“Orwellian” is an oft-misused term, mainly because those who employ it forget that it properly applies to closed societies, rather than open ones. For that same reason, “Orwellian” is the most appropriate adjective to describe Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s announcement that he has created a new “Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness,” a body that could quite easily feature in one of 1984 narrator Winston Smith’s surreptitious diary entries.
The ministry’s creation rather underlines the fact that, after enduring fourteen years of chavismo, Venezuela is a supremely unhappy society. Despite sitting atop the world’s largest reserves of oil, the country that could have been Latin America’s powerhouse is instead a basket case. Oil revenues are either squandered, for example through the annual provision of around $12 billion of heavily-subsidized oil to communist Cuba, or used to settle foreign debts, as in the case of China, which has lent $42.5 billion to Venezuela over the last six years, and which now receives close to 600,000 barrels of oil per day as repayment. Ironically, only the much-maligned United States, which receives about 800,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil per day, pays for its imports in cash.
The rot eating away at Venezuela’s oil sector–run, for the last decade, by regime loyalists after the professional bureaucrats who administered the national oil company, PDVSA, were ruthlessly purged by the late Hugo Chavez–has spread to the rest of the country in dramatic fashion. Back in September, a power outage plunged 70 percent of the country, including the capital, Caracas, into darkness. Industry analysts blamed poor management practices for the interruption of the electricity supply, while the regime pointed its finger at the CIA and at the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, Henrique Capriles. Exactly the same response is offered when it comes to explaining the other woes, like shortages of basic foodstuffs and household items like toilet paper, that are plaguing the country.
The Happiness Ministry is, therefore, Maduro’s way of acknowledging that support for the Chavez model of revolution is being eroded among precisely those whom it is meant to benefit. Chavez’s program of creating “social missions” among the poorest demographics was, from the beginning, funded by a combination of external debt and misuse of oil revenues. In exchange, it guaranteed him the political loyalties and votes that Maduro is now desperate to shore up, which is why the new ministry will be in charge of coordinating the 33 missions, which cover a range of areas from improving literacy to building cheap public housing.
The opposition has countered that Maduro’s strategy is all about politics, since there is little, if any, economic logic here. Accusing anyone who stands up to him of “sabotage” conveniently masks the obvious point that these social missions cannot be indefinitely sustained. And that is why, after the September power outage, the regime’s immediate response was to deploy agents of the SEBIN secret police “across the nation to protect the population.”
With the December 8 municipal elections on the horizon, Maduro is anxious to deny the opposition the opportunity of turning the vote into a national referendum on his rule. Mindful of the widespread allegations of fraud that marked Maduro’s victory in the April presidential election, the opposition parliamentarian Maria Corina Machado–who was brutally assaulted in the National Assembly after she accused Maduro of rigging the vote–has warned that “suspending the vote or scheming up an outright fraud should not be excluded from the options of the National Electoral Council (CNE).”
Intimidating voters is another tactic which the regime has used to its advantage in the recent past. Just before he announced the creation of the Happiness Ministry, Maduro declared that the elections on December 8 would be trumped by something much more important: “a day of loyalty and love for Hugo Chavez,” as he put it, as well as a reminder that the “only enemies of the country are the ‘evil trilogy’”–Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo Lopez, and Maria Corina Machado–“who have been commissioned to sabotage electricity, food and unleash an economic war.” Anyone arriving at the voting stations on December 8 can expect to be greeted by red-shirted chavistas brandishing pictures of Chavez, exactly as happened during the April vote, when these same operatives were filmed ushering voters into the polling booths to “assist” them with their electronic ballots.
If anyone remains unconvinced that Maduro is using Chavez’s legacy to set up a full-fledged dictatorship, look no further than his proposed Enabling Law, ostensibly designed to fight corruption and economic decline. As the dissident blogger Daniel Duquenal points out, when the chavistas came to power, one dollar was exchanged for 50 Bolivars: fourteen years later, it’s 50,000 Bolivars and rising. In analyzing how the passage of the law would enable Maduro to exercise complete control over the economy, Duquenal asks, “does anyone still think we are not in a dictatorship?” Actually, it’s impossible to think anything else.