In the last two months of civil unrest, dozens of Venezuelans have been killed. Across the international media, images of chaos reveal a country being torn apart— but they don’t tell the whole story. While right-wing protesters (led by a wealthy elite) and government forces might clash violently in the streets, the interests of the opposition and the state are increasingly merging: Both are set on resuming their place in a global capitalist order. As the two sides grapple for power, ordinary Venezuelans — and the entire Chavista project — have been left behind.
When Hugo Chavez won the presidency in 1998, more than half the country lived in poverty. Despite ample revenues from the state oil corporation, the government did little to help the struggling populace. Chavez promised to democratize power, consolidate state control over the oil industry and redistribute the nation’s wealth.
This plan was unacceptable to the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. For the most part, their living standards remained high (in part thanks to profiteering off the arcane currency-exchange system put in place by Chavez). But they saw Chavez, who was non-white and from a poor background, as an interloper, and mocked his capacity to communicate with ordinary people. More than money, it seems, what they missed was power.
In 2002, they mounted a coup to remove Chavez. But mass mobilizations helped prevent the coup’s success.
Meanwhile, Chavismo was taking an increasingly radical direction. Higher education was made available to all, medical facilities were established in poor and previously underserved areas and, for a time, poverty plummeted.
But despite these much-needed reforms, the Chavista government was also sowing the seeds of its own decline. Instead of eliminating corruption, the new state simply reproduced it. Due to a mix of ineptitude and deliberate sabotage, billions of dollars disappeared from the public purse.
This corruption, combined with other obstacles such as over-reliance on imports and oil, helped precipitate a dramatic fall in industrial and agricultural production. A more principled socialist government committed to breaking oil dependence might have gone a more promising direction. By the time Chavez died in 2013, it was obvious that his project was failing. The health and education systems were deteriorating, food and medicine faced uncontrollable inflation and shortages, and the Chavista bureaucracy was visibly enriching itself through fraud and speculation. Toward the end of Chavez’s life, he acknowledged the failure to transform the state into a genuinely democratic instrument and called for a “turn of the rudder.”
The turn never came. Chavez’s vice president, Nicolás Maduro, was elected as his successor, but his narrow 1.5‑percent margin of victory signaled the disillusionment of the Chavista base. (Chavez had consistently won big, sometimes by more than 20 percent.) Under Maduro, increased corruption, falling oil prices and runaway inflation made the situation even worse. He opted for dialogue and cooperation with the bourgeoisie rather than confrontation — in part to protect those benefitting from state corruption. In the December 2015 elections, the Right won two-thirds of National Assembly seats.
At the same time, the Chavista state moved further and further from its democratic promise. Maduro increasingly governs by decree, and many of the grassroots organizations that defended Chavez in the early years have grown disenchanted at best, or else have seen the state actively turn on them.
As the final nail in the revolution’s coffin, Maduro announced in late 2016 that the Arco Minero, a rich mining area in the Amazon Basin comprising 12 percent of the nation’s territory, would be opened to multinational corporations. Maduro’s decision represents a return to the global market — over objections of indigenous and environmental groups.
The government still talks of socialism and revolution, but this is a cruel parody. The right-wing opposition, however, offers no solutions either. We must hope that the collective memory survives among the Venezuelan people to understand what went wrong. It will take a renewed and rebuilt mass movement to defend the revolution’s dream against those who have once again taken to the streets to bring it down.