By Victoria Landaeta
Correspondent, Undergraduate Student
I was born in Venezuela three months before the presidential election of Hugo Chavez sparked the Bolivarian Revolution. I am writing this article to illustrate, through history and personal experience, my country’s journey from being one of the most economically promising and prosperous countries in South America, to the current crisis state.
The ongoing crisis in Venezuela has endured for approximately the lifespan of the average university student. It has seen the country with the world’s largest oil reserves become the world’s most indebted country and an embarrassment to Latin America. With inflation expected over 1000% this year, and 93% of Venezuelans reporting they cannot afford to eat, the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ is dying alongside the citizens which constitute that revolution.
The burning question, then, is simple: how did this happen?
Though Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, he first came into the Venezuelan spotlight in 1992 when he launched a military coup against the corruption–filled government of Carlos Andres Pérez. While the coup d’état resulted in Chavez’s imprisonment, it positioned him as a martyr for the working man against the crimes and corruption of the rich in the minds of much of the Venezuelan people.
In a society where over half the population lived under the line of poverty and over 23% lived under the line of extreme poverty, Chavez’s promise to pursue a ‘third-way’ somewhere in the middle of communism and the ‘savage neo-liberalism’ of the United States resulted in his election in December 1998.
In his first three years as president, Chavez focused on restructuring Venezuela’s relations with international banks and implementing social reform programmes. However, his 2000–2001 rule by decree, and his seeming inclination to ‘cubanize’ Venezuela by means of propaganda–infused education systems and economic redistribution resulted in deep ideological rifts between Venezuelans. These rifts manifested in two ways: the first was the massive wave of strikes in 2001— I remember hearing cacerolazos (people banging their pots and pans outside their windows), going on for hours on end every afternoon when I got home from preschool for several months. The second manifestation was the April 2002 coup d’état. Chavez was removed from power by opposition military groups who claimed he ‘betrayed the will of the people.’ However, 48 hours later a counter-coup was carried out which re-installed Chavez as president— though his presidency was never the same.
In the years following, Venezuela became increasingly synonymous with Chavez and his political ideology, ‘Chavismo.’ Chavismo is the umbrella term for Chavez’s socialist and populist policies, from nationalisation of industries, to anti-imperialist rhetoric, to the loyalty of ‘the people’ to the so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ he proclaimed. Chavez consolidated his support by replacing technocrats in the oil industry and placing close supporters in their place. He also continued his social programmes, which resulted in a massive increase in literacy and an over 15% reduction in the absolute poverty rate as of 2011. However, crime went up by around 400% and inflation increased over 20 points in the same timeframe. Venezuela’s foreign policy during the earlier Chavez years is characterised by attacks to the United States’ ‘imperialist’ policies, with Chavez famously calling George W. Bush ‘the devil’. At the same time, the economy saw massive growth due to soaring oil prices (95% of Venezuela’s exports are dependent on oil).
In 2012 Chavez was re-elected, but this time almost exclusively with the support of his coterie of high-rankeding officials and the lower class. Faced with increasingly chaotic social and economic every-day situations, middle and upper-class support went almost entirely to the opposition.
The United Nations published a homicide report in 2014 which reported the country’s already severe violent crime rates had skyrocketed and it was no longer safe to walk around in daylight. By August 2012, the last time I was home, it was already unsafe to walk about alone in gated communities in Valencia, which is markedly less dangerous than Caracas. Any activities after 6:30 pm were indoors and my parents slept over at their relatives’ houses after dinner parties for fear of the risk of opening the door to their houses any time after sunset, especially because they could hear footsteps over their rooftops. This was the reality in 2012, four months before Chavez’s last public appearance and eight months before his death.
Venezuela could never have imagined that Chavez would die from the cancer he had already ‘fully recovered from’ only months before when he was re-elected, but he did, and on 5 March 2013 his appointed successor and then vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, was sworn in. Following an extremely questionable ‘victory’ by less than 2%, Maduro is voted president in April 2013.
Maduro’s presidency effectively concluded the progression of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution.’ From the start of his term until 2017, per capita GDP shrunk by over 40%, oil production by 17%, and national income by 51%. However shocking these statistics may be, the real damage to Venezuela can be quantified by the exponentially quickening deterioration of the quality of life the average person has seen in the last four years. While the government focuses on providing subpar packets of food through its Local Food Production and Provision Committees (CLAPs) for impoverished regime supporters, the rest of the country stands in 8 hour queues for the potential to buy toilet paper, waits for their 3 hours of electricity every several days, and scavenges through dumps for crumbs of anything. While nominal minimum wage increased by 50% twice in 2017 alone, the real minimum wage has decreased by 88% in the last 5 years— unsurprisingly, Venezuelans have involuntarily lost over 8 kilos, on average, every year since 2013.
These statistics understate the peril and hopelessness that plague the average Venezuelan every day. This is why 2017 saw the largest waves of protests and violence the country has ever seen: people have nothing left except a will to make the country better. Unfortunately, with the creation of the new constituent assembly, La Asamblea Constituyente, and the new constitution, Maduro’s government has effectively consolidated power and left the 77% of the population who does not support his government without a voice in his ‘government of the people.’ The little political ground the opposition had before last July’s constituent came into power has left the opposition fragmented and in disarray, further worsened by Maduro’s banning of the opposition in this year’s upcoming presidential election. Whether they will be able to come together in the near future as a legitimate political force is questionable, but not impossible.
The Venezuelan people, as tired and scared as they may be, have not given up on their country just yet. And are now turning outwards, to the rest of the world, to help them in their endeavour to return democracy and peace to the country.