March 2014        

Venezuela: A difficult year without Hugo Chávez

The 5th of March was the first anniversary of the death of Hugo Chávez, the great president of Venezuela and revolutionary Latin American leader. The “Bolivarian Revolution” that he led rallied the nation—and the nations of Latin America.
     In the fifteen years from his election in 1998 to his death last year not only Venezuela but the whole continent was transformed. Cuba had shown that it is possible to stand up against the domination of the united States; with the leadership of Hugo Chávez, more nations have asserted their independence.
     One thing has not changed: the hatred of Venezuelan big business and the media they control, together with their North American ally, for Hugo Chávez and his followers. They hated everything about him: his country accent and manners, his jokes, his songs and his rhetoric, but especially his policies, as well as the transformations in society that he led—the very things the ordinary people loved.
     They saw his death as an opportunity to get things back to the way they were: they believed that Chavismo could not continue without Chávez, and they set about preparing an attack on the government of Nicolás Maduro.
     When Maduro won the presidential election in April by a narrow margin, the defeated candidate of the right, Henrique Capriles, refused to recognise the result and called on his followers to “vent their rage.” Vent their rage they did. In the weeks following the election they blocked streets, attacked medical centres, and murdered thirteen people.
     The Venezuelan election system was described by the former US president Jimmy Carter as “the best in the world.” It is practically tamper-proof. The election of Maduro was recognised by every country in the Americas except the United States, which continues to back the opposition. The “National Endowment for Democracy” and other state agencies have financed many opposition projects aimed at destabilising the country.
     Maduro’s government has been successful on a number of fronts. Thousands of citizens have moved into new housing schemes. The “Safe Homeland Plan,” aimed at disarming the criminal gangs that plague Venezuelan society, got off to a good start, especially in areas where the local authorities support the government. The level of crime is one of the main arguments used by the opposition, yet where they control local government it is much worse, notably in the state of Miranda, where Capriles is governor.
     Inflation has also been a problem facing Venezuela for many years, since long before Chávez was elected. To combat this and the flight of capital, Chávez brought in currency controls, which were never very effective. This was a weak spot, open to attack. Businesses deliberately created shortages in basic commodities by hoarding goods, by buying dollars at the official rate for importing goods and not importing them, by pushing up prices to many times what they had paid. Inflation, which had been at 18 per cent in 2012, climbed to 53 per cent in 2013.
     President Maduro characterised this as an economic war and brought in measures to control prices and to penalise profiteering and the hoarding of goods. He stopped short, however, of adopting the Communist Party’s proposal to nationalise foreign trade and thereby tackle the root cause of the problem.
     December saw another round of elections, this time for local government. The Bolivarian candidates once again won a majority, though they failed to gain the mayoral positions in a number of important cities. The opposition had campaigned for a majority vote and hoped to use it to bring down the government. (The Venezuelan journalist Eva Golinger reported that, in a meeting with the Colombian right and US agents, opposition leaders formulated a plan to destabilise the economy and commit acts of sabotage with a view to weakening the government before the December elections.)
     Frustrated, as usual, by election results, the opposition resorted to more extreme methods. They called demonstrations, starting on the 12th of February, demanding the ousting of the government, no less, and turned them into occasions of violence in the hope that government forces would be blamed. Having the press on their side, they had some success in that. Old photographs as well as photographs of police repression from Singapore, Brazil, Egypt and elsewhere are recycled in Twitterland and taken up by “respectable” newspapers and television stations around the world.
     The disturbances have so far cost seventeen lives. One young man, riding his motorbike home from work, was decapitated by a wire strung across the street. Barricades were put across the streets and set on fire; people trying to remove them—not necessarily government supporters—have been shot. Government buildings were attacked, buses burnt, metro stations wrecked. You have not read this in the Irish daily papers.
     The government response to this, and the popular response, has been calm, refusing to react to the provocation. President Maduro has called a conference for peace, which has met with a positive response, as generally the population, regardless of how they voted, are fed up with the mayhem created by the rioters and are anxious to return to normal. So far, the provocations have not succeeded.

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