At the height of his “Bolivarian Revolution,” the late Venezuelan socialist dictator Hugo Chavez was the darling of western progressives. Left wing celebrities like actor Sean Penn and filmmaker Oliver Stone hugged him in photo ops; public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky gave their blessings. Alberta NDP MLA Rod Loyola used to proclaim his admiration, as did prominent Canadian leftists like Linda McQuaig and Naomi Klein, and “Chavista” support groups sprang up across the country. Just as the “useful idiots” of the West once ignored the bloody authoritarianism of the Soviet Union, a new generation of “deluded pimps”, blinded by their hatred of capitalism and American “imperialism,” willfully overlooked Venezuela’s descent into autocracy and insolvency.
Fast-forward to 2017, and most of the apologists for Chavism have gone quiet as Venezuela lurches towards being a failed state.
Low oil prices, epic government mismanagement, and hardline socialist policies have plunged the nation into an economic disaster. Venezuela faces skyrocketing unemployment and the International Monetary Fund predicts inflation will reach 2000 percent by 2018. This, coupled with rampant abuses of power by the state, has resulted in widespread political unrest, including riots which have led to violent clashes between protesters and the Venezuelan police and army. In recent protests, 48 people have been killed.
The nation’s beleaguered president, Nicolas Maduro, has taken the lion’s share of the blame. Maduro’s incompetence has certainly exacerbated what U.S. President Donald Trump calls “the mess” in Venezuela, but the man chiefly responsible for it is Hugo Chavez. Though he died in office of cancer four years ago, the country’s rapidly disintegrating democracy and economic problems are a direct result of his legacy and ideology.
The cycle of ruinous economic mismanagement leading to public dissent and government trampling on democracy was pioneered by Chavez. Although he came to power in 1998 through a democratic election, he first tried to take it by force six years earlier in a military coup against democratically elected president Carlos Andres Pérez. The failed rebellion left dozens dead and injured and earned Chavez two years in prison.
It also won him some powerful friends, allies and imitators. The Castro regime in Cuba were long time supporters. In Bolivia, the populist-socialist Chavez clone Evo Morales has been president since 2005, and has declared he will seek re-election despite recently losing a referendum in which he asked Bolivians for an exemption from a constitutional term limit. Chavez also encouraged Bolivarian uprisings in other Latin American states and established Iran as an ally. The violent Colombian narco-terror group FARC was supportive, although Chavez failed to recruit more moderate regional socialists like Chile’s Michelle Bachelet as reliable allies.
In a 1998 interview, Chavez said he would respect Venezuela’s constitutional terms limits and not seek re-election. Then he ran and won three more times, with each election accompanied by escalating allegations of fraud. In another interview, Chavez vowed to respect freedom of the press and not to nationalize private media. His regime subsequently moved to curtail criticism of the government through media regulation and shut down Venezuela’s oldest private TV station.
Like Chavez, Maduro uses a façade of democracy to cloak his authoritarianism. In 2015, the Venezuelan opposition won two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. But earlier this year the Chavez-appointed Supreme Court ruled that the Assembly was unfit to perform its constitutional duties, and transferred its lawmaking powers to the Court. Effectively, this rendered the election meaningless and gave more legislative power to Maduro and his cabinet. The regime has done some backtracking in the face of rising public protests, but shows no sign of relinquishing power. In fact, the country’s electoral panel, also stacked with government loyalists, has blocked efforts by the opposition to trigger a recall referendum for Maduro.
The Chavez-Maduro regime also neutralizes democratic opposition by eliminating its strongest individual voices. In 2011, politician Oswaldo Álvarez Paz was arrested and sentenced to “conditional liberty” for daring to suggest publicly that Chavez was not a democrat. According to Human Rights Watch, several media personalities that opposed Chavez were arrested or placed under criminal investigation. If anything, political persecution has intensified under Maduro. Two-time presidential candidate Enrique Capriles was recently banned from running for public office for the next 15 years. Opposition leader Leopoldo López has been a political prisoner since 2014, after the government arrested him for “conspiracy” and other dubious charges. Former Caracas mayor and vocal government critic Antonio Ledezma is also behind bars. He was arrested in 2015 after Maduro accused him of being involved in an American plot to overthrow the government.
The regime’s economic abuses have been at least as clumsy and destructive as its democratic ones. Chavez kickstarted his socialist project with a nationalization rampage, which saw hundreds of privately owned businesses seized by the state. He took over companies in nearly every sector including oil, steel, energy, agriculture, finance, gold, transport, tourism, and telecommunications. Foreign firms such as Cargill Inc. and Canadian-owned Rusoro Mining were among the targets, which caused major international corporations like Exxon Mobil to quit the country, taking their capital with them. Despite the catastrophic impact on investment and jobs, Maduro has continued the practice, most recently confiscating an automotive plant from General Motors, which earned him a stern rebuke from the Trump administration in Washington.
Once one of the richest countries in the Americas, today Venezuela suffers food shortages. The economy is so dysfunctional it cannot produce or distribute enough domestically-produced food to satisfy demand, and the country is so broke it can’t afford to import it. By one estimate, the average Venezuelan has lost 19 pounds over the past year. There are other shortages of consumer products and services affecting everything from electricity to toilet paper. Maduro claims the bourgeoisie and big business have conspired against the Bolivarian revolution and are orchestrating the shortages to stir up Venezuelans against the government, but fewer and fewer people believe it. The shortage of basic goods has been exacerbated by the government’s price controls, which discourage production. Price regulation, which began under Chavez, has led to a vicious downward spiral featuring ever-greater regulation leading to ever-shrinking production. It is currently estimated that more than three quarters of Venezuelans are living in poverty.
For years the government has tried to solve its fiscal and economic problems by selling oil and borrowing and printing more money. Now it faces massive debt and a rising risk of default. In the hands of the Chavistas Venezuela’s economy has become less diversified and more dependent on oil exports. In 2012, oil accounted for 95 percent of all Venezuelan exports. With the fall of oil prices in recent years, the nation’s foreign currency reserves dropped by half, to around $10 billion. Chavez ran chronic deficits of more than 10 per cent of GDP when the price of oil was high. Since the price has fallen, government deficits have risen. In 2016, the budget deficit stood at about 20 per cent of GDP.
Venezuela’s situation matters to the whole region and could impact the whole hemisphere. With a population of 30 million, the 5th biggest economy in Latin America, the biggest oil reserves in the world, and close economic and political relationships with several countries in the region (i.e. Cuba, Bolivia), if Venezuela does not change course there will be serious regional consequences. For one, Cuba will suffer without oil or economic support from Venezuela. In Brazil, the state of Manaus recently declared a state of emergency due to an influx of Venezuelan migrants. Colombia is also being inundated by Venezuelan economic asylum-seekers. The Curacao coastguard has had to save migrants from perishing in the Caribbean. Even in Canada, the number of refugee claims from Venezuela has doubled.
The Trudeau government has said little and done less about the crisis, while the Trump White House is considering further sanctions on the regime. Meanwhile, hunger, anger, and violence continues to proliferate in Venezuela, and with President Maduro seeking to expand the civilian militia (charged with protecting the Bolivarian Revolution), things may be about to get even worse. The international community made the mistake of indulging and ignoring Hugo Chavez and his dangerous project for far too long. But don’t hold your breath waiting for mea culpas from the western progressives who cheered his rise. They’re too busy looking for their next revolutionary hero.
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