Five days after Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro charged him with a list of things —“conspiring to commit a crime, arson of a public building, instigating a crime, severe injury, public intimidation, damage to public property, terrorism and homicide”— Leopoldo López emerged from hiding last Tuesday to lead thousands of anti-government protesters through the Chacaíto neighborhood in eastern Caracas, climbing a statue of José Martí to address his supporters.
“The options I had were to leave the country, and I will never leave Venezuela!” declared the 42-year-old former mayor-turned-enemy-of-the-state, who now finds himself in a contest for the leadership of the anti-Chavista movement with Henrique Capriles, the man who ran against Maduro in 2013.
López’s voice boomed at the crowd through a bullhorn, the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag draped over his shoulders, Martí’s outstretched hand seemingly guiding the people toward a freer future: “They want to jail Venezuelans who want peaceful, democratic change. … In the name of all the children of Venezuela, I swear that we will win, and we will have a Venezuela free and democratic!”
When the speech was over, the crowd cheered their leader as he climbed down from the statue and promptly turned himself in to armed members of the national guard.
It’s been a little over 20 years since the late Hugo Chávez’s failed coup attempt, and 15 years since his Bolivarian Revolution came to power in Venezuela, and yet some in Venezuela are again taking to the streets demanding the ouster of their democratically-elected president.
They’re not opposed to many of the socioeconomic changes initiated by Chávez. They like that poverty has fallen dramatically and increased access to a decent education makes illiteracy practically nonexistent. And the government selling oil to the people at five cents a gallon means, as a staff writer at Forbes recently put it, “you can fill up an SUV for less than the price of a candy bar.”
What the protesters resent is the vast amount of authority exercised by the government, which has also failed to properly address the country’s economic and security issues. The current unofficial death count since the protests took a violent turn on February 12 is 11 people dead.
In the past few years Venezuela has seen its murder rate skyrocket to become the second-highest in the world. But rather than improving the existing civilian agencies so they could tackle the wave of violence and crime bearing down on Venezuela, Pres. Maduro took steps to turn the country into a militarized police state.
While Venezuela sits on one of the largest oil reserves in the world —producing about 2.5 barrels a day, as much as Iraq— the Venezuelan economy is on the verge of collapse.
That’s because the government offers it to the people virtually free of charge, as well as supplying countries like Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic in exchange for doctors, black beans and IOUs.
As David Frum writes for CNN:
A country with a population smaller than Canada’s has more murders than the United States. Inflation exceeds 56%. Goods from toilet paper to sacramental wine have vanished from shops. A regime that calls itself ‘socialist’ has massively enriched the former president’s family and friends. Street lights dim at night because a country with some of the world’s largest energy reserves cannot provide enough electricity.
Corruption and economic mismanagement by the government, coupled with its charity at home and abroad and its anti-imperialist stance, has led to something freakish in South America: a failed state that’s still widely popular among its people.
The Beatles famously sang, “money can’t buy me love. They couldn’t say the same for oil in Venezuela.
Because the reforms brought about by the Bolivarian movement have done a lot to better the lives of the Venezuelan people, and because Maduro won the presidency last April in a seemingly fair election, some Americans on the left are warning the U.S. government not to side with the protesters in their effort to remove Maduro from office. But if George Bush had set the price of gasoline at $1.50, the GOP would control both chambers of Congress today and a Republican would be sitting behind the president’s desk.
It’s also definitely true that some people calling for the overthrow of the government aren’t looking to create the “free and democratic” Venezuela López described in his apologia. Wealthy elites who supported Capriles in last year’s election are likely salivating at the thought of transforming oil-rich Venezuela from a 21st-century socialist experiment and into a neoliberal oligarchy.
Though López and many of the other protesters may be fighting to make the government more responsive to the needs of the people, that doesn’t mean —at least I hope it doesn’t mean— they want to give up the goals of the Bolivarian Revolution. Their demands —a free and open Venezuela that returns to civilian policing and respects freedom of the press and the freedom to oppose the ruling party— are only the next step in establishing a truly socialist and democratic nation.
And speaking of next steps, the unrest boiling up in Venezuela must be worrying the Castro brothers, who are undoubtedly keeping a close eye on the events from Cuba. It must feel like staring into a crystal ball and seeing the future, though Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura seems sure that what’s happening in the streets of Caracas would never happen in Havana.
“The conditions [for protest] haven’t come about,” he said in an interview last week:
Here is the full quote:
The conditions haven’t been allowed to come about. There isn’t a political project in Cuba that could oppose the government. The dissident movement itself is divided and has been deeply penetrated by Cuban intelligence. Levels of violence in Cuban society have never been too high. The fact that things have never gone past a given point has, I think, prevented protests of this kind, even though there are people who are more or less unhappy. I believe the Cuban project resulted in a true revolution. In the 60s, a different society was created, and it enjoyed the support of the majority at the time. Perhaps it doesn’t enjoy the same levels of support and acceptance today, but it created its own legitimacy. That makes it different from Venezuela.
Of course, the reasons Padura gives for why massive protests will never break out on the island are the same reasons why they very well might.
The Castro regime has gone from being revolutionary back in the early days to being an old and wrinkly institution. It remains in power mainly for two reasons: because it’s old and, therefore, just the way things are; and because Fidel is still around to supply the system with his glow.
Plus the Bay of Pigs Invasion and a decades-long embargo allowed the Cuban government to create a foreign threat more menacing to the people than anything at home, like food shortages and a lack of basic freedoms. In fact, in the minds of many Cubans, the risk of a capitalist takeover actually legitimizes the sacrifice of such rights and excuses the government’s broad authority.
The Chávez glow and the failed coup attempt by right-wing elites in 2002 are what kept the Bolivarian movement going strong up until Chávez’s death last year. That’s why his handpicked successor, Maduro, chose to hold elections only a month afterward, to bank off of some of that glow.
Now that the glow’s gone, some in Venezuela are beginning to demand changes, which seems bound to happen in Cuba after the Castros, especially Fidel, finally croak. Like in Venezuela, I hope the people of Cuba don’t abandon the dreams of the revolution, delivered by the Castros and other Cuban hands so many years ago.
Hopefully Latin America’s next revolutions are simply fulfillments of the old ones.
Hector Luis Alamos, Jr. is a Chicago-based writer. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.