Having experienced nearly all flavors of populism since the early 1990s, Venezuela has evolved into a full-scale, post-populist dictatorship under the Nicolás Maduro administration. The country is in the midst of one of the worst political and economic crises in modern history. Although international sanctions and the ever-deteriorating humanitarian situation are increasingly cornering the Maduro administration, the most likely scenario for the future is the continuation of the status quo – that is, continued collapse. This is largely due to continued support for the regime from countries like Russia, China, and Turkey.
Located on the northern coast of South America, Venezuela, officially the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, is a country of striking natural beauty with more than 1,700 miles of Caribbean coastline. While it is largely known with its oil reserves, a long list of gorgeous beaches and delicious goods such as cocoa and coffee, Venezuela has been home to some of the most notorious political figures associated with populist authoritarianism. From the former president Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías to incumbent Nicolás Maduro Moros, Venezuelans have experienced almost all of populism’s flavors in the past few decades. This populism has led to an unprecedented socioeconomic and political crisis marked by hyperinflation, escalating starvation, disease, and high crime rates.
The beginning of Venezuela’s relationship with populism dates back to the late 1970s, when Chavez established a leftist revolutionary movement within the armed forces, named the “Venezuelan People’s Liberation Army” (ELPV) – Ejército de Liberación del Pueblo de Venezuela. Initially, the ELPV avoided any visible engagement in political activity; rather, it remained as a clandestine consultative structure that included Chavez and a handful of his fellow left-leaning soldiers. A few years later, in 1982, Chavez then founded another far-left nationalist political movement, “The Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200” (MBR-200) – Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200.
On February 4, 1992, Chavez, then-a low-ranking officer, and a group of MBR-200 loyalists attempted to overthrow the neoliberal President Carlos Andrés Pérez and to seize control of the government. Although the attempt was suppressed and the rebels were arrested by the regime’s forces, Chavez’s daring action brought him into the spotlight, with large portions of the population seeing the attempt as a rightful insurrection against the corrupt elites (Gott 2005, 67). Speaking to several TV stations on the night of the attempt, Chavez acknowledged the failure “for now,” in a clear signal that he would try again soon (Gupta, 2012). Indeed, only four months later, in November 1992, another failed attempt was carried out; this time Chavez led the rebel groups from prison.
After spending almost two years in prison, in 1994, Chavez and other MBR-200 members were freed from prison by newly-elected President Rafael Caldera. After being emancipated, Chavez established a revolutionary political party in 1997, named “The Fifth Republic Movement” (MVR) – Movimiento V [Quinta] República. The MVR’s main goal was to support Chavez’s bid for the presidency and to introduce the fifth republic in place of the established rule of Venezuela’s two traditional parties, the Democratic Action and the Social Christian Party. Campaigning against government corruption and the unequal distribution of income and opportunity within Venezuelan society, Chávez ran for president in the 1998 election. He managed to secure some 56 percent of the votes, compared with 39.5 percent for his rival, former state governor Henrique Salas Romer.
Throughout his election campaign and after, Chavez appealed directly to the country’s poor through his popular weekly TV shows, newspaper columns, and mass public rallies. His populist speeches were rapidly embraced by large masses of people for several reasons. First and foremost, since the 1970s, Venezuelans had experienced a significant deterioration in living standards. The corrupt political system, dominated for more than 40 years by established elites, was unsurprisingly blamed (Harris 2018, 25). There was therefore a significant decay in trust towards political authority and traditional political parties (Harris, 25). As a savvy populist, Chávez easily managed to exploit these widespread feelings of fear amongst poor Venezuelans, including workers and peasants. His voter base in the presidential election was mainly composed of those who were poor and uneducated (Cannon, 2009).
His victory in the 1998 presidential election led to a wide-scale transformation known as the Bolivarian Revolution, a constitutional change based on socialism, nationalization, and a state-led economy. Throughout his first period as president, from February 1999 to January 2001, Chávez set out to implement a set of reforms to revise the county’s decades-old established institutions, such as the abolishment of the bicameral legislature and the judiciary, as well as the creation of loyal military cronies (Freedom House, 1999). Although the new constitution granted Chavez extra presidential powers, it was relatively progressive in some ways, as it introduced significant socioeconomic guarantees and state benefits, as well as a set of chapters on civil and political rights and the rights of indigenous peoples (International Crisis Group 2007, 5). Despite these progressive policies, Chavez heavily employed authoritarian measures to accomplish many of his radical reforms, causing a significant erosion in whatever was left of the country’s system of checks and balances.
Chavez’s second term started when he secured some 60 percent of all votes in the 2000 presidential election, a clear signal of the success of populist politics in the country. In line with expectations, throughout his second term, he set out to implement a series of populist social programs, known as The Bolivarian Missions (BM), to fight social justice via social welfare assistance, education, and food and nutrition programs (Berjaud, 2019). Among the most popular social programs were Misión Mercal, which provided subsidized food and basic goods through a nationwide chain of stores to millions of Venezuelans; Misión Hábitat, a program constructing thousands of new housing units for the poor; and Misión Barrio Adentro, which was designed to provide free health and dental care to poor communities. While these and many other social programs admittedly raised millions of Venezuelans from poverty in a relatively short span of time, they were often used by Chavez as a propaganda tool to promote his political purposes. His populist speeches often dominated his meetings with the leaders of “friendly” states. For instance, during a public appearance with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then-president of Iran, Chavez took an appreciative tone towards Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, saying that they would continue to “work on some bombs and missiles to make war,” against “poverty, hunger, and underdevelopment” (The Guardian, 2012).
Chavez’s third term in office started when he received almost 63 percent of all votes in the 2006 presidential election. The rest of his time in power, which lasted until his death in 2013, was characterized by what is today known as Chavismopolicies that included widespread social welfare programs, nationalization, and opposition to neoliberalist economics as well as USA-led institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He embarked on a process of consolidation of what he called “the Socialism of the 21st Century.” This socialism had both economic and political standings, which included a democracy “from below, from inside,” and an economic model of “cooperativism, collective property, and the submission of private property to the social interest” (Wilpert, 2007). In terms of foreign affairs, his model was unsurprisingly dominated by an aggressive anti-imperialist policy, which often occurred in the form of verbal attacks on the United States and the Western-led international order.
Despite all the populist reforms aimed at resolving chronic problems, Chavez’s fourteen-year long presidency failed to address some of the most pressing social issues. Among these are exceptionally high homicide rates, high inflation, corruption even at the highest level of the government, and the extreme politicization of the bureaucracy and the judiciary (Bulmer-Thomas, 2013).
When Chavez died of a heart attack in March 2013, Vice President Nicolás Maduro won the much-disputed presidential election by a narrow margin: 1.6 percentage points (Taylor, 2013). Maduro’s first term was characterized by a hike in violence, inflation, and chronic shortages of basic goods, followed by nationwide protests against his administration. In 2014, thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets in Caracas, the capital. Calling the protests “a neo-fascist upsurge,” Maduro ordered a crackdown on the protestors, leaving at least 43 dead and over 5,000 injured. In September 2016, one of the largest protests was attended by over one million people demanding Maduro’s resignation (Martin, 2016). Further mass protests flared up in January 2017, following the ending of an ongoing dialogue between the government and the opposition. In March of the same year, the pro-Maduro Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) ruled for the dissolution of the country’s National Assembly, which turned the protests into a nation-wide wave of unrest. During the rest of the year, some 165 protesters were killed by the regime’s forces while over 15,000 others were injured. In 2018, Maduro once again won the presidential elections with almost 68 percent of all votes. The result was denounced as fraudulent by the United States, Canada, European Union countries, and most of South America, including Argentina and Brazil. Only a handful of countries such as Turkey, Russia, China, and North Korea recognized Maduro’s second term as legitimate.
Venezuela has evolved into a post-populist, full-scale dictatorship under Maduro’s administration. In terms of civil and political liberties, Venezuela today is considered a not-free country (Freedom House, 2020). The country has been going through one of the worst political and economic crises in modern history. Since the dissolution of the National Assembly in 2016, President Maduro personally governs Venezuela through government decrees. He maintains absolute control over the judicial system and the electoral council, while all critical media outlets were either shut down or transformed into government mouthpieces. The country’s Central Bank is fully dependent on, and the monetary policy is entirely determined by, the preferences of the government. Opposition politicians have either been jailed or forced to flee abroad. Due to hyperinflation, starvation, wide-spread diseases, high levels of crime, and mortality rates, over five million people have fled the country since early 2010 (BBC News, 2019). Credible organizations have reported that nearly 75 percent of the population lost an average of at least 19 pounds in 2016 due to a lack of proper nutrition (Pestano, 2017). Due to the country’s broken health care system, the COVID-19 situation spiraled out of control across the country; the authorities are likely lying about the true number of deaths (Amnesty International, 2020).
Although international sanctions and the ever-deteriorating humanitarian situation are increasingly cornering the Maduro administration, the most likely scenario for the future is the continuation of the status quo – that is, continued collapse. This is largely due to continued support for the regime from countries like Russia, China, Cuba, and Turkey.
It is no secret that Russia and China have long been a major financial crutch for Venezuela, especially since the mid-2000s. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently joined the trio by throwing his support behind the embattled Maduro. Thanks to a 2017 agreement between the two countries covering security, agriculture, and tourism, bilateral trade hit an estimated $2 billion (Ahval, 2019). Turkey is now among the few countries that export food, automotive machinery, construction and chemical supplies, and badly needed medical products to Venezuela.
Several other but admittedly far less likely scenarios for Venezuela’s future are the following: 1) Replacement of Maduro through a military coup or by another Chavista politician; or 2) A transitional government would come to power until a free and fair election is held under the supervision of the international community (Winkler, Rendon, 2020). As it is, although many countries including the United States recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate head of state, Maduro remains the acting president of the country. Only time will reveal the answers regarding his future.
August 29, 2020.
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