Magazine | February 25, 2019, Issue

Beyond Chavismo

Juan Guaidó (Leo Alvarez/Getty Images)
Peril and hope in Venezuela as the socialist dictatorship falters

On January 23, 1958, the Venezuelan people rebelled against military dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez. He had ruled the country for a decade, and although the repression of his regime was mild in comparison with that of later Latin American tyrants, Venezuelans longed for freedom. So they revolted, and they prevailed: A mass democratic uprising supported by key elements in the army removed Jiménez from power. After hurriedly packing their bags, he and his wife fled to Miami. Venezuela’s democratic experiment was inaugurated after Jiménez’s departure.

But Venezuelan democracy would not prove immortal, and now — a full six decades after the demise of formal military rule — the Venezuelan people find themselves in another struggle for republican self-determination.

On one side of this struggle stand President Nicolás Maduro, the corrupt military generals who back him, and the assorted foreign actors helping to sustain tyranny in Venezuela: Russia, Cuba, Syria, and the like. On the other side stand opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the national assembly, the overwhelming majority of the Venezuelan citizenry, and most countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Maduro insists that his presidency is legitimate because he “won” the presidential elections of May 2018. Those elections, however, were roundly de­nounced as fraudulent by international monitors: Popular opposition leaders were prevented from competing in them, and there were numerous reports of irregularities. When Maduro’s presidential term (won through elections in 2013) ended on January 10, the country thus found itself without a duly elected president.

The Venezuelan constitution stipulates that, when a president is unable to assume office — effectively the situation in the absence of a legitimate president — the leader of the national assembly becomes the head of an interim government charged with promptly scheduling elections. That leader is Guaidó, who swore himself in as interim president on the symbolic date of January 23 — exactly 61 years after Pérez Jiménez was overthrown.

The situation is tense. Guaidó claims to be the legal head of state, competent to organize free and fair elections as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Maduro retains de facto power over the government and, crucially, over the military. There is no sign that he intends to relinquish the presidency, and as long as he keeps control of the armed forces, the Venezuelan opposition will not be able to assume power. Pro-Maduro generals first have to budge. Thankfully, as of this writing, there is indication that some of them might: Guaidó recently told the international press that he has been holding confidential meetings with government and military officials who would like to see a democratic transition but are afraid to act against Maduro.

Although weakened by incompetence and factionalism in the past, the opposition has performed quite capably in recent months. It has coordinated its efforts with pro-democracy actors abroad, including officials from Colombia and the United States. It has kept in check the various egos that lurk around the world of anti-madurismo. Above all, it has managed to unite an ideologically diverse coalition around the goal of restoring democratic order: Social democrats, centrists, neoliberals, and even some ex-chavistas have all joined hands to resist Maduro’s dictatorship. Establishing democracy is and should be their primary objective, at least for now.

The United States has taken steps to support the opposition and precipitate the ouster of Maduro. It has coordinated a diplomatic front with other Latin American nations to recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. Moreover, the U.S. has offered (and should continue to offer) desperately needed humanitarian aid to Guaidó. Venezuela is facing an economic crisis, and the outside world must do what it can to alleviate the suffering.  

U.S. officials have also stated publicly that a “military option” to remove Maduro is on the table, but such a move would be unwise. For one, most Ameri­cans are probably unwilling to sanction another sustained military commitment abroad, given the experience of prolonged but inconclusive engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. More important, a majority of Venezuelans (54 percent) have said that they oppose a foreign military intervention, according to the prestigious polling organization Datanálisis. Their desire to solve the situation internally ought to be respected.

A limited American military operation might be justified if Maduro unleashes the tanks on opposition protesters or begins killing opposition legislators. But the deployment of American force should remain a last recourse. And if it does become necessary, it should serve only the narrow and specific objectives of preventing greater bloodshed and helping restore elections.

In the absence of large-scale butchery that would legitimate military measures, the U.S. should  persist in its efforts to maintain a diplomatic front against Maduro and in favor of Guaidó. Each day, Maduro’s regime inches closer to oblivion. The economic crisis, the slow defection of army generals, and the ongoing deterioration of the national oil industry all herald the end of madurismo. So while Maduro’s departure is not inevita­ble, it is becoming increasingly likely.

The real difficulties will begin if and when a new, anti-chavista administration comes to power. Turning Venezuela around will require nothing less than a thorough process of reconstruction, and any incoming administration is going to find it very challenging to govern, for the six following reasons.

First, although Venezuela is extremely polarized, any legitimate democracy will have to find a way to incorporate chavistas and anti-chavistas into the same body politic. About a quarter of the population still backs Maduro, and however baffling this support may be, it means that the radical Left in Venezuela cannot be excluded from a political settlement. A new administration, therefore, will have to offer fundamental protections to every sector of a highly divided people. Retalia­tory violence and vigilante justice will have to be prevented. Fury against supporters of chavismo ought to be contained and channeled through legal and juridical mechanisms; those with grievances to redress must press their claims through the court system.

Second, dealing with the corrupt and criminal former members of the chavista government will be contentious, to put it mildly. Attempts to prosecute them for wrongdoing will run into cries of political persecution; calls for clemency will not be received well by a people that rightly resents the astonishing levels of theft committed by the leaders of chavismo. Navigating these circumstances and making wise decisions about whom to pardon and whom to charge will test the wisdom and skill of a new regime.

Third, a new administration must work to lower Venezuela’s extraordinary crime rate. The country’s police forces are inept and often participate in criminal activity. (This partly explains why Caracas is one of the world’s most violent capital cities, with a homicide rate comparable to that of many war zones.) Venezuelans routinely cite safety as one of their top concerns — and with good reason. Safety is paramount.

Fourth, the national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), is in shambles and must be repaired. Much of its machinery has broken down or become obsolete. Production has dropped to levels not seen since the 1940s. The company owes mind-boggling sums of money to Russia and China. Until it returns to producing at maximum capacity, the government is going to have to operate with less funding than it should otherwise have. Here, the United States can play a helpful role: It can assist PDVSA’s recovery by channeling investment and extending loans to a new administration. Any U.S. president intent on promoting Venezuela’s success should be willing to make such a commitment.

Fifth, the Venezuelan economy must be diversified. It still depends far too much on petroleum exports. As much as 98 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings come from oil, which leaves the economy at the mercy of global commodity prices.

Government authorities have been trying to develop other industries for nearly a century, so their failure is not for want of effort. In The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro States, one of the most influential academic books on Venezu­ela, the scholar Terry Lynn Karl provides a compelling account of why diversification has proved so difficult. To oversimplify her thesis: Karl argues that Venezuela’s oil dependency has made it nearly impossible for governments to implement the tough adjustment programs the country must undergo in order to diversify economically.

One important precondition for healthy economic development is the existence of a broad tax base: It is better for a government to rely on the stable stream of a wide tax base than on the fluctuating stream of income from a globally traded commodity. Venezuela, however, has struggled to develop an effective system of tax collection because it is much easier to distribute oil rents than to raise taxes on an unwilling citizenry. Throughout the 20th century, therefore, Venezuelan taxation was spottier than that of its regional peers.

Karl also shows that Venezuela’s oil dependency historically lent itself to political reliance on food and gas subsidies. And indeed, even today Venezuelan gasoline is dirt cheap because of government grants. Unfortunately, such subsidies are economically unsustainable because they drain funds away from the national oil company. Nonetheless, they are politically difficult to abolish. Everyone likes cheap gas.

In short, obstacles to diversification remain, and implementing the necessary adjustments will be painful.

A sixth challenge facing a new regime in Venezuela is that many of the country’s institutions have to be rehabilitated. The supreme court, which in recent years has acted as the handmaiden of Maduro’s dictatorship, must be restaffed with fair and competent judges; the same goes for the national electoral council, which oversees elections. The national assembly will have to reassert its power and curtail the excesses of executive authority that chavismo created. Here, too, the United States and international election-watchers can and should help: They can extend logistical and monitorial assistance to ensure electoral fairness and transparency.  

The opposition’s laudable plan to restore democracy is only the first step in a long process of recovery. Enormous obstacles stand in the way of prosperity. (The above list of challenges is by no means exhaustive.) As the Trump ad­min­istration sponsors much-needed change in Venezuela, it should remember that al­though almost any new regime would be an improvement over Maduro’s, it takes generations to build decent, free, and democratic societies. We should not expect the case of Venezu­ela to be any different.

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