Even as citizens took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to protest and boycott it, Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, declared victory in an election that could allow him to rewrite the country’s constitution. The result, which elevates hundreds of representatives to Maduro’s constituent assembly, is highly contentious. The government claims that 8m, or 41.53% of eligible voters, turned out, but the opposition claims that only 2.2m, or less than 15%, actually did.
Luisa Ortega, the once-loyal attorney general turned government critic, said the result “makes a mockery” of the country, offering “too much power for a very small group.” The government also faces international condemnation, with more than 40 countries speaking out against the constituent assembly.
The proposals, such as they are, are a sham. Maduro claims that his plans will bring peace to Venezuela, but hasn’t explained what specific elements of the 1999 constitution need changing. Under a new constitution, the opposition’s ongoing efforts to challenge Maduro would be rendered moot; the current parliament, with its opposition majority, could even be dissolved, or reduced to a rubber stamp for the president’s orders.
This would complete Venezuela’s transition from democracy to a system more closely resembling the Castros’ Cuba. That particular country and its ways of doing politics have long been an inspiration for Venezuela’s leftist leaders – to their country’s severe detriment.
A shrine of the revolution
As I was gathering material for my research back in 2007 and 2009, I twice interviewed a figure who saw this process play out: Hugo Chávez’s onetime political broker and mentor, Luis Miquilena.
Miquilena, who was actively involved in Venezuelan politics from the 1940s until his death in 2016, put Chávez up at his house after he was released from prison in 1994. When we spoke, Miquilena described the many long nights they spent talking about the problems in the country and how to improve it once in government; “Chávez,” he said, “was like my adopted son.” But he didn’t see his protégé as a great white hope. Far from it: “Once you know Chávez well, you realise that he is not presidential material.”
Nonetheless, Miquilena seriously invested in Chávez, hoping to transform Venezuela from behind the scenes. The “Chávismo” phenomenon that’s held sway in Venezuela for the last two decades would have never materialised without his contacts, endeavour and political wit. It was Miquilena who assembled an impressive coalition of small and medium-sized political parties and influential figures to support Chávez’s successful 1998 presidential bid.
But Miquelena’s plan to rule by proxy a passive revolution didn’t come off. His almost fatherly bond with Chávez soon began to fray, and he soon found himself sidelined by another ideological heavyweight.
In October 2000, Fidel Castro himself visited Venezuela and insisted on visiting the house in Sabaneta where Chávez was born and lived during his childhood. According to Miquilena, when they got there, Fidel told Chávez: “We’ll make this house a shrine of the revolution” – and starting then, Chávez began distancing himself from Miquilena as Fidel inflated him with messianic delusions of grandeur. Feeling used and betrayed, Miquilena resigned his government post in January 2002 and ended his relationship with Chávez.
Push and shove
Thus began Venezuela’s Fidelist radicalisation. Chávez’s charisma and gift of the gab thrilled people who felt ignored and marginalised in a polarised society; after a coup against him failed in 2002, he cemented his position with the benefit of abundant petrodollars. Nevertheless, Chávez’s dominant alpha male persona was not enough to guarantee electoral success, and his incendiary rhetoric was increasingly matched with efforts to tweak the system in his favour.
The undemocratic and bloody events Venezuela has seen in recent months have their roots in Chávez’s decision to gradually impose a Cuban-style socialist revolution at all costs. As he famously said in 2007: “Homeland, socialism or death … I swear!”
Today, it seems that the idea of revolution is to be defended at all costs, including violence, even at the highest levels. On June 28, 2017, Bladimiro Lugo, a colonel of the National Guard responsible for the safety of parliament and parliamentarians, manhandled and shoved Julio Borges, president of the opposition-led National Assembly. This occurred as Borges asked Lugo to explain the physical attacks opposition female parliamentarians and journalists had suffered earlier that day. The next day, Maduro awarded Lugo a presidential honour for his contribution to safety and public order.
The incident illustrates a grubby way of maintaining power: the armed forces are kept loyal with the benefits, influence and even impunity that come with promotion, as the government flatters personal interests to make sure military leaders will defend the revolution at all costs. This might explain why Venezuela has more active military generals than the NATO alliance countries combined: it now boasts more than 4,000 generals, up from fewer than 50 in 1993.
To make things more complex, the government also provides weapons and political power to civilian groups. Known as the Colectivos, they play a key role in crushing any protests against the government. On July 5, Lugo’s National Guard which is responsible to safeguard the National Assembly – opened the gates to let Colectivos into the building to attack opposition parliamentarians. These events tally with a belligerent speech Maduro delivered on June 27, 2017:
If the Bolivarian revolution is destroyed, we will go to combat, we will never surrender. What couldn’t be done with votes, we will do with weapons.
Fall from grace
Many on the Latin American left are clear-eyed about what has happened to a country once regarded as a beacon of hope. One particularly interesting and visible critic is Jose Mujica, ex-president of Uruguay. A left-guerrilla who spent altogether 13 years in prison, turned down an offer of US$1m from a Arab sheikh for his VW Beetle and donated 90% of his presidential salary to charity organisations, he is as sanguine about what’s happened to Venezuela as many of Chávez and Maduro’s western detractors.
In the 2015 book A Black Sheep in Power (Una Oveja Negra en el Poder), Mujica claims he warned Chávez that “he was not going to construct socialism” and that in the end, “he didn’t construct a damn thing.” Mujica also notes that “Cuba was like a teenage girlfriend that he saw deteriorating as years went by.” Apparently, Mujica never believed in the Cuban model: “In spite of all the crap related with capitalism, it manages to bring growth.”
Having taken the path it did, Venezuela is now a political disaster for the global left. The impact of more than a decade of apparent anti-neoliberal policies in an oil-rich Latin American country has given a bad name to ideological alternatives to free-market doctrines, and puts socialists who respect and follow democratic processes throughout the world in a very awkward position. Chávez and his successors’ gross overuse of the word “socialism” is more than partly to blame.
The government they have built over the years is not populist or socialist: it is totalitarian. It can no longer claim to be democratic, or that it’s primarily occupied with improving the lives of ordinary people. Its principal goal, to the near-exclusion of all others, is to safeguard the elite – even as that elite fails to rescue the country from crisis.