuela receive only 10 percent of the budget they need to operate, there are Latin American countries that receive millions of dollars from the Venezuelan government for their universities and hospitals. That has been a constant of the Chavismo era.
Life after Chávez is not the same, because oil revenues don‘t seem to be enough for so many countries depending on them. Notably, a big player like China, the most important Venezuelan creditor, has become more cautious with its credit assistance.
The situation has Maduro in a dead end alley. He needs to take action, and quickly, because the excessive controls are suffocating the economy. However, the radical Chavistas will not consider any flexibility as an option. He has to play along with two considerations, one for the pragmatics and one for the radicals — and this game is unlikely to end well.
The country looks on the verge of something, but what is not quite clear. The people hope whatever it is can be an escape valve from all this exhaustion caused by a government struggling to keep the power but without any capacity to deliver.
It is appalling that a country with such a potential is at the bottom of its capacity, with all its resources embezzled, drained, and emptied in the pursuit of a change that has not improved the life of its citizens. On the contrary, it has only managed to broaden the gap between those who have too much and those who have nothing.