When I teach Latin American politics, I usually begin by counselling my Canadian undergraduates that it is important to resist the natural human inclination to pass judgement. It is tempting to do so because Latin American politics is rife with authoritarian strong men, corruption, and procedural irregularities. However, in the words of Uruguayan journalist, Eduardo Galeano, “History never really says goodbye. History says, 'See you later.'” This is particularly true when trying to make sense of the current turmoil in Venezuela. The Venezuelan crisis is the culmination of a complex and long historical process. Contrary to much of the mainstream media, it is not a good versus evil struggle between the forces of repression and the forces of democracy.
Venezuela’s Problematic Democratic History
Political polarization, protest, and repression is nothing new in Venezuela, a society with a long history of racial/class division and political exclusion. Venezuela is a mixed blood society, consisting of a racial hierarchy, in which a majority mixed-blood population, whose darkest skinned-citizens constitute the poorest, and a minority white population who have traditionally held the reins of political and economic power. The country also has a long history of political instability, military coups, strong man rule, popular political mobilization, and political repression. For a century after achieving independence in 1821, an oligarchy of landlords, merchants, and money leaders had political control. This ruling elite was both brutally repressive and neglectful of popular welfare. By the early twentieth century, as oil supplanted coffee as the country’s most important export, the Andean-based mercantile capitalists who cooperated with foreign oil companies, gained political predominance. The first half of the twentieth century was one of rising political unrest as left organizations demanded improvements in both political access and social conditions. In 1947, voters, in the country’s first clean election, elected a president who supported such redistributional measures as land reform and the expansion of education, He was overthrown by a military coup backed by the country’s landowners and business interests. His party (the Popular Action party, AD), was outlawed. The same scenario was repeated in 1952 when, faced with the prospect of a win by the opposition left, a military coup brought to power the brutally repressive regime of Pérez Jiménez. Another coup and public outcry resulted in elections in 1958, ushering an extended period of stable restricted democracy, known as the Punto Fijo.
The Punto Fijo pact, which lasted until 1999, provided for the rotation of the county’s main political parties in office and the divvying up of government and political appointments. Widely lauded as a period of unprecedented democratic stability, a closer look reveals its more unseemly side. While the traditional political parties had initially been concerned with improving popular welfare, they soon lost their reformist zeal. With the failure to implement agrarian reform, rural insurgency emerged in the 1960s. The surge in petroleum prices in the 1970s gave the country access to unparalleled resources and produced a sharp upsurge in corruption among the business elites and the country’s rulers. The economy was hit hard when oil prices dropped in the late 1970s. Devaluation and sharp cuts in public expenditure through the early 1980s, produced a sharp rise in unemployment and poverty. President Andrés Pérez (1989-1993), abandoned his earlier nationalist and populist bent and moved concertedly in the direction of market liberalization. As the prices of basic products surged, he faced protests, rioting and looting. Government repression of popular unrest left more than 300 dead—considerably more than the number of deaths resulting from the current round of protests in the country, estimated at 43. Poverty shot up and inequality increased in the early 1990s. Convinced that none of the traditional parties had their interests at heart, an increasing proportion of the population abstained from voting; in the 1993 presidential election 40 percent of eligible voters abstained.
The Rise of Chavismo
Deteriorating social conditions and alienation from the political system were the contextual factors within which Hugo Chavez rose to power. In 1992, with considerable civilian backing, he led two abortive military coups, demanding an end to both corruption and the country’s neoliberal policies. In 1998, Chavez won the presidency with 58 percent of the popular vote. He spent the country’s abundant petroleum revenues liberally, instituting social programs to improve living standards. New programs included health and dental care, old age pensions, literacy programs, job training and land redistribution. With his dark skin and curly hair, Chavez made Venezuela’s mixed blood people proud of their Indigenous and African heritage.
However, Chavez was not a liberal democrat. Like the caudillos of the past, he used whatever means was at his disposal to consolidate power. His constitutional reforms centralized power and reduced the role of congress. He controlled the media, and engaged in arbitrary detentions. He denounced the traditional political system as having allowed the upper classes to amass wealth while most Venezuelans suffered. Capitalism, the capitalist class, and U.S. imperialism were enemies. These anti-democratic machinations were paralleled by those of his political opponents who began to mobilize against his regime from the moment it took power. In 2002, supported by demand from the country’s middle and upper classes, the military briefly removed Chavez from power. Had it not been for widespread international condemnation and mass popular mobilization, Chavez would not have completed his term. From that point on, the opposition accelerated its mobilization with the objective of removing Chavez from power. Chavistas seemed vindicated in their viewpoint that the opposition would stop at nothing to remove them from power and resolved to defend themselves from any further opposition onslaught.
The Decline of Chavismo and the Current Crisis
Chavez was re-elected in 2000 and 2006, with over 60 percent of the popular vote and in 2012 with 55 percent of the popular vote. Upon his death in 2013, Nicolás Maduro was elected in 2013, with only slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. Faced with a rise of opposition strength, particularly with the current round of protests beginning in 2017, the Maduro regime has become increasingly repressive. The drop in oil prices beginning in 2014, from $115 a barrel to $34 dollars a barrel by early 2016, triggered the deterioration in social conditions. The decline in public revenues from petroleum meant a drop in the social programs benefitting Maduro supporters. The failure of any government, past or present, to reduce the country’s dependence on petroleum left the country vulnerable to sharp shifts in international prices--although the intense hostility of the country’s business sector probably made it unlikely that Chavez could have addressed this problem. General mismanagement and high-level corruption have also been important in the current humanitarian crisis.
While the opposition leadership frames its agenda as a call for democracy, its democratic credentials are highly suspect. Many among the current opposition leadership backed the 2002 coup attempt. Moreover, opposition leaders have an explicit neoliberal policy agenda. In the aftermath of its 2015 congressional victory, the opposition declared its support for privatization and for the dismantling of the regime’s social housing program. While many former Chavez/Maduro supporters are most certainly among the current protestors, they are protesting the country’s social conditions; they are not adherents to the opposition’s economic policy agenda. Should the opposition come to power, it is unlikely that its purported democratic sensibilities will prevail. Given its neoliberal agenda, Venezuela’s opposition will quickly become enormously unpopular.