The 1990s were a time of great instability and unrest in Latin America. The recovery from the debt crisis of the late 1980s forced South American governments to adopt neoliberal policies, opposed by many social and political movements. Despite the economic growth brought by the increase in oil prices after 1973, Venezuela was unable to escape an economic and political crisis. In this context, Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez attempted twice to topple Venezuela’s government in 1992, as the head of the armed socialist movement which he created in the prior decade (MBR-200).
None of the attempts were successful and Chávez was arrested in the last one. However, all imprisoned members of MBR-200 were pardoned in 1994 and had their political rights reinstated. This allowed Chávez to run for President, in 1998, promising to get rid of corruption, help the poor and reduce the power of the elites. These promises turned Chávez into the favorite candidate, and for the first time in the democratic history of Venezuela, a candidate outside the traditional party system won the elections.
On election night, Chávez declared: “Venezuela’s resurrection is underway and nothing and nobody can stop it”. The so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” began. A Constituent Assembly was formed to rewrite the country’s Constitution in line with the illiberal, populist, and socialist ideals of the new government, paving the way for Chávez’s consolidation of power.
The most emblematic reform during his first mandate was the creation of the “Bolivarian Missions”, a series of programs that focused on social justice, social welfare, anti-poverty, and education, which effectively lifted millions of Venezuelans out of poverty and granted them new opportunities in life. This conceded Chávez an enormous popularity-boost, and a re-election by landslide in 2006. The government then started a program of nationalization, taking control of the oil industry, telecommunications, electricity, steel, and cement companies.
A slow-motion catastrophe
Hugo Chávez won his third straight presidential election in 2012. However, he was unable to attend his Presidential Inauguration due to advanced illness, and in March 2013, two months after the ceremony, he perished. His right-hand man, Nicolás Maduro, succeeded him as president, by winning the presidential election in 2013. This election, however, showed Maduro was not the charismatic leader Chávez was, as he only managed to win by a narrow margin of 1.5%, contrasting Chávez’s victory over the same opponent by 11%.
The economic problems existent during the final years of Chávez’s presidency were aggravated during Maduro’s mandate. With an economy over-reliant on the extraction and exportation of oil, the decrease in oil prices and the internationally imposed sanctions weighed heavily on the economy. To add to these issues, in 2014 the government was faced with student protests in several cities that escalated to armed confrontations, fuelled in part by the scarcity of basic goods, such as toilet paper and food items.
In 2016, the increasing contestation and frustration of the people towards the government led to the largest defeat of the Chavistas in the ballots, when the opposition gained control of the National Assembly. In the same year, 1.8 million signatures were collected in a petition for the removal of the President. Receiving a rejection, the opposition took the streets in mass protests throughout the country. By then, it was clear that the country was split in half.
Following the protests, Maduro’s government lost the popular support that masked Chavéz’s autocratic exercise of power, turning Nicolás Maduro into a full-blown dictator. In 2017, the Supreme Court (packed with judges aligned with the government), dissolved the opposition-controlled National Assembly, and the government proceeded with the election of a Constituent Assembly, boycotted by the opposition. Using increasingly fraudulent methods, and with the support of Maduro’s enthusiasts, the Constituent Assembly was tasked with drafting a new constitution.
In 2018’s presidential election, the opposition, again, called for a boycott and for clean elections, following the arrest of several opposition leaders. Their demands, however, were not conceded and Maduro was re-elected. Yet, these results were rejected by the EU and the United States, due to their concern over the aforementioned irregularities.
Perceiving the actions of the government as illegal, the opposition turned its support to the leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, who proclaimed himself as president in 2019, and a diplomatic crisis arose when several other countries recognized Guaidó as President. Nevertheless, he was unsuccessful in ousting Maduro from power, and as long as the army remains loyal to the Bolivarian Republic, Maduro will maintain a firm grip.
It can be argued that some policies conducted by Hugo Chávez successfully improved the quality of life of the Venezuelan people. Health, literacy, and poverty indicators show good results for the first years of chavismo, as well as some economic indicators. Chávez delivered on most of his initial promises, cementing his power and popularity among large sections of the country, however, his socialist reforms created a handicapped economy, overly dependent on oil exports, and turned Venezuela into a centralized state undermined by corruption and incompetence.
Ideologically driven, nationalizations resulted in a crippled economy, unable to produce even the most basic goods, due to the lack of investment throughout nearly all industries. By the time of Chávez’s death, the falling oil prices were already destabilizing the regime, but nowadays, Venezuela is highly susceptible to swings in the international oil market.
Chávez left an extremely polarized country, with a fragile economy, high rates of crime and violence, but a political and military class loyal to the regime, allowing Maduro to remain in power without making any meaningful reforms. While the country’s economy collapsed, the opposition grew, and living became surviving.
Ever since Chávez took power, Venezuela became increasingly isolated internationally. An anti-imperialist rhetoric aimed at the USA, and an alignment with countries like Cuba led to successive international sanctions that have been an important factor in the economic destruction of the country.
In the last years, the continuous effect of all these problems led to the exacerbation of economic struggles. In 2019 the real GDP is estimated to have declined 35%, while the inflation rate was 65037% in 2018, and 19910% in 2019. The poverty rate of households reached 87% in 2017, and the unemployment rate, in the same year, attained 27.1%. The impact on people’s lives is easy to understand. Close to 80% of Venezuelans do not have access to continuous clean drinking water and basic sanitation, which are now a privilege of the wealthy. Ironically, in an oil-rich country, even fuel is scarce. Since 2009, blackouts have become common and widespread in Venezuela with increasing frequency. Blackouts place the whole country in a stand-still: Businesses are unable to operate as telecommunication networks and public transportation cease to function properly. Adding to this, extended periods of blackouts damage food and medicines, which is critical in a country that is already experiencing shortage of these goods.
In 2016, a survey by the Bengoa Foundation discovered that nearly 30% of children were malnourished, while in 2017 another study found that 64% of Venezuelans experienced a reduction in weight, and 61% slept hungry. The lack of medicines and medical items has led to deaths from otherwise preventable diseases. This shortage of basic supplies is even more problematic with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Life is so unbearable that millions of Venezuelans have fled the country in the last years, mainly to Colombia, as well as to other South American countries.
Venezuela is a “failed state”, as former Mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma said. A prosperous country destroyed by incompetent politicians. The regime failed in every aspect other than its own survival. Maduro is still able to command the loyalty of a corrupt political and military class, control the elections, and fend off international pressure.
Unfortunately, for the Venezuelan people, the end of their misery is unforeseeable.
Sources: The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Conversation, BBC News, Macrotrends, Público, NPR, Al Jazeera, The Next System, CNN, The Washington Post, CSIS, France24, The New York Times, The New Yorker