What is behind Venezuela’s descent into chaos and the bitter ideological struggle dividing the nation?
Seventeen years ago a charismatic former army officer, Major Hugo Chavez, swept to power in Venezuela and introduced a brash new socialist system of government.
The new president’s ideology, quickly dubbed “Chavismo”, was hugely appealing to the country’s poor and its disenchanted middle class, both of which had seen their standard of living decline rapidly in the preceding decade.
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Once in office, Chavez funded social programmes aimed at the most neglected neighbourhoods and sent thousands of members of the armed forces on to the street to repair roads and hospitals, remove stagnant water that offered breeding areas for disease-carrying mosquitoes, give free medical care and vaccinations, and sell food at low prices.
These policies were predominantly funded by Venezuela’s vast oil reserves, some of the largest in the world, and they made Chavez enormously popular, allowing him to win consecutive elections and remain in power for 15 years. He died unexpectedly from cancer in 2013.
He was succeeded by his protege Nicolas Maduro. But the new president lacked his erstwhile mentor’s charisma and broad popularity, and soon global oil prices had come tumbling down, undermining the foundations that had kept the country’s economy afloat for so many years.
Today, Venezuela suffers the highest inflation rate in the world, an increasing shortage of basic goods and a crime rate more reminiscent of countries at civil war.
It is also increasingly divided between those who wish fervently to see “Chavismo”–style socialism continue and others who believe that Maduro’s dogged adherence to its principles and even his continued presence in office have plunged the country into an economic crisis from which it may take years to recover.
At the end of 2015, as parliamentary elections approached, as students and opposition activists clashed daily with the police and as ordinary Venezuelans were queueing to buy necessities, we sent filmmaker Rodrigo Vasquez to follow unfolding events.
In two special reports for People & Power he investigates the reasons for Venezuela’s descent into chaos and hears from both sides of an increasingly bitter ideological struggle.