As February comes to a close, Venezuela remains in a deep state of turmoil. Protests have paralyzed Venezuela for close to three weeks. The chaos enveloping the petroleum-rich nation started as a student protest against widespread crime; it has since morphed into a massive movement against president Nicolás Maduro. There are two main reasons for the expansion and evolution of the protest movement: firstly, the extreme response of the regime against the protestors, resulting in at least 16 dead; secondly, the sense of a majority that their country has fallen to socio-economic and political disaster.
The striking images leaving Venezuela—with hundreds of thousands marching daily against the government all around the country— suggest that the demise of the Maduro government is a matter of fact. The reality is not so clear-cut. Even though most Venezuelans are fed up with hyperinflation, chronic shortages, government corruption, authoritarianism and the “Cubanization” of the country, many are not ready to join the opposition. A Venezuela in open revolt against its government remains deeply divided despite the latter’s evident failures. It is necessary to understand why this division persists in the midst of this wide rejection of
incredibly poor governance.
Venezuela established a two-party democratic regime early in the second half of the 20th Century. AD and COPEI, the main parties, alternated power on the basis of regular elections. Democracy, however, failed to bring along social development and clean government. AD and COPEI became alternating conclaves of thieves intent on reaching power to steal the public treasury. Long years of corrupt mismanagement fatally tarnished the democratic system: it did nothing for the poor class and repulsed the educated middle class. By the time Hugo Chávez came along as a viable candidate, Venezuelans were ready to ditch kleptocracy for something else.
That something was an ideological mish-mash dubbed 21st Century socialism. Chávez blended socialism, nationalism, anti-Americanism and populism into a platform attractive to millions of mainly poor Venezuelans. Chávez used his country’s oil wealth to fund lavish social programs. The results of his policies were mixed. On the plus side, all socio-economic indicators of the poor (literacy, health care, housing, nutrition) were drastically improved: Venezuela’s GINI coefficient fell from 51 to 37 during Chavez’s tenure. On the minus side, Chávez’s gargantuan social schemes, as well as his profligate petro-diplomacy and open hostility towards the private sector, deeply wounded the economy. But poor Venezuelans went with him despite the growing economic distress: a dying Chávez won a third re-election on October 7, 2012, with ten points on his contender Henrique Capriles.
The division of the Venezuelan people must be understood against this background. Maduro is a fumbling ideologue that is no substitute in the people’s imagination to “el Comandante.” He has left the fragile economy he inherited from Chávez a shambles, has tolerated incredible corruption and has alienated the people with his constant pilgrimages to Havana and his delivery of large swathes of the Venezuelan government to Cuban officials. It would be a huge mistake, nevertheless, to believe that Maduro’s only supporters are the Armed Forces and the Cubans. Millions of Venezuelans might not love Maduro and not like what is going on without meaning they embrace the opposition. They are afraid of going back to the old order. They are afraid of a future where the poor are once again voiceless, impotent and despised. As long as this holds true, Maduro has a leg to stand on.
Where does Venezuela go from here? It is hard to tell. Unfettered official repression appears to be phasing out as an option given a growing disaffection within the governing party and the insistent rumblings of military discontent with violence against the people. On the other hand, the protests cannot go on forever and will not, by themselves, dislodge Maduro from power. It appears that Leopoldo López was right when eliciting his parting aphorism before his spurious arrest: “El que se cansa, pierde” (“he who tires, loses”). Venezuela might be moving into a prolonged tug-of-war where the victor will, indeed, be the one who tires last.
Jorge Galva lives in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico. You can follow him @JorgeEGalvaR.