Venezuela: The end of a revolution?

The Bolivarian project has failed to provide for Venezuelan citizens on the political, social and economic fronts.

Venezuela has witnessed weeks of violent clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces [EPA]

Divide et impera. This phrase is ancient. The Roman Empire knew that dividing societies was a powerful strategy for success. History, however, has told us that this “success” was temporary, and always accompanied by huge loss. Today, Venezuela is a divided country, possibly the most polarised it has ever been in its young history. Division and antagonism, mostly promoted by the government, is a daily experience.

Venezuelans, protesting for a better future, are branded “fascists”, and those that support the regime are called “ignorant”. This division goes beyond national borders, and has played out in the global media as much as in the streets.

After fifteen years of Chavismo (named after the late president Hugo Chavez), or Madurismo (for current President Nicolas Maduro), the country is facing a devastating crisis. Chavez himself warned before assuming the presidency that if the revolution would not deliver what it was promising, people would go on to the streets and take him down. Does this wave of protests fulfil Chavez’s prophecy, and the end of the Bolivarian revolution? Partly, yes.

The shambles of Venezuela’s economy

Looking at the economy today is like observing the Titanic sink. Although Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves worldwide, and the eighth largest gas reserves, its economy is drowning. Chavez’s promise of diversifying the economy and putting an end to the rentier-model of the fourth republic did not come true. Economists say that the rentier-model actually exacerbated under his administration.

Venezuela’s Henrique Capriles talks to Al Jazeera

Today Venezuela is more dependent on its oil revenues than it was ever before. While in 1999 oil represented 76 percent of exports, in 2012, this number rose to 96 percent. The economy remains undiversified and the trade has suffered severe setbacks. Moreover, the appreciation of the exchange rate made imports cheaper, and rising oil prices decreased the necessity for national production.

To worsen the scenario, oil production has decreased, because of the steady deterioration of Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, due to a lack of investment and proper maintenance. A hostile and antagonistic business environment led to the flight and decline of foreign investment.The Venezuelan Central Bank calculated inflation at 57.3 percent for February 2014; the prospects of it decreasing are bleak.

Within a year the price of the basic set of good a family needs (as determined by the Centre for Documentation and Social Analysis of the Venezuelan Medical Federation) rose by 66 percent; Venezuelans would need 4.9 minimum wages to cover basic costs. Furthermore, many of these goods can hardly be found. These figures suggest that economic revolution did not happen; in fact the economy has nearly collapsed.

Suppressing dissent

On the political front, divisions have peaked. President Nicolas Maduro’s support comes and goes in waves. While in April 2013, Maduro had less than a 2 percent advantage over the opposition led by Henrique Capriles, but the president’s support rose after the Daka Scandal, and he got significant support in December’s local elections.

Today, however, it seems that he is losing popular support fast, due to the economic crisis and the increased levels of repression towards protesters. The base of Chavismo is suffering.

The undemocratic nature of Maduro’s regime has become evident. Freedom of expression is suffering, and censorship is widespread. Newspapers do not have access to enough foreign currency to buy paper to print the news. Radio is also mostly controlled by the state. Even Twitter, which was initially a medium for dissenters to communicate, suffered some service disruption.

CNN was threatened and reproached over its reporting, while Colombian channel NTN24‘s broadcast was shut down in the country. Thousands of journalists are under pressure when doing their job, as a number of their colleagues have been detained.  

In the past, the government has not shied away from imprisoning political opponents, as is highlighted by the cases of former defence minister Raul Baduel and former judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni. Recently, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was arrested for inciting the protests.

Hundreds of protesters were arrested in the past two months, with a few dozen still in jail. At least 25 people lost their lives and hundreds have been injured. The UN has voiced its concern over the use of torture and arbitrary detention.

Realism and dialogue

The democratic promises of the revolution to make politics more participatory and inclusive were a partial success for Chavismo. It managed to open the doors for the poor and marginalised and include them in the political process. At the same time, the revolution achieved a great deal in terms of social welfare in its early days.

The creation of misiones – social programmes for the poor – boosted Venezuela’s social indicators. Poverty was reduced by at least 50 percent, educational enrollment increased significantly, and funding for health care reached people who had no access to it before.

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In the process of pushing for inclusion, however, the revolution gradually started excluding those who have voiced dissent. Thus Venezuela’s democracy has become partly participatory but not plural, while the revolutionary political model has clearly collapsed.

No matter how much Maduro tried to portray the protestors as traitors to the revolution, the fact remained that its benefits began failing some time ago, not just for the middle class, as he would like to suggest, but for everyone.

High inflation rates, in recent years, have been hitting the poor the most. Public services such as health collapsed throughout the country. Public hospitals face medicine shortages and equipment problems. Private hospitals are collapsing too, because of an influx of patients desperate for treatment and unable to get it anywhere else.

Although Venezuela is a resource rich country, electricity blackouts still occur, not to mention the long queues outside supermarkets for basic goods.

The country is divided but Maduro cannot rule anymore. The crisis is out of his hands. However, political confrontation is also exhausting Venezuelans. Regardless of their ideological orientation, Venezuelans want peace. What started as merely a student protest on February 12 escalated because the government is very much failing. Weeks of violence has not evoked a proper response from the government. Today the only way out is a dialogue.

A dialogue, however, implies recognition of the dissent, which has been completely ignored or sidelined for the past fifteen years. The survival of the government depends on the cessation of polarasing rhetoric and the demonstration of genuine commitment to democracy.  

On the opposition side, people will have to accept that the country is divided into two different electorates that are equally large. Although the revolution has largely failed in economic, political and social terms, Chavismo still has a great base of support.

It is the opposition’s duty to work towards accepting the existence of pro-regime voices. It is time to turn divisions into unity and sign a new social contract to bring the country forward.

Maryhen Jimenez Morales is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.