|EDINBURG, March 22 - No, don’t cry for me, Venezuela. I cry for you. We cry for you or any sister Republic in the Americas experiencing such anguish.
Some of it is so much like our own - the factionalized splits of classes and parties, the seemingly insoluble economic and governmental problems.
But, wait, are the problems that intractable? Is there no middle ground of compromise? Could the crying or some of the pain be moderated? Perhaps not in the short run, but, yes, in the long run it is possible. That is a valid hope. But, it vanishes if or when the powerful U.S. acts in imperialistic or interventionist ways, making things much worse.
We need perspective. This is my point. We can’t be at the mercy of Fox and others who disrespect former President Hugo Chávez, or the current government of President Nicolás Maduro, or the rights of Venezuelan sovereignty. It has been a year since the death of Chávez. Times are hard in Venezuela. Opponents to the government have legitimate grievances. But, let us not forget how previous, misguided U.S. foreign policy egged on by national media in the U.S. and in Caracas, made things worse.
The Bush administration supported a military coup in 2002. That cannot be repeated. Today, we, the public, often persist in dangerous, stereotypes, thereby aiding and abetting tense situations. The situation is explosive. People have already died needlessly, on both sides of the dispute. We, the on-lookers, need to look again at history, hoping it does not repeat itself.
We need not go back as far as Simón Bolívar, father of independence from Spain, from whom Chávez drew inspiration. We need only look at late 20th century Venezuela. Elites negotiated a sort of pact that maintained the trappings of democratic rule for four decades. Two ideologically indistinguishable parties traded the presidency back and forth. The point is Venezuela was not a true democracy.
Venezuela’s institutions were “rotting from within.” Every sin Chávez was accused of - corruption, no accountability, appointing partisan supports to the judiciary, using oil revenues to dispense patronage - “flourished in a system the U.S. held up as exemplary.” (Greg Grandin, “Chávez: Why Venezuelans Loved Him,” Nation, April 1st, 2113).
But that system collapsed. The U.S.-favored president, Carlos Andrés Pérez, abolished food and fuel subsidies, privatized state industries, and cut spending on healthcare and education. Days of rioting followed. Chávez emerged from the ruin as a folk hero. He later won the presidency by 56 percent. Elite leaders, mostly White, staged a coup. (Their followers and students from private schools are often the ones in the streets now). President Bush endorsed the coup, negating President Kennedy’s promise not to support military coups.
But, today, “don’t expect a Ukraine-style street revolution” (Fox, Ben and Christopher Sherman, Associated Press, quoted in The McAllen Monitor, 28 Feb 14, p. 8A). The government is in control. And I don’t think either side wants more bloodshed. At times the administration’s push-back is awkward. The President calls the opposition foolish names - “Chuckies” - taken, strangely, from the slasher-doll movie. But the opposition can be foolish too, calling President Maduro “communist” or worse, unprintable names. More to the point, organizationally, they have been out-maneuvered. They haven’t unified behind a single strategy or managed to broaden their appeal beyond their upper and middle-class followers.
Leaders, such as former presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, and jailed Leopoldo López, are part of an elite detached from working class life. For years the opposition insisted the government was illegitimate (again, echoes of the Tea Party?). They didn’t build bridges across class lines. They haven’t evolved since their failed coup against President Chávez in 2002. The opposition convinced itself it was a majority. It is not. It thinks the government wins elections by fraud. It does not (David Smilde, Senior Fellow, Washington Office on Latin America).
On the contrary, the government is legitimate and has mass support. Most Latin American intellectuals supported the home-grown nationalism of Venezuela. Some, however, emphasized the latent caudillismo in the Chávez legacy (Enrique Krauze, Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America, Harper, 2011). They all agree the future is unclear.
Chávez’ brand of Bolivarism may or may not continue without him. Most agree Maduro does not have Hugo’s charisma. Now, the debate is not so much about ideology, but about democracy. Will the opposing upper classes let government govern? This is a good question for the U.S. as well. But the government is not a dictatorship. For example, Chávez did not win his goal of eliminating term limits.
He was disappointed but did not attempt to violate the Constitution and extend his rule. Britain and many democratic countries have no term limits. The opposition must wait its turn in Venezuela as well as the U.S. Surely they do not want recalcitrant, disappointed opponents fighting them in the streets, instead of in Congress.
After surviving the coup, Chávez submitted himself or his agenda to fifteen different national votes, “winning fourteen of them by large margins” (Nation, p. 12). Since Chávez took office, poverty fell from 42.8 percent to 26.7 percent (Nation). That was, ironically, his “sin”, supporting the poor and masses. Among other policies, President Chávez urged the Inter-American Development Bank to write off billions of dollars in debt for many LA countries. He thereby helped thousands of citizens in the rest of Latin America, as well as in Venezuela.
The commitment to the majority of citizens remains, for now, a priority of President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’ legal, constitutionally elected successor. But resources are not what they once were. Oil, for example, was both a blessing and a curse, the source of Chavismo’s strength and weakness. It remains as a dilemma for the current government. With oil’s unpredictability in the market the government’s social programs are now in trouble. The economy is suffering.
But there is not, as the New York Times falsely reported, “300 percent inflation.” There is, however, an unenviable rate of 57.3 percent (Reuters). The prices and shortages (often caused by the protestors and their barricades) can cut both ways. They hurt President Maduro’s reputation among the poor but also hurt his opponents and their violent, uncompromising tactics (e.g., blockading whole cities, forcing shops to close and business to slow).
Some say part of the problem is that Chávez was actually not authoritarian enough. Had he been more in control, the argument goes, he might have created a stronger, more efficient state that could keep crime and corruption in check. Both, admittedly, are flourishing. Hence, fuel is provided for more protests—and, perhaps, dwindling intensity among supporters.
The masses are stranded between their longing for Hugo and their daily needs and anxieties. But, on their side, the elites—in Venezuela, the U.S. or any country - cannot sustain an intransigent refusal to allow government to govern. Or, worse, they must not try to achieve power by force, when they could not do so through democratic elections. If we cry for Venezuela, that is normal. If we blame only one party or leader, that is unrealistic and unproductive as a solution. If we turn to sabotage or side with saboteurs, that is a crime.
Dr. Gary Mounce is political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. His columns appear regularly in the Rio Grande Guardian.