Venezuela is a two lane highway

Nicholas Maduro marks one year in office amid frustration over Venezuela’s declining economy.

CARACAS – In Venezuela, a year into the term of President Nicolas Maduro, everything has changed, and nothing has changed at the same time.

You can see it in the fish section of the sprawling, open-air Mercado de Coche market in a working class neighbourhood of this city. There people are jostling for position, vendors yelling out what they have available from their latest catch, while the smell of raw fish lingers in the air. It’s particularly busy, because it’s tradition to eat fish with family over Easter.

Diogenes Alzolai is here with his grandchildren to buy tuna, but says last year one kilo of tuna cost him about $80 Venezuelan bolivar fuerte (about $13 at the government official conversion rate). This year the price for the same kilo of the same type of fish is selling for $140 bolivar fuerte, nearly double the price.

On the other side of the market, Luis Paredes is also scanning over a table of freshly cut fish, also lamenting the increased price from a year before.

But I didn’t come to the market to do another story about Venezuela’s sky-high inflation (nearly 60% last year).
I came here – far away from the political rhetoric of opposition protests and government rallies – to ask people who they think is to blame for the price of their tuna costing double?

Mr. Alzolai said it’s the government, before adding: “Improvements are not being made in the country the past year,” he said. “Nothing. The food shortages and inflation doesn’t seem to be a concern of the government. They are only worried about fighting and arguing and threatening. This is all (Maduro) does.”

Mr. Paredes, meanwhile, disagreed: “For me, President Nicolas Maduro has done a lot to create jobs and bring down the high prices of food. He’s fighting against the high prices. And people see this.”

In many ways Mr. Alzolai, Mr Paredes, and that kilo of tuna perfectly encompass where Venezuela is right now one year into Maduro’s presidency: Everyone agrees on the problem, but nobody agrees who is to blame, and who is best to fix it. When looked at that way, Maduro’s first year has been a wash.

The political opposition likes to say year one of Maduro has been an utter disaster. The government says things aren’t nearly as bad as they are made out to be.

Truth is, both sides are right in some ways.

The challenges Maduro inherited from President Hugo Chavez are real and deep. But the all-powerful Chavez had the canny ability to keep the country held together through it all. That task has been much harder for Maduro. He’s no Chavez.

Yet the very opposition protests that threatened Maduro in recent months, might actually have bought him some time.

The protests allowed the president to change the entire discussion from the economic and social troubles he was straining to address, to the opposition he said was threatening a coup against his democratically elected government.

The Venezuelan opposition has put tens of thousands of people on the streets in recent months against Maduro. But just as the president has struggled to fix the economy, the opposition was equally negligent to back up the protests with the most important ingredient of all: Ideas.

Chavez’s great strength – whether you like him, love him, or loath him – was that he was a man who inspired a movement rooted in ideas, which is something far greater than politics.

Today the opposition is divided between, on one side, a faction of the ultra-right who seem to want a scorched earth policy to rid the country at all costs of Maduro and Chavistas in power. On the other side a center-right faction that simply is trying to win over a few Chavistas – maybe even just 1% of them – to be able to divide and conquer the whole.

Both strategies are rooted in a lot of politics, and only a few ideas.

But while it’s muscle and vengeance that allows one to storm the castle and light it on fire, it’s careful thought and articulation of ideas that is needed to figure out how to re-build it better.

So here we are in Venezuela one year into Maduro, where for now, the people who can afford it, still buy fish for Easter. It’s a country full of uncertainty, where the problems are easy to identify. The solutions are not.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel