Magazine | August 28, 2017, Issue

The Agony of Venezuela

How a prospering democracy sank into dictatorship and hunger

Closing a speech that was as emotional as it was endless, the president invoked Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the play’s opening scene, a boatswain dares to defy the wind as the storm gathers: “Blow, till thou burst thy wind, if room enough!” The charismatic leader then paraphrased the bard: “Blow, hard wind, blow, hard tempest, I have [a constitutional] assembly to withstand you!” The crowd was enraptured.

The year was 1999, and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, shortly after his election victory the previous December, was asking the assembly to deliver a new, “eternal” constitution. He put himself at the “mercy” of a fresh, temporary but all-powerful assembly, conveniently created to supersede a parliament that did not answer to him. Chávez got his way; he almost always did. The resulting constitution—Venezuela’s 26th—did away with the senate, lengthened presidential terms, unshackled military appointments from congressional oversight, and weakened the checks and balances exercised by judges and legislators. It was also the beginning of the end of democracy in Venezuela.

As it turned out, “eternal” did not make it 20 years. The Venezuelan republic breathed its last in July, when Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, enthroned yet another constitutional assembly, to disempower the democratic but opposition-controlled parliament. The one goal that eluded Chávez in life—the establishment of “communal socialism”—might be achieved, in his name, after his death.

Despite the marshaling of government cadres eager to fire against unarmed protesters, millions of Venezuelans took to the streets to stop this power grab. Dozens of dead and hundreds of political prisoners later, they endure. The world, meanwhile, looks on, with the United States engaged only peripherally and emerging global powers reluctant to disrupt business. Venezuelans are now engaged in a civil war in which, as one astute observer remarked while being deported, only one side is armed.

Venezuela matters. The modern, media-fueled messianic populism that so worries Western elites was born there in the 1990s. It arose during a unique period when, ever so briefly, history appeared to be over. Liberal democracy and economic neoliberalism enjoyed an intellectual hegemony following the unceremonious collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Communists of the East implemented capitalist reforms, following China’s lead. Meanwhile, the “Washington Consensus” led to privatizations and monetarism across the developing world. In Latin America, a region only recently returned to democracy after decades of military interregnums fueled by a hot Cold War, its dictums were applied with zeal. Only the Cuba of Fidel Castro held out, impoverished, isolated, and devoid of Russian cash.

Venezuela was once an example to follow. The country avoided the murderous military rule that befell the likes of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile in no small part because of Rómulo Betancourt, a thrice-exiled pioneering social democrat who, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “fought dictatorships of the Right and the Left.” Fossil-fuel wealth on par with that of the Persian Gulf allowed for the kind of social redistribution that was never in the cards elsewhere. Despite this affluence, or perhaps because of it, Venezuela was also the kind of “low-intensity democracy” that political scientists worry about, its republican institutions weakened by profound social inequities and rampant corruption.

Neoliberal economics failed to strengthen the republic. With Betancourt long gone, the ruling two-party system was in decay. In 1989, a harsh IMF-sponsored economic austerity program lit up the capital in what became known as the “Caracazo.” Protests, lootings, and riots were met with force by the government, resulting in scores of deaths at the hands of the military. Soon enough, a charismatic young colonel espousing anti-establishment ideas improvised a coup d’état while his neoliberal commander in chief traveled to the nascent World Economic Forum at Davos. The telegenic Hugo Chávez failed, but he also failed to go away. As he was taken into custody, he addressed the TV cameras: “Regrettably, for now, we did not achieve our . . . objectives.”

“For now” was accurate. When Chávez was released from prison by a misguided president, he organized a democratic “movement” that cut across party lines, promising Manichaean deliverance: freeing “the people” from an entitled and corrupt “oligarchy.” He was eventually elected to the presidency, in 1998—and he never left it until he died in office in 2013.

His government has deservedly been praised for its anti-poverty efforts, later emulated by like-minded governments elsewhere. When he came to power, extreme poverty hovered at around 24 percent of the population, a staggering number given Venezuela’s natural endowment; according to the World Bank, it had fallen to around 9 percent by 2011. Similarly, unemployment declined from 14.5 percent in 1999 to 7.6 percent a decade later, a figure boosted by radical growth of the public sector. Infant mortality was almost halved during Chávez’s first decade in power, from 20 per 1,000 live births to 13.

His televised paternalism exalted the state at a time when it was being restrained elsewhere. Like other populist governments before him, however, his preferred jobs and free housing to improved education. He never sought to heal social wounds; his Manichaean revolution, after all, depended on them.

Chávez’s economic strategy was supported by a decade-long rise in commodity prices—in particular, oil prices. Nationalized oil behemoth Petróleos de Venezuela became progressively less professional and more politicized under chavismo. There was a months-long strike in 2002–03 against the government’s management of the company; Chávez eventually fired the strikers. Devoid of its best managers, the company saw its oil production steadily decline thereafter. Yet the value of Venezuela’s net crude exports boomed for a decade, rising from (in 2017 dollars) $21 billion when Chávez was inaugurated to $66 billion in 2011. These oil exports accounted for a staggering 96 percent of Venezuela’s hard currency. As historian Enrique Krauze has accurately observed, chavismo’s belief in high oil prices was as zealous as its socialism.

But there was always an authoritarian underbelly to economic redistribution. In the same speech in which he used Shakespeare to justify a hyper-presidentialist constitution, Chávez somehow was able to denounce regional caudillos and great-man theories of history, arguing that only “the people” led revolutions (with the sole exception of “the only providential man, Jesus of Nazareth”). He also quoted José Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses, once a guiding text of Iberian authoritarians, through a curious postmodern lens—praising a “Venezuelan revolution led, boosted, felt, and loved by the people.” He even ventured a “chemical formula” for revolution, modeled on that of water: “People 2 Revolution.”

And yet the “will of the people” was always somehow Chávez’s. His revolution was lavishly televised as he sought to create what he termed a “Bolivarian republic,” after the 19th-century liberator of much of northern Latin America from Spain’s imperialist yoke. Not even poor old Bolívar was safe from his successor’s hyperactive energy: The hero’s body was exhumed amid public fanfare to prove a (fake) conspiracy theory about his death at the hand of plotting imperialists.

Even in the face of damning evidence, Chávez admitted neither weakness nor defeat. His teleology of history was stronger than any temporary setback. He applied that force against opposition-owned conglomerates, critical media, and political dissenters. Slowly but steadily, they all declined, cornered by chavismo’s ever-growing state.

They say revolutions devour their children; this one exiled its best minds and then employed whoever was left in an orgy of nepotism and corruption. The central bank folded quickly. Emboldened by a divided opposition, Chávez stuffed the supreme court with loyalists. A once-independent electoral commission suddenly became a tool of the regime. By 2007, he moved against his “eternal” 1999 constitution with 69 proposed amendments that would give him sweeping new powers. This led to his one and only electoral defeat, when a plebiscite narrowly rejected his changes. Visibly shaken and, as always, on live television, he accepted the result. “For now,” he added emphatically, echoing his 1992 defeat.

Chavismo devoted just as much energy to exporting its revolution as it did to exporting oil. The latter was a conduit for the former. Venezuela fostered and financed the populist “pink tide” that took over Latin American politics in the aftermath of 9/11. While the United States waged war on terrorists in distant lands and later “pivoted” to Asia, Chávez loomed large on a continent freed from the Monroe Doctrine. Chavismo opened the region’s doors to China—today Venezuela’s largest investor and creditor—and Russia, not only financially but also militarily. These world powers never questioned his methods, and chavismo encouraged their economic penetration elsewhere in the region, particularly in the nations that soon joined an emergent populist league. At the United Nations General Assembly, Chávez once claimed amid laughs that he could still “smell the sulphur left behind by the devil,” President George W. Bush, who had preceded him onstage the day before. Venezuela’s petro-diplomacy kept Fidel’s Cuba afloat. Chávez also provided illegal financing for elections in Argentina (where one of his acolytes was caught red-handed with a suitcase of imperialist dollars) and bankrolled populists from Patagonia to Tijuana.

The Chávez-led “populist league,” featuring Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner and Bolivia’s soon-to-be president Evo Morales, ambushed President Bush in a picturesque resort town in Argentina in 2005. There, they sank the decades-long project of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, or ALCA, for “Área de Libre Comercio de las Américas”). While leaders met in a formal, private summit, Chávez masterminded a televised spectacle: He hosted a “summit of the people” on the other side of town. Eschewing boring speakers, it featured legendary soccer player Diego Maradona, Cuban songwriter Silvio Rodríguez, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel as well as Chávez and Morales themselves. They had a catchy slogan to boot: “ALCA, ALCA, al carajo!” (literally, “ALCA, ALCA, to hell!”). What he did not destroy, Chávez co-opted: He finagled Venezuela’s inclusion in Mercosur, the South American trade bloc led by Argentina and Brazil. After Venezuela joined in 2012, an organization designed to drop trade barriers became devoted to bureaucratic stalling.

Chávez thus led the charge against globalized neoliberalism well before Greece’s Syriza, France’s Marine Le Pen, Bernie Sanders, or Donald J. Trump. He even spawned a political philosophy. It was related to the post-Marxist thought of Ernesto Laclau; his long-term partner, Chantal Mouffe; and Stuart Hall. Behind its obscure Lacanist post-structuralist jargon lay profoundly illiberal ideas. Laclau’s masterpiece, On Populist Reason, argued that following the failure of Communism, a populist redeemer could transform the institutions of a republic to deliver them from “elites” inherently opposed to the interests of “the people”; a “will of the people” stronger than any election will guide the process. Laclau was an adviser to the likes of Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner; he passed away in 2014 in Spain, shortly after giving a lecture to sympathizers of Podemos, an anti-establishment Spanish party some of whose leaders were bankrolled by none other than Chávez. His methods, and those of his successors today, might not be democratically justified, but chavismo sees them as legitimate to advance the interests of the forgotten majority—a view echoed by populists well beyond distant Latin republics.

Courts, commissions, and constitutions failed to stop Chávez. Only cancer did. Before he succumbed to it in 2013, Chávez moved to shore up military support for his regime. He was astute enough to understand that, deprived of his messianic, media-savvy leadership, his successors would need the armed forces from which he had emerged. His anointed successor, Nicolás Maduro, did not originate from the ranks, but his rule owes much to military backing.

Chávez left the stage at a good time: The decline in oil prices eventually led to cuts in government largesse. Reluctantly, Maduro reduced petro-aid to other nations. Then came price and import controls. An economic downward spiral ensued. At a time when the developed world struggles to engineer 2 percent inflation, Venezuela’s uncontrolled monetary expansion resulted in a hyperinflation that is expected to top 700 percent this year. There are shortages of essential food and medicine; social tensions have returned with a vengeance. An increasingly prominent military got immunity from such deprivations, but civilians did not.

As my colleague Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez has observed, the government gave its armed forces “cash bonuses, wage hikes, and . . . lucrative governorships and ministries.” There is evidence that generals run drug-trafficking operations to make up for lost oil revenue while engaging in their own oil smuggling to Colombia. Call it corporate diversification.

What neither Maduro nor the military could stop was the landmark election last December that resulted in a parliamentary majority for the opposition, united at last in the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática. Far from backing down, however, the regime moved to abandon even the hollowed carcass of republican institutionalism.

When emboldened legislators blocked new debt issuance to force the disclosure of the oil company’s murky accounts, Maduro simply ignored the legislature’s enactments. Foreign financial institutions helped him. In March, the pliant supreme court usurped the legislative power, effectively outlawing the National Assembly.

It was then that President Maduro summoned Chávez’s original spirit: He organized an election for a new constitutional assembly meant to supersede the nation’s elected legislators. In his own words, the new body would be a “superpower . . . above and beyond every other” until it delivered a new “eternal” constitution. The voting for members of this new assembly amounted to the most egregiously rigged Latin American election in decades.

The opposition boycotted it, holding an unofficial plebiscite in which 7 million Venezuelans voted against it. A week later, the co-opted electoral commission announced a result “so big, so surprising”: 8 million had supposedly voted in the official election. Data leaked to Reuters, however, implied that only 3.7 million voted. Smartmatic, the company that provided electronic voting machines, said the voting numbers had been “tampered with.” This is all reminiscent of the Bourbon-restoration elections in Spain in the 1890s, when even the dead voted for the Conservatives and newspapers published results ahead of elections.

In the face of international protests, Maduro inaugurated the assembly, led by Delcy Rodríguez, sister to one of the last remaining civilian heavyweights in the regime. Within hours, the assembly fired an increasingly critical attorney general and began doing away with public servants who dared to vote against the government or to skip the sham vote outright. (They know how people voted because the regime now tracks all citizens—including their food supplies and their voting records—through electromagnetic ID cards dubbed, without a hint of irony, “patriotic identifications.”)

Prisoners of conscience have multiplied, including opposition leaders Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo López, both of whom the regime has been shuttling between undisclosed prisons and house arrest. At least López, a worthy heir to Chávez’s charisma, was convicted by a process, albeit a sham one protested by Amnesty International; others are detained without warrants, and still others have simply vanished, in a reminder of the darkest hours of Latin American history. As the victims of chavismo’s repression multiply, what comes next is unlikely to be peaceful.

Chávez’s “liberation” of the people was not meant to end with his regime’s killing unarmed protesters. Yet it has done so—not despite the messianic leader who once eschewed redeemers, but because of him. Today’s Venezuela is a totalitarian dictatorship in the heart of a democratic continent, a regime of the kind we once blocked economically or brought down by force. It has more political prisoners than China or Cuba. And such is its moral bankruptcy that hidden, drug-tainted cash—touted on Instagram by a new oligarchy of revolutionaries’ offspring—ends up in the same havens once favored by corrupt neoliberals.

Foreign praise has run dry, along with oil money; those who once welcomed Venezuelan consulting contracts and campaign financing now conveniently avoid the topic. Around the world, and in particular in Latin America, pockets of the Left keep a silence that—in light of the abuses—can only be described as shameless. There is a particular sadness to human-rights crusaders who once bravely fought murderous military regimes but now are quiet in the face of chavista cadres’ firing on unarmed protesters and “disappearing” opponents. If mass graves do not discriminate based on ideology, neither should we.

The Organization of American States has attempted to apply a doctrine that originated with none other than Betancourt: “Regimes that do not respect human rights and violate the freedoms of their citizens should be submitted to a rigorous quarantine and eradicated through the collective action of the international juridical community.” If Venezuela still has OAS allies blocking more effective quarantining, we should expose and censure them, too.

Mercosur has suspended Venezuela from its membership; thanks to the work of populists over the past decade, it is powerless to do more. The Obama and Trump administrations have sanctioned select regime officials, most recently Maduro himself. They should go further, in particular after the regime’s corrupt wealth abroad and its smuggling efforts. That money can be held hostage to encourage transition; the Vatican has a higher chance of success than discredited foreign politicians. The trouble is that others have been even more circumspect. The European Union denounced the new constitutional assembly and yet, strangely, stopped short of sanctions. Do not look to Russia or China for solutions; they are too preoccupied with preserving their investments and their strategic Latin beachhead. They are exactly the wrong people to ask for deliverance from human-rights abuses, an overdue realization in the region.

In his 1999 flight of fancy, Chávez forgot that Shakespeare’s boatswain failed to arrest the tempest engineered by sorcerer Prospero. Only in the wreckage was the kingdom redeemed. Another Briton, Edmund Burke, could have charted the course of Venezuela’s populist revolution: In the barricades, they dreamt of a revolution to free the people from corrupt elites who had long repressed them, but now, “at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.” At a time when populists celebrate American withdrawal from the world, Venezuela’s tempestuous fate should remind us that something far worse than American leadership on the world stage is its absence.

– Mr. Barbieri is the executive director of Greenmantle, a macroeconomic and geopolitical advisory company, and a senior associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project. He is working on a history of Latin American populism.

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