As Venezuela becomes increasingly mired in crisis, Andrew McLeod examines why throughout recent history, so many progressive political dreams have been dashed across the region.
Eighteen years ago, Hugo Chávez set out on a mission to challenge the wealthy elite who had ruled his country for decades. His aim was to haul millions of impoverished Venezuelans out of their misery and send a message to the developed world that his country was no longer a place where business meant siphoning off oil resources to subsidise the living standards of the elite at the expense of the poor.
Chávez hoped that the rest of Latin America would follow him in his endeavour, and for a time electorates in country after country across the region voted in left-leaning governments in what came to be known as the “pink tide”. The timing was right, for the United States had taken its eye off the ball, ignoring developments in what traditionally had been its “back yard”, as it focused on its sterile and ultimately disastrous search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Chávez wasn’t a despot, or at any rate, an unelected one, though he was certainly a populist, haranguing Venezuelans for hours on end on his own TV talk show. He was a tweeting president long before the arrival of Donald Trump, who resembles him in that way and others. He won elections that were supervised by international monitors. He was defeated in a referendum and accepted the result.
Chávez made a pact with Cuba, supplying it with oil in return for the expertise of thousands of Cuban doctors. He launched a Cuban-style campaign to reduce illiteracy in remote areas, and introduced thousands of state-funded discount stores. These oil-funded “Bolivarian missions” led even the World Bank, which he despised, to acknowledge that his government had taken great strides in reducing poverty. Now, four years after his death, Chávez’s dream of a socialist Venezuela hangs in the balance, with the country teetering on the brink of anarchy and possibly civil war.
A BITTER SUCCESSION
Chávez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, is engaged in a bitter dispute with the opposition-controlled national assembly, which won a landslide election victory in 2015. The plummeting price of oil has forced the government to curtail the missions, leading to severe shortages of food, medicine and other staple goods and there are daily scenes of masked youths with Molotov cocktails clashing with riot forces firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. Over 100 people have been killed in the violence since April.
According to Human Rights Watch, security forces and colectivos – pro-government community groups – have broken into residential buildings and raided homes without a judicial order, looting, destroying cars, and beating and detaining residents. The government says young anti-government protesters are becoming increasingly well-equipped and are funded by right-wing groups.
The opposition coalition, which is known as the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, or MUD (Roundtable of Democratic Unity) says the government’s plans for constituent assembly elections will delay regional polls scheduled for later this year and a presidential election in 2018, and would lead to a Maduro dictatorship. Tightening the screws, the national assembly has staged general strikes, nominated its own supreme court judges, and set out a plan for a future government as it tries to force Maduro to call an early election.
Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile have called on Maduro to sit down at the negotiating table with the opposition or face expulsion from the Mercosur trade bloc.
Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, has shown no sign of bowing to their demands, railing at opposition leaders, calling them “roaches” and “terrorist imbeciles” who are intent on undermining his democratically-elected government. He denies that he is trying to become a “Mussolini”. But he is running out of friends: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile have called on Maduro to sit down at the negotiating table with the opposition or face expulsion from the Mercosur trade bloc. Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet, who as a moderate socialist would normally be expected to be sympathetic to the Bolivarian cause, has warned Maduro that although he won an election in 2013, this was “not enough” proof of his democratic credentials.
The left-wing Colombian writer William Ospina wrote in El Espectador newspaper of Bogotá that so-called chavismo was “a lucid and generous project that runs the risk of deviating into an authoritarian and exclusive regime, just when all Latin American states should be moving toward systems of complex, diverse democracies.” He urged Maduro to free political prisoners and call an election. “An honourable defeat is worth much more than a victory deemed unworthy in the eyes of an electorate that knows what is going on,” Ospina said, adding that most Venezuelans were aware the crisis was due less to the socialist system itself as to the manipulation of international oil prices and black marketeering.
In a New York Times article the Mexican historian Enrique Krauze likened Venezuela to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, “a shameless alliance of corrupt politicians and the military acquiescent to the dictates of Cuba.” He said some of the government’s leaders had been accused of involvement in international drug trafficking. He named no names, but said that “they have kidnapped the Latin American nation that is richest in oil resources.”
A ROAD, MUCH TRAVELLED
Venezuela has a long history of violence, beginning with the revolutionary war of independence against Spain in the early 19th century, where Venezuelans slaughtered Venezuelans, and continuing through the 20th century with left-wing guerrilla activity in the 1960s and the Caracazo of 1989. There were lulls and in the 1970s, Venezuela was looked upon as model of democracy and became a haven for exiles fleeing right-wing dictatorships in other parts of Latin America.
As a lieutenant colonel, Chávez led a failed coup in 1992 against the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, whose introduction of neoliberal policies in the late 1980s led to the Caracazo. Though the coup failed, Chávez said he would be back, and he swept to office through democratic polls in 1999.
Opposition leaders say corruption and economic mismanagement began during Chávez’s tenure, and accuse Maduro of trying to set up a dictatorship. However, it is worth examining their own democratic credentials. One leader, the Harvard-educated Leopoldo López, was involved in an abortive coup against Chávez in 2002. He is serving a 13-year sentence on trumped-up charges of incitement to violence and terrorism, but after much pressure from international human rights organisations and politicians of all hues, he was recently transferred from prison to house arrest.
The Peruvian Chilean political commentator Patricio Navia suggested in the Buenos Aires Herald that Maduro was bringing López back into the limelight to force Venezuelans to choose between López, who is from an affluent background and as such is “a leader who, for many, continues to represent the ancien regime that Chávez deposed, and Maduro, a leader who desperately tries to imitate Chávez but continuously fails to outmanoeuvre the opposition and rally support behind his government.”
Henrique Capriles, the governor of the state of Miranda, who has populist tendencies of his own and who narrowly lost to Maduro in the 2013 election, says the government “fears a coup d’etat because it knows what is going on within the armed forces and that the more they shut the door on the chance of the country rediscovering its democratic path, the more likely it will be that someone will say ‘enough is enough’.” He said the opposition did not want a coup, but hoped that the armed forces would urge Maduro to respect the constitution and the will of the people.
López, who ironically is a descendant of Bolívar, and Capriles are former political allies, and Navia thinks “Maduro’s plan to turn López into the main opposition leader might fail. López and Capriles might end up working together to restore democracy even if they face-off later when the Maduro regime is toppled.”
While accusing the opposition of conspiring against a long dead national hero seems bizarre, there may be some truth in Moncada’s fears of CIA involvement.
The government’s approach to the media has become as shrill as Donald Trump’s or the Cuban Communist Party organ Granma’s. In tweets on 24th July, the liberator Simón Bolívar’s 234th birthday, Samuel Moncada, the new foreign secretary, said the country was facing a “fascist, anti-national insurrection planned abroad and carried out by the enemies of Bolívar.”
While accusing the opposition of conspiring against a long dead national hero seems bizarre, there may be some truth in Moncada’s fears of CIA involvement. He cites a talk at the Aspen Security Forum on 20th July in which the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, suggested the agency was working hard on the Venezuelan case. “Any time you have a country as large and with the economic capacity of a country like Venezuela, America has a deep interest in making sure that it’s as stable and democratic as possible,” he said. He drew laughs when he added: “I am always careful when I talk about South and Central America and the CIA, there’s a lot of stories.”
Pompeo said the agency was very hopeful that there “can be a transition in Venezuela and the CIA is doing its best to understand the dynamic there… so that we can communicate to our State Department and to others.” He added that he had visited Mexico City and Bogotá to discuss the issue of Venezuela “so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world – and our part of the world.” Earlier this year, Pompeo told a US Senate intelligence committee hearing that there was a “real threat” that large caches of weapons in Venezuela might fall into the wrong hands, but “we have not seen any of those major arms transfers.”
In 2001, I was stood up by Chávez, whose embassy had requested an early morning interview at Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel. He wasn’t in the lobby at the scheduled military time of 7am, and wasn’t even in the hotel. The embassy explained later that he had skipped Scotland after being “stitched up” in a Daily Telegraph interview the previous day and had flown home in a rage. “He does that sometimes,” I was told.
“The question is, which would you rather do? Spend your oil windfall on saving the eyesight of your people, or spend it on mansions in Miami as Venezuelan leaders did in the past?”
But I later met Moncada, the foreign minister in Edinburgh when he was Chávez’s new ambassador to Britain. A historian and former education minister, Moncada was enthusiastic about his country’s growing international influence at the time. He said Venezuela’s special relationship with Cuba had not only been mutually beneficial but was extending to other parts of the Caribbean and was changing the way these countries viewed their own place in the world. I asked him about the opposition’s view, even then, that the Chávez government was squandering Venezuelan oil and he replied: “The question is, which would you rather do? Spend your oil windfall on saving the eyesight of your people, or spend it on mansions in Miami as Venezuelan leaders did in the past?” (Moncada was referring to Operation Miracle, a Cuban-Venezuelan medical programme that has helped restore sight free of charge to around three million people in dozens of countries since 2004).
Moncada was making a valid point, but today, the MUD opposition has turned the tables, accusing the Bolivarian government of corruption and gross mismanagement of the economy. They say a new bourgeoisie has emerged among businessmen with close connections with the government. Known as “boligarchs” they own homes in the United States and Europe, wear Rolex watches, drive flash cars and fly their own private jets. They resemble Western bankers or Russian oligarchs, in a country on the brink of starvation even chavista loyalists admit that the most basic articles are now almost impossible to find in the subsidised supermarkets.
The Maduro government might consider Transparency International a suspect organisation manipulated by Venezuela’s enemies, but the country placed last in the Latin American table and 166th out of 176 in Transparency’s 2016 list, with the higher numbers indicating a higher degree of corruption.
For many Latin Americans, corruption lies at the heart of all that is wrong with Latin America, but it was ever so. Manuel Belgrano, a failure as an army general in the wars of independence but venerated as the creator of the Argentine flag, wrote in 1793 wrote on his return to Buenos Aires from studying in Spain: “I found that nothing could be done for these provinces by men who, obeying their particular interests, postpone the good of all.”
Latin American history is littered with false dawns, but they come in different hues. Conservative commentators like to point to Venezuela as a model to be avoided, but failure is not a purely socialist trait. Nor is corruption. The so-called “pink tide”, during which left-leaning presidents were elected in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru in the 2000s, did not happen by chance: it came in the wake of the failure of the so-called Washington consensus, under which access to IMF loans became dependent on countries lowering trade barriers and privatising most of their state industries.
Argentina in particular was faithful to the Washington consensus model, and for a time it was hailed as a free market success story. However, whilst President Carlos Menem, the darling of the IMF and World Bank, drove around in a Ferrari, millions lost their jobs and were plunged into poverty. In 2002, thousands took to the streets, looting shops and supermarkets and forcing the government of Fernando De La Rua, who had inherited the mess, to resign. The country then suffered the international ignominy of having four presidents in five days.
Latin American history is littered with false dawns, but they come in different hues.
The “pink tide” brought relief to the poor for a time, but is now receding, and the region is taking on a conservative tinge. But where will it lead, and for how long? Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva has been convicted on corruption charges in the ongoing Lava Jato (Car Wash) scandal, but he is to appeal and has vowed to stand for president again next year. Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a one-time close ally of Chávez, has also faced corruption charges but has ditched Peronism and launched a new party, which according to the latest polls could perform well in congressional elections in October. Maduro would almost certainly be charged with corruption if ousted, and although he lacks Chávez’s drive and charisma, he would retain at least a degree of respect if he stepped down to avoid further bloodshed.
The now disgraced (or not; Latin America is like that) Lula wrote in the New York Times after Chávez’s death in 2013 that Latin America owed the Venezuelan leader a debt of gratitude for thrusting its cultural, political and social issues onto the world stage. “One might… disagree with Mr Chávez’s ideology, and a political style that his critics viewed as autocratic. However, no remotely honest person, not even his fiercest opponent, can deny the level of camaraderie, of trust and even of love that Mr Chávez felt for the poor of Venezuela and for the cause of Latin American integration. Few have believed so much in the unity of our continent and its diverse peoples – indigenous Indians, descendants of Europeans and Africans, recent immigrants – as he did.”
If, as Lula said, Latin American integration was Chávez’s dream as much as it had been Simón Bolívar’s, one wonders what Bolívar himself would have made of the Bolivarian Revolution, a label deplored by Maduro’s opponents who say it tarnishes the liberator’s historical image.
But does it? The liberator of the northern part of Spanish-speaking South America swept down the continent to meet the liberator of the southern half, the Argentine General José de San Martín in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in July 1822. They held a secret meeting indoors – not outdoors, as suggested by contemporary paintings – where no one else was present, and no minutes were kept of what was said. It is thought that San Martín, who had the title of Protector of Peru, offered to serve under Bolívar, but Bolívar wanted a series of republics while San Martín favoured a European-style monarchical system. At a banquet, Bolívar proposed a toast to the “two greatest men in South America, General San Martín and myself.” San Martín, however, drank to “the prompt conclusion of the war, the organisation of the different republics of the continent, and the health of the liberator of [Gran] Colombia (i.e. Bolívar).”
After the banquet, San Martín stood down as Protector of Peru and returned to Buenos Aires. Appalled by the political infighting he found in the country of his birth and which he had liberated, he went into self-imposed exile in France, where he died in 1850. This was shaping up to be the first false dawn of the new republics.
But what of Bolívar? Towards the end of his life, he too despaired of the failure of the liberated countries to integrate, saying that “all who served the revolution have ploughed the sea” and “I blush to say this: Independence is the only benefit we have acquired, to the detriment of all the rest.”
One wonders, too, whether Chávez knew, or Maduro knows, that Karl Marx was not a fan of Bolívar. In a biographical entry on the liberator in the New American Encyclopedia of 1858, he wrote that “like most of his countrymen, he [Bolívar] was averse to any prolonged exertion, and his dictatorship soon proved a military anarchy, leaving the most important affairs in the hands of favourites, who squandered the finances of the country, and then resorted to odious means in order to restore them.” Not that Marx and Bolívar ever met, nor was Chávez an idle man – far from it – but as a criticism of poor government, in Venezuela or elsewhere in South America, it seems remarkably contemporary.
Andrew McLeod is a former foreign editor of The Scotsman and contributor to the Sunday Herald. His Scottish ancestors settled on the Argentine Pampas in the mid 19th century. Born in Buenos Aires, he was raised and educated in Uruguay, Canada, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina and Peru. He worked at the Buenos Aires Herald during the “dirty war” years, during which time he was also a stringer in Buenos Aires for the Times and a correspondent for US News & World Report, Jane’s Defence Weekly and Maclean’s. He has also written for the Daily Telegraph and Daily Express.