The curtain Seems to be ringing down on Nicolas Maduro, the belligerent but hapless epigone of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez Frias, the last—or at least most recent—of the line of charismatic Third World rulers to capture the imagination of Western leftists.
Chavez, a boy of humble origins who had joined the army when his dreams of a career in baseball were dashed, first came to the world’s attention in 1992. That year, as a 37-year-old lieutenant colonel, he had attempted to seize power in a coup. The elected president he had sought to overthrow, Carlos Andres Perez, was not some reactionary, but a vice chairman of the Socialist International. During his first term in office in the 1970s, Perez had nationalized Venezuela’s oil industry, spending the proceeds on ambitious development and welfare projects. Political scientists, wrote the Atlantic’s Franklin Foer, “celebrated Venezuela as an island of social-democratic stability on a volatile continent, a kind of Norway on the Caribbean.”
By the end of the 1980s, when Perez had returned for a second term, a downturn in oil prices had staggered the economy. He bowed to demands by the International Monetary Fund to impose austerity, which caused widespread hardship that emboldened Chavez and his fellow plotters.
When their attempt to assassinate Perez failed, Chavez surrendered, agreeing to call on his co-conspirators to do the same. Before live television cameras, he urged his comrades to lay down their arms, promising that “new possibilities will arise” and declaring, “I alone shoulder the responsibility for this Bolivarian military uprising.”
His captors aired this appeal repeatedly until the rebellion was over. Its “unexpected result,” wrote Chavez’s biographer “was to turn him from a largely unknown colonel into a national figure. . . perceived as the country’s potential savior.”
Two years later, Chavez was released from prison and with his fellow young officers came around to the idea that their Bolivarian Movement, as they styled themselves, could win power peacefully, as indeed it did after merging with some civilian leftist factions to form the Movement for a Fifth Republic.
Within his first year, Chavez and his comrades pushed through a new constitution that extended the president’s term from five years to six and allowed him to succeed himself, something previously barred in Venezuela as in most of Latin America because the region lacks a tradition of separation of powers and has a long, sad history of elected executives becoming dictators. It also replaced the bicameral legislature with a unitary National Assembly in which bills could be passed in a single vote rather than multiple readings. And it gave the executive sole control over the military. Presented as the remedy for an ailing economy, it had the practical effect of strengthening the power of the presidency.
After more than 40 years of democracy, spanning a period when almost all the rest of South America had succumbed to autocratic rule, Venezuela was transforming into what political scientists call a hybrid regime, mixing elements of democracy and autocracy. Over the next 13-plus years of Chavez’s rule, Venezuela continued holding elections that, while never actually fair, were genuinely contested, unlike Soviet-style one-party votes. Opponents of the regime were penalized in various ways but rarely if ever killed, and only a relatively small number were imprisoned. Yet power remained concentrated in the hands of one man.
And, despite his high-handed ways, Chavez’s poll ratings remained strong, his popularity resting on his posture as tribune of the commoner. Like much of Latin America, Venezuela was deeply riven between haves and have-nots and also between whites and mestizos, dividing lines that mostly overlapped. Chavez’s parents were rural schoolteachers with only a high-school education, and he made much of this, while also wearing his mixed-blood features as a badge of honor.
He created a system resting on a direct relation between himself and the masses, emasculating all other government offices, as well as civil society and the political opposition. For four to eight hours every Sunday, all state television channels broadcast Aló Presidente, a stream of consciousness in which Chavez lectured, sang, danced, reminisced, joked, threatened, and issued orders, sometimes on location and sometimes from a studio, often with obsequious cabinet members seated nearby, serving as an amen corner and meekly absorbing his jibes. Nor was this all. On most days in between, private stations as well as state networks were required to broadcast live some activity of his. Movies, soccer matches, game shows would suddenly disappear from screens, replaced for a half hour or an hour by the president doing whatever it was that he wanted Venezuelans to watch him doing that day. In all, Chavez dominated the airwaves, an omnipresent image of a stern but benevolent father figure.
He also reached the populace via Twitter, boasting some 3 million followers, inviting them to message him, and sending forth megalomaniac slogans like “Chavez is the People!! We are all Chavez! Chavez is the nation!”
But of course they were not all Chavez. In 2003, a few million Venezuelans signed petitions for his recall. In short order, the list of the signers was posted on the Internet by a Chavista legislator. The Guardian’s Rory Carroll reports, “Government and state offices used it to purge signatories from the state payroll, to deny jobs, contracts, loans, documents, to harass and punish.” Nor was the regime very secretive about this. On the contrary, it wanted citizens to be cowed into conformity. Political scientists Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold explain:
In order to enhance the common belief that the government had ready access to voter behavior, the regime also published information that it could correlate [la] lista data with voter registration and identity card numbers of citizens participating in…aid programs, through the use of a special software program.…This created the impression that “Big Brother” was indeed watching.
Further consolidating his power, Chavez enlarged and packed the Supreme Court to assure a majority of his own people. And they were really his own. As Foer recounts:
He proudly presented the new jurists like a trophy at the opening of the court’s 2006 session. With the president in attendance, the robed justices rose to their feet and began to sing a favored chant of their benefactor: Uh, ah, Chávez no se va” (“Uh, ah, Chávez is not leaving”).
All high government officials were similarly subservient. In a reality show more real than The Apprentice, they were often berated or even fired on live television. Carroll describes Chavez’s on-air firings of executives of the state oil company who had challenged him:
“You’re out! You had been given the responsibility of leading a very important business.…This [division] belongs to all Venezuelans. Señor…, thank you very much. You, sir, are dismissed.” He blew a whistle, as if he were a soccer referee. The audience cheered.
Following a strike, all 18,000 of the state oil company’s workers and managers were replaced with Chavez loyalists. After that, a large share of the industry’s massive revenues were funneled to entities under the sole authority of the president and distributed outside official budgets.
When critics called him a caudillo, a type of military strongman that has been the bane of Latin America, he retorted, “If they devote their lives, their efforts, to use their ‘mythical’ power to collectivize . . . then the presence of the caudillo can be justified.”
But for what, exactly? Chavez made much of the mantra “revolution,” telling an interviewer in 2001 that if his presidency achieved only a “reformation…that would be very damaging…because…we need a revolution here.” He did not, however, spell out the content of this revolution. During his first years in office, Chavez equivocated about his economic ideas, speaking of the need for “an effective state that regulates, promotes, pushes… economic development” alongside a “market, where the laws of supply and demand are able to exist.”
It did not clarify things much that he called his movement “Bolivarian” and officially changed the name of the country to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Bolivar, a hero of South American independence, was an ambiguous model. Celebrated by the left, he also, as historian Enrique Krause recalls, “served as an ideological inspiration for the Latin American and Venezuelan right [and] for Italian and Spanish fascism.”
Behind Bolivar in Chavez’s pantheon loomed a more immediate and less ambiguous model, Fidel Castro. While Bolivar symbolized Venezuelan patriotism, Castro embodied a virulent, demagogic strain of nationalism; in contrast to Bolivar, who admired the United States, he blamed all ills on the Yanqui. Likewise, Chavez distinguished himself by his vituperation toward America and his indiscriminate embrace of its enemies, including not only Castro but also Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The day after 9/11, Chavez jeered: “The United States brought the attacks upon itself, for their arrogant imperialist foreign policy.” Foer wrote that “this anti-American bent has helped make Hugo Chavez a hero of the international Left—a title that he has aggressively courted. … [He] has turned Caracas into a refugee camp for socialists displaced since the tumultuous events of 1989.”
In 2005, Chavez ceased prevaricating about economic policy and declared himself a socialist, proclaiming that Venezuela and Cuba were pursuing “one and the same revolution.” He later explained that early in his tenure, he “naively took as a reference point Tony Blair’s proposal for a ‘third way’ between capitalism and socialism—capitalism with a human face.” He said he had been brought around by Castro’s persuasiveness and reading Les Misérables.
If he had ever been truly a follower of Blair’s, he embraced his new position with much greater gusto. Shortly after his apparent conversion, the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson found Chavez
manic with newfound revolutionary fervor. In a meeting with poor peasant farmers, he announced the seizure of several large private landholdings in the interior, and instructed them euphorically to organize themselves into collectives.….“R.A.S.!,” he shouted happily, repeating it several times. “R.A.S.!” An aide explained that the acronym meant rumbo al socialismo—“onward to socialism.”
After reelection in 2006, Chavez pledged at his swearing in: “Fatherland, socialism, or death—I swear by Christ, the greatest socialist in history.” In the next year he founded the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), supplanting the Movement for a Fifth Republic.
Chavez could charge forward toward socialism, heedless of any dislocation this might cause, thanks to an unmatched advantage: Venezuela possesses the world’s largest known oil reserves, larger even than Saudi Arabia’s. And Chavez enjoyed the good fortune of an unprecedented run of oil prices. In 1998, the year of his election, oil sold at 12 dollars a barrel; in 2012, his last full year in office, the price was nearly 10 times higher, around 110 dollars. Countless billions flowed into government coffers.
Chavez drew on this windfall for a raft of social programs, including food and housing subsidies, new clinics largely staffed by Cuban medical personnel, and adult-literacy programs modeled on those of Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime. These were deployed strategically for electoral impact, and the statistics of their accomplishments echoed by Western admirers had no apparent empirical basis. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that they did substantially succor their beneficiaries. According to official figures, the proportion of households living in poverty fell from over 49 percent in 1998 to 29 percent in 2009.
Chavez also dispensed largesse abroad, propping up Cuba’s economy, devastated at the end of the Cold War by the loss of Soviet patronage. He sent so much discount oil that, reportedly, Havana was able to re-export some to earn hard currency. Chavez also funneled support to Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, left-wing populists in Chavez’s own mold who took power in 2006 and 2007, as well as to leftist presidential candidates in Brazil and Argentina. (A scandal ensued when a suitcase stuffed with $800,000 in cash from Venezuela’s state oil company destined for the campaign of Brazil’s leftist candidate Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was intercepted at the Buenos Aires airport.) Their victories constituted a “pink tide” in South America countering the free-market wave there and around the world in the 1980s and 1990s.
Unsurprisingly in this context of easy riches and deep government intrusion in the economy, corruption flourished. A new word came into circulation, “Boligarch,” an elision of Bolivarian oligarch. Jorge Giordani, a close Chavez associate who served as minister of planning and had a reputation for honesty, lamented, “the boligarchy…have devoted themselves to amassing immense fortunes in the name of the revolution.” The Guardian’s Carroll writes that boligarchs “exulted in consumerism, [buying] SUVs, penthouses, gadgets, yachts [and] Chivas Regal,” prompting Chavez himself to ask indignantly, “Is this the whiskey revolution? Or perhaps the Hummer revolution?” But his outrage was selective. When a young Chavista member of the legislature exposed the corruption of the chief tax collector, who happened to be the brother of one of Chavez’s inner circle, Chavez denounced the accuser as a “counterrevolutionary.”
In 2009, the price of oil dropped sharply. Despite a brief recovery, it lapsed into a multiyear decline, and Venezuela’s poverty rate began to climb back up. Beyond the sinking price of oil, Venezuela’s emergent problems lay in the management of the economy. Capricious government policies had stoked inflation and caused bottlenecks. Shortages of basic goods such as milk, sugar, coffee, and toilet paper had appeared even as early as 2007 when oil was still high. That year, Venezuela had fallen 20 places in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business scale, from an already poor ranking of 144th out of 175 countries to 164th place.
Oil was so abundant and had been so lucrative that other industries had been allowed to wither. The share of Venezuela’s exports accounted for by oil rose in a decade from 80 to 96 percent. Worse still, the oil industry itself was exploited and neglected recklessly. Its management was selected by political criteria, its payroll was padded with patronage jobs, and its earnings were funneled to government projects driven by politics, ideology, or sheer vanity. Far too little was reinvested to maintain and develop the industry. The state company managed to keep up production for the balance of Chavez’s reign, but output began to crater soon after he was gone.
Chavez had mused aloud about remaining in office until 2050, by which time he would have been 95 and would have ruled for 52 years. But in 2011, he was found to have cancer and, despite the best Cuban medicine, he succumbed in 2013 at age 58. Facing his mortality, he had anointed Maduro, a loyal deputy. According to Corrales and Penfold, “the presidential succession was carefully orchestrated in Havana, under the guidance of the Castro brothers.” Maduro, who had gone to Cuba at age 23 for political training in a Communist Youth League school, was more of a conventional ideologue than Chavez.
By the constitution, he had to stand for election soon after the incumbent died. Sharing little of his mentor’s charisma, Maduro managed to win by only 1.5 percentage points, suggesting that he would have lost a fair contest in which the government media were neutral and other state assets were not deployed in his favor. Maduro’s campaign rested on being Chavez’s heir. In an election night speech reported by the Associated Press, “Maduro told a crowd outside the presidential palace that his victory was further proof that Chavez ‘continues to be invincible, that he continues to win battles.’”
But not all of Chavez’s legacy came up roses. He left behind a deteriorating economy and national infrastructure, and the decline steepened under Maduro. Within the year, as inflation passed 50 percent, Maduro announced an “economic offensive,” arresting dozens of businessmen whom he called “barbaric…capitalist parasites” and forcing various retailers to sell off their inventory at a fraction of their usual prices. “Let nothing be left on the shelves,” he exhorted as Venezuelans scooped up the bargains.
Starting in 2015, Bloomberg ranked Venezuela annually “the world’s most miserable economy.” It dropped to 188th place out of 190 countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business scale, ahead of only Eritrea and Sudan. By 2017, production from the mismanaged state oil company was in free fall, having declined by half over the previous three years and dropping further in 2018.
The bolivar, officially between three and 10 to the dollar, was trading at 250,000 to the dollar. Maduro’s solution was to lop five zeroes off bolivar bills, a response as efficacious as his earlier “economic offensive” against 50 percent inflation, which by 2019 surpassed 1 million percent. In the three years 2016–18, Venezuela’s economy contracted by about one-half, considerably more than the U.S. experience in the Great Depression.
The reduction of poverty from 49 to 29 percent of the population had once been the revolution’s proudest boast, but now it leapt to 80 percent. Hunger became endemic with three-quarters of the population reportedly losing nearly 20 pounds on what was sardonically called “the Maduro diet.” A Caritas study found that more than 11 percent of young children were suffering from acute malnutrition, which is life threatening, up from 3 percent a few years before and beyond the 10 percent threshold that the World Health Organization deems the crisis point. On top of that, the health-care system broke down, leading to, among other things, the return of malaria.
Crime, already widespread in Venezuela as elsewhere in the region, climbed under Chavez and grew rampant under Maduro. Clements Worldwide, a leading insurer of expats and international organizations, listed Venezuela as one of five highest-crime countries in the world. And the UN Office on Drugs and Crime listed it as having the world’s highest or nearly highest homicide rate.
Maduro’s administration itself engaged in criminal activities. In 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s Vice President, Tarek El Assaimi, under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act, because he “oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions” and controlled planes and shipping ports used for the export of drugs. A handful of other Venezuela officials have also been charged with drug offenses. Nestor Reverol, chief of Venezuela’s national guard, was indicted in U.S. federal court on charges that when he served as head of Venezuela’s National Anti-Drug Agency, he took bribes to facilitate drug trafficking and to warn traffickers of police actions. The day after the indictment was unsealed, Maduro defiantly promoted Reverol to interior minister.
Unsurprisingly, Venezuelans, whose country throughout its history was a land of immigration, began fleeing in droves. The Washington Post, citing the Central American University of Venezuela, reported that 1.8 million had left in 2016 and 2017. The same source put the rate of outflow in 2018 at about 1 million, but the newspaper noted that aid workers at the border put the numbers higher, at a rate of about 1.6 million. Either way, this adds up to flight over three years of around 10 percent of the population.
Twenty years after Chavez reached power, Bolivarian socialism had indeed delivered the “revolution” that he promised. Once the second-most prosperous country on the continent after Argentina, Venezuela was now among the poorest.
The failure of numerous other socialist experiments in developing countries had been explained away often by reference to impoverished beginnings and the lack of capital. But Venezuela’s oil was an abundant source of capital, and the country was not poor when Chavez took office, only when he left, before continuing its descent under his chosen heir.
As the economy crumbled, an increasingly unpopular Maduro responded with harsher repression. Independent newspapers were censored and starved of newsprint, forcing more than a dozen to shut down during his first year. In 2014, student protests were met with violence, leaving dozens dead and hundreds injured. In December 2015, despite the government’s domination of the media, the opposition won a clear majority in elections to the National Assembly. Maduro parried this with the Supreme Court, long since packed with regime loyalists and now headed by Maikel Moreno. Moreno had been removed from the judiciary a decade earlier due to a past that, according to a Reuters investigation, “includes allegations he participated in extortion and influence-peddling rackets and his arrest in 1989 on suspicions of killing a teenager.”
The Moreno-led Court nullified virtually all legislation passed by the assembly and removed parliamentary immunity from its members so that the government could prosecute its leaders. Then, in 2017, the court transferred legislative power from the National Assembly to itself, leading to protests in which, according to the UN, 124 people died. When the international outcry compelled the government to back down from this measure, Maduro instead created a new body, the “Constituent Assembly,” a simulacrum of a legislature made up entirely of regime supporters, which generally voted by unanimity.
In 2018, this body moved forward the date of presidential elections in order to handicap the opposition, whose most prominent candidates were barred from running by the Supreme Court, which topped this off by prohibiting the various opposition parties from fielding a unified slate. The regime also installed Election Day procedures designed to convince voters that they must vote for Maduro to receive their food coupons, a message that Maduro himself reinforced with the brazen slogan “You give and I give.” Despite this, with the opposition mostly boycotting the vote, turnout was extraordinarily low, reported officially at 46 percent, and most outside observers as well, apparently, as most Venezuelans, regarded its outcome as meaningless. While Chavez had turned their country from a democracy into a “hybrid” of democracy and autocracy, Maduro had erased what had remained of democracy, leaving it, as the New York Times put it, a country “rule[d] with an authoritarian fist.”
But Venezuelans were not prepared to bow to this. In February 2019, Juan Guaido, president of the legitimately elected National Assembly, the powers of which had been usurped by Maduro’s puppet bodies, declared himself interim president. He argued that the constitution provided for this accession in the event that the presidency was vacant, which he said was the case since Maduro’s 2018 election had been bogus.
Remarkably, most regional countries quickly recognized Guaido’s legitimacy.
The region’s “pink tide” fostered by Chavez had ebbed before other countries suffered the destruction visited upon Venezuela. By 2019, Lula of Brazil was serving time for corruption. Fernandez of Argentina was under indictment. Both had ceded power to successors to their right. So had Correa of Ecuador whose people had voted 2 to 1 for a constitutional provision that prevented his seeking yet another term.
Only Bolivia’s Evo Morales remained in power, thanks in part to his having managed his country’s economy more successfully than Chavez and Maduro had done theirs. But even this was not enough to make his countrymen wish to perpetuate his rule. Like Ecuadorans with Correa, Bolivians had voted by referendum to deny Morales another term, but he got a compliant court to set aside the vote. He and the dictators of Cuba and Nicaragua remained the hemisphere’s sole supporters of Maduro.
Also surprisingly, in light of Europe’s historic soft spot for the Communist regimes of Cuba and Nicaragua, the European parliament voted by a whopping 429 to 104 to recognize Guaido. The Trump administration, too, backed Guaido, providing a rationale for the left wing of the Democratic Party to oppose doing so. Guaido’s party, Voluntad Popular (Will of the People), belongs to the Socialist International, but this did not inhibit Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who sometimes invokes Sweden as an example of “socialism,” from tweeting out an article from the Nation branding Guaido’s party as “far-right,” a label also applied to it by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Could it be that this faction finds social democracy useful in presenting “socialism” as tame but sees it as less attractive when it conflicts with more radical versions of the creed?
These versions—Communism in its various national guises, African socialism, Arab socialism, and others—consigned scores of countries in the 20th century to tyranny and impoverishment. That lesson seemed to have been widely absorbed. But then Chavismo brought it all back. Marx said of the second Napoleon that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Sadly, thanks to one charismatic demagogue and numerous credulous followers at home and abroad, Venezuela’s story has been both.