Trump’s enmity for Maduro does not lessen his despotic threat
Venezuela needs a government that has trust of its people for harsh times ahead
I vividly recall the steamy, tropical night in downtown Caracas in December 1999 when Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez outlined his vision of a new country before a rapt audience of one million people. “In 10 years,” he said, “Venezuela will be a first-world country.” The faces of the people around me lit up with hope. After so many false dawns, it seemed their day had come.
Before Chavez, the Caracazo of December 1989 marked the last gasp of a dying regime as an International Monetary Fund austerity package prompted riots and, in response, the massacre of hundreds of civilians by army troops. Lieut Col Hugo Chavez had disobeyed orders then and refused to fire on the people. In 1992, he led a failed coup attempt which brought him to prominence and, by 1998, he was elected president, promising 21st-century socialism based on participatory democracy and transparency in power.
In December 1999, Chavez introduced a new constitution granting extensive rights to the majority poor. As a visiting journalist, I had been invited to sit in on deliberations which took place in venues across the country. Strangers discussed the future of the country at bus stops and food markets, an extraordinary national conversation, a blast of oxygen to a jaded political system.
The new constitution contained two key reforms – presidential term limits (two terms) and revocation of mandate, whereby a citizen petition could trigger a vote against any elected official halfway through their period in office. Chavez faced powerful enemies at home (business, media, church) and abroad (the US) but his reforms left him bullet-proof. He survived a coup attempt in 2002 and cruised through a recall referendum two years later, strengthening his mandate.
Chavez was fortunate to preside over a dramatic rise in oil prices (from $10 per barrel to $100 per barrel) allowing him to spend vast sums of money on health, education and housing. However he failed to address the nation’s reliance on the oil industry and, once prices plummeted, social spending shrank and with it his support base. By the time of his death in 2013, the opposition, eschewing violence, sensed their moment was at hand.
Chavez was fortunate to preside over a dramatic rise in oil prices allowing him to spend on health, education and housing
In the 2015 congressional election, the opposition coalition (MUD) won a “super-majority” of two-thirds, leaving Chavez’s successor Nicolás Maduro and his allies with just 55 seats out of 167. In response, the embattled president outlawed congress, ruled by decree and set up his own assembly, packed with his allies. Maduro’s opponents took to the streets in protest but a brutal crackdown left dozens dead. As the economy drifted toward the abyss, Venezuelans voted with their feet, an estimated 10 per cent of the population leaving the country.
The opposition persisted, gathering signatures for a recall referendum bid in 2016. Maduro stood no chance of surviving that vote. The electoral authorities delayed, fudged and ultimately blocked the initiative. When it came to the 2017 presidential elections, Maduro took no chances. The main opposition parties were barred from competing while his main rival, Leopoldo Lopez, was held under house arrest on spurious charges.
The past fortnight has seen a dramatic escalation of the crisis as opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself acting president until fresh elections are held. For the first time, people from the overcrowded, impoverished barrios have joined anti-government street protests.
Drums of war
The US government rowed in behind Guaidó, imposing sanctions and banging the drums of war. Solidarity activists focus on the spectre of US intervention, citing a long history of invasion, assassination and occupation. According to the Venezuelan solidarity script, Maduro is now a beleaguered progressive facing the Yankee cosh but Trump’s enmity for Maduro doesn’t make the Venezuelan despot any less despotic.
According to the Venezuelan solidarity script, Maduro is now a beleaguered progressive facing the Yankee cosh
Maduro, like his ally Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, is a remnant of the Caudillo era, macho leaders who only have to look into their hearts to discover the desires of their people. Hugo Chavez’s task was so immense, he said he would need to govern until 2041 to get the job done.
In the 1980s, Latin-American democracy was stifled by military rule and “democraduras” a limited form of democracy in which people cast a vote but the US-approved candidate always won. The left remained on the outside, until Chavez, Lula and others opened the door to a new era. Since then, however, a section of the Latin-American left has come to view the presidential throne as their rightful property, their opponents as deadly enemies to be annihilated by any means possible.
Venezuela needs a government that enjoys the trust of its people to face into the harsh times ahead. This leader will emerge from a fresh electoral process in which all citizens are allowed to participate freely and without foreign interference. In the meantime, Latin America’s less strident administrations, notably Mexico and Uruguay, should offer to host urgent talks to defuse the threat of further violence.
Michael McCaughan writes for The Irish Times from Central and South America