Venezuela is a nation rich with natural resources such as oil, gold, diamonds and other minerals. Yet, it is experiencing a crisis in which most people cannot find food or medicine.
In the past several months, there has been great social unrest in Venezuela. Venezuelans are going out on the streets demanding their basic needs, and storming delivery trucks and stores to get their hands on supplies. Their daily activities are disrupted by water rationing and electricity cuts, which have resulted from long-term neglect of basic infrastructure.
Most people would take this as a sign that the government has simply failed. Many onlookers may assume Venezuela’s leaders are just incompetent. Why else would they not able to provide the people with the basic necessities like water, electricity, security and opportunity?
As a Venezuelan expat having served in the Venezuelan foreign service for two decades and directing a program for the Inter-American Development Bank, I know the crisis is the result of an effort to gain and maintain power, just as the Castro brothers have successfully done in Cuba.
Call for revolution
Chávez came to power, after unsuccessfully attempting a coup, by winning an election in 1998. He won by selling the idea of giving power to the people, and ending the corruption of the traditional political parties that had governed Venezuela for the last quarter-century.
He won the election by a convincing margin. He started his presidency with the support of the people and a barrel of oil going for more than US$100. His original popularity and success permitted him to accomplish many of his goals that in other circumstances would have been very difficult.
In 2012, a member of the former Venezuelan president’s inner circle went public, alleging details of a plan he did not want to be a part of and rejected.
Guaicaipuro Lameda, a former general under President Hugo Chávez, shared details of how Chávez and his supporters allegedly intended to carry out the Bolivarian Revolution he campaigned on. Chávez’s call for revolution expressed a rejection of imperialism that sought to establish democratic socialism for the 21st century.
But, Lameda claimed, Chávez’s plan to accomplish this involved taking control of all branches of power – the executive, legislative, judicial and military.
Once in power, Chávez replaced the existing Congress by creating a new National Assembly, which he controlled. He used his new National Assembly to rewrite the constitution to perpetuate himself in power. The presidential periods were originally five-year terms without the possibility of immediate reelection. Former presidents could run again only after two terms had passed. The National Assembly changed it to six-year terms, with unlimited reelections, and extended these new parameters to governors and other elected officials.
Chavez served as president for 14 years, until his death in 2013.
The new National Assembly also reshaped the Supreme Court. They alleged the existing justices were corrupt, and inserted Chávez’s followers in their place.
Chávez created an image of an enlightened world leader, selling oil at a discount to many Latin American nations to buy good will. For example, he struck a deal to provided Cuba with deeply discounted oil in exchange for Cuban doctors.
He started a war against the private sector. He nationalized thousands of private companies and industries, to the amazement of his followers and to the astonishment of business owners and consumers who did not see it coming.
Chávez’s style was confrontational, disrespectful and self-centered. He would spend countless hours on national TV offending anyone who would dare to disagree with him, and was known for reprimanding and firing cabinet ministers on live TV. Countless hours of the show Aló Presidente were produced.
Chávez’s legacy haunts his successor
Nicolás Maduro, current president of Venezuela, was previously a bus driver, union leader and unconditional follower of Chávez. In return, Chávez appointed him as a member of the National Assembly, the secretary of state, vice president and then his heir.
Maduro has tried to imitate Chávez’s style, making Chávez an immortal figure, promoting rituals and making his burial place a center of worship and spending lavishly to create a cult centered on the “Eternal Commander.”
Unfortunately for Maduro, who does not have the charisma or the political instincts of his predecessor, the barrel of oil is now $40 instead of $100. The population is restless with poverty, which did not improve as Chávez promised. Rampant and very public corruption has beleaguered the public sector and armed forces.
There is no opportunity in the private sector, since it was destroyed by nationalization, using confiscation or expropriation of private companies. The local currency is totally worthless.
Thanks to Chávez’s legacy, Maduro still holds control over the Supreme Court of Justice and the Armed Forces. His followers have organized civilian groups called “collectivos” to mobilize against opposition. He also has the support of the Militia, a large group of paramilitaries, well-trained and uniformed and unconditional followers of the “eternal commander,” Chávez.
How long will this perpetuation of power last? Only time will tell, but the tides may be turning.
In December, Venezuelans expressed their discontent and voted a sea change into the National Assembly, which is now controlled by the opposition. The international community is questioning the procedures by which several well-known opposition leaders have been jailed, and decisions of the election commission to delay a referendum.
Last month, the Organization of American States, an organization with 35 member nations in the region, approved a resolution to review the social, political and economic reality of Venezuela. They may apply their Democratic Charter to force the Venezuelan government to call a referendum that could end Maduro’s term as president.
Meanwhile, the situation continues to worsen, and pressure from the Venezuelan people who are seeking an end to their hunger is growing by the day.