18 Mar 2014

Venezuela in crisis: living in the shadow of Hugo Chavez

In any analysis of Venezuelan politics, it is prudent not to underestimate the vast shadow that former President Hugo Chavez casts over his country, writes Thom Walker.

Pro-Chavez demonstration (Reuters)

It is now more than a year since the death of Hugo Chavez, and Venezuela, to put it crudely, is in disarray. Protests, counter-protests, and increasing levels of political violence since demonstrations began in February have seen more than two dozen people killed and hundreds more injured. A prominent opposition politician has been jailed, inflation now tops 56 per cent, crime is rampant, and lengthy queues snake around every corner in what has become a near-daily struggle just to get basic goods.

Yet like almost everything in Venezuela, there are two dominant opposing narratives that could almost have been written about two completely different countries.

One sees a corrupt, incompetent, autocratic government, which has squandered billions of dollars of oil wealth, failing to solve the serious problems of crime and economic stagnation. The other sees a fascist opposition made up of a rich elite, hell-bent on bringing down a revolutionary government and restoring themselves to power, whatever the cost. As Chavez supporter José Pérez told me: “The right-wing groups just want to destabilise the government… Their media doesn’t tell the truth about what’s happening in the street.”

As ever in Venezuela, there is little space for anything in between. Just like Chavez always wanted.

Read more: Is Venezuela burning while world watches Ukraine?

‘New Venezuela’

For many Chavistas, as the late president´s supporters are known, when he died, a part of Venezuela died too.

Their tale recounts a leader who helped their country find its identity. Social scientist José Pedro Zuquete wrote that his vision was “to save the nation from decadence and assist in its rebirth as a new Venezuela”.

Brazil was revered for its football, Argentina for its steak and tango, while Cuba boasted salsa. Venezuela had Chavez.

Chavez sought to embody this rebirth himself. The new Venezuela, crafted in his image, would not only be one they would recognise, but one they could claim as their own: he was the man from humble origins who was elected to the highest office in the land. A military strongman and Latin American caudillo who could cry on national television. A proud feminist in this most macho of continents, yet one who couldn’t help but flirt with so many of the women he encountered. A comic, a singer, a raconteur, someone who eschewed traditional political parlance for language that everyone could understand. And his supporters loved him for it.

His backers revelled in their new-found place on the world stage. Their president hosted famous leftist intellectuals and Hollywood actors at Miraflores palace, and travelled the world, garnering crowds wherever he spoke.

Brazil was revered globally for its football and rainforests. Argentina for its steak, wine and tango, while Cuba boasted salsa and revolutionary politics. Venezuela had Chavez.

Identity in opposition

It was a new identity that was evidently not embraced by everyone. Indeed, many in the opposition came to identify themselves, their politics and their country, as that which Chavez was not. They cringed at his crude use of language and public displays of emotion. They cried “communism”, demanding he distance their great nation from the Marxists across the sea in Cuba. All this while criticising what they termed the government’s ill-conceived takeover of industries that they said the state couldn’t run.

Yet it was an identity primarily forged in opposition to that of the president. We knew what they were against, but what were they for?

Chavez seemed to be emboldened by this. He loved to rile those who spoke out against him, calling them facetious names, creating two Venezuelas, them and us.

It was a bold tactic, and a political tightrope that Chavez deftly walked, albeit with the odd wobble, such as the oil strike in 2003, which almost crippled the economy. Still, Chavez always tiptoed his way across it, commanding enough support at the ballot box to keep himself in power, and keeping the economy’s head above water to retain his loyal supporters, and therefore stifle the opposition.

Hugo Chavez's grave (Reuters)

More violent than before

Yet his death, and Maduro’s succession, gave a clear indication of how carefully balanced Venezuela’s politics had been for so long. Beyond the clutches of Chavez’s unrivalled charisma, cracks in the government’s revolutionary project quickly began to appear. The opposition, who narrowly lost the election by less than 2 per cent in 2013, seemed galvanised, and suddenly more fearless. With Chavez gone, maybe now they stood a chance.

When protests erupted in mid-February, sparked by students demanding better security after the alleged attempted rape of a classmate in San Cristóbal, few would have imagined the ferocity and speed with which they would spread. This time, they were more violent than before, and required more violence to quell them. Videos quickly surfaced of the national guard attacking protesters, and violent pro-government groups terrorising neighbourhoods.

Yet despite this, as pollster Luis Vicente León noted, “the fact that there are people out in the street doesn’t mean the government’s popular support has diminished hugely.”

Read more: Channel 4 News reports on Hugo Chavez

Bitterly divided nation

The depth to which Chavez’s government has successfully driven a wedge between the classes, has allowed them to continue to paint those protesting as a rich elite, divorced from the realities of life for most Venezuelans. The opposition too have done little to counter the government’s claims, offering few efforts to bridge the political divide themselves.

The fact that there are people out in the street doesn’t mean the government’s popular support has diminished hugely. Luis Vicente León, pollster

It would be simplistic to say that those in the streets are solely of the upper classes, but their leaders mostly are. Their shrill, well-educated voices on the radio, and their handsome, white faces on the television. And the areas of unrest remain primarily middle class, the barricades manned by local residents. And so the narrative continues.

In a recent essay, the American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama wrote: “Everywhere it has emerged, a modern middle class causes political ferment, but only rarely has it been able, on its own, to bring about lasting political change.” The divisions created by successive governments, and the opposition’s own failures to redress this, have left a bitterly divided nation, struggling to make sense of who they are. The answer, one hopes, may be simpler than it seems.

As a close Venezuelan friend, Carlos Rosales wrote to me recently: “All the political parties have failed. So let’s stop talking about empire, Chavista, left or right, because these arguments aren’t going to find us a way out this.”

Thom Walker is a producer with Channel 4 News and was a journalist based in Venezuela from 2007-2010