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Hugo Chavez, One Year On

 Today marks the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death, and the world’s tyrants are mourning appropriately. The Russian President Vladimir Putin took a short break from invading Ukraine to send a message of sympathy to Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor. “A year has passed since the demise of the extraordinary Venezuelan leader and great friend of mine, Hugo Chavez,” Putin wrote. “Through joint efforts, we can continue to put the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

 As I noted in a COMMENTARY post on this day last year, Chavez’s death was announced on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s passing. “It took 37 years for the USSR to finally dissolve following Stalin’s death,” I said. “One shudders at the thought that chavismo will last as long.” In the intervening months, we have witnessed Maduro come to power through a fraudulent election, the emergence of a siege economy with its attendant price controls and currency devaluations and, finally, the eruption of a student-led protest movement that seeks to point the chavistas to la Salida – the Exit. Surely, time is running out when it comes to putting “the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

Except that, in periods of acute crisis, authoritarian regimes are far better equipped to retain power than the democratic counterparts. Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq outlasted more than a decade of punishing sanctions. Ditto for the mullahs in Iran and for Robert Mugabe, another “great friend” of Chavez, who has just embarked on his seventh term as president of Zimbabwe.

These regimes stay in power chiefly because of their willingness to deploy brute force against their own populations, along with their readiness to enrich themselves and their cronies through systematic corruption and lucrative criminal activities (narcotics trafficking is a favored pursuit of the chavista Generals.) Crisis, when it descends, is explained to their subjects as deliberate sabotage on the part of an external predator, most often the United States. Hence Maduro’s constant refrain that the Venezuelan protests are the work of a few “fascists” acting under instructions from Washington.

It also helps to have a celebratory or commemorative occasion close at hand. Last week, Maduro attempted to take the wind out of the protests by announcing that the annual Carnival holiday had come early. Today, a slew of foreign leaders, including Cuban President Raul Castro, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s unrepentant Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega, have arrived in Caracas to add an extra layer of gravitas to the official Chavez commemorations.

 What is now happening, as the respected Venezuelan writer Ibsen Martinez argues in a piece for the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, is a shift from the “Washington consensus” to the “Havana consensus.” The Washington consensus refers to American-backed economic and democratic reforms that are denounced by opponents as “neoliberalism.” Contrastingly, the Havana consensus–so-called because of last month’s meeting of Latin American nations in the Cuban capital where absolute national sovereignty was affirmed as the continent’s guiding principle–essentially enables leaders like Maduro to fix elections and imprison dissidents at will.

 “Today, there’s no point shouting ‘Don’t leave us on our own!’ Martinez says. “The Venezuelan people can expect nothing of the regions leaders, everything depends on us.” He is right. No outside agency–not the UN, not the Organization of American States, and certainly not the United States government–is going to take charge of a rescue operation for Venezuela.

 Yet, despite outside indifference and Maduro’s best efforts to marginalize the opposition, the protests continue. Barricades erected by opposition activists have been reported all over Caracas and further demonstrations are planned in San Cristobal, the opposition stronghold in the west of the country. None of this, of course, portends the imminent death of chavismo, one year after Chavez’s end. But the anger on the streets of the country should remind Maduro that the growing numbers of Venezuelans opposed to his rule aren’t idly waiting for a foreign cavalry to arrive.  



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