LONDON – Late President Hugo Chavez used to call it “la revolucion bonita” (the pretty revolution), but the world looked at Venezuela last week and saw only ugliness. Protesters gunned down in the streets, barricades in flames, chaos. One of the dead was a 22-year-old beauty queen shot in the head.
With the government censoring and cowing TV reports, many of the images came from smartphones, grainy and jerky snippets filled with smoke and shouts. One fact loomed through them all: “Chavismo,” a hybrid system of democracy and autocracy built on populism, petrodollars and quasi-socialism, was reaping the consequences of misrule.
Demonstrations in Caracas, Valencia, Merida and other cities turned lethal, with student-led rallies provoking a fierce backlash from national guard units and paramilitaries. They roared on motorcycles into “enemy” neighborhoods, guns blazing. Families piled mattresses against windows to shield against bullets.
Human Rights Watch accused security forces of excessive and unlawful force by beating detainees and shooting at unarmed crowds. Worse may come. Jailings, beatings and killings have galvanized rather than deterred the mostly middle-class protesters. They vowed to continue until “la salida,” the exit of a government that has held power under Chavez, and now President Nicolas Maduro, for 15 years.
“Change depends on every one of us. Don’t give up!” Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, said via Twitter. Banners fluttered from buildings and barricades. “I declare myself in civil disobedience,” read one.
In a televised speech to red-shirted supporters, Maduro accused the U.S. of fomenting a coup and threatened Tachira, a particularly rebellious eastern state, with martial law. A local mayor would soon join Lopez behind bars, he vowed. “It’s a matter of time until we have him in the same cold cell.” An official policy of “communicational hegemony” harnessed state media for propaganda, intimidated privately owned broadcasters, yanked one TV channel off the air and revoked work permits for four CNN journalists.
It may have resembled a regime’s desperate battle for survival, affecting not just Venezuela but also its ally Cuba, which depends on Caracas for subsidized oil. In reality, though protests continue, the outcome is not in doubt. The government controls the police, army and courts and retains support among the poor. It remains an entrenched, formidable system of power untroubled by external threats. Despite the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats — a staple of chavista political theater — there is no evidence of a Washington plot.
The convulsions were partly confected. Lopez, an ambitious, Harvard-educated politician, steered student protests against crime and economic problems into a wider challenge to authority. A radical minority attacked state property with stones and Molitov cocktails, prompting the ferocious response by security forces and militias known as “colectivos,” leaving at least six dead, scores wounded and cities echoing to the sound of enraged pot-banging, a traditional form of dissent.
History suggests that Maduro will prevail. Street protests briefly ousted his mentor in 2002 with the aid of a military-led coup tacitly backed by Washington. Chavez bounced back. Protesters tried and failed again in 2003 by shutting down the oil industry, Venezuela’s lifeblood. This time the generals and drillers appear firmly under government control. By rallying his fractious ruling coalition, Maduro could emerge even stronger.
That will not mean the revolution has won. On the contrary. In a broader, historical sense, it has already lost. This tropical would-be alternative to capitalism is a husk. It faces an existential threat not from youths chanting in plazas but from the fact that Venezuela is a shambolic, crumbling, dysfunctional ruin.
Start with the economy. The official inflation rate, 56 percent, is among the world’s highest. There are shortages of bread, flour, meat, toilet paper and other basics. The bolivar currency has collapsed in value and is virtually unconvertible. Agriculture and industry are gasping. Newspapers are running out of paper. Airlines are threatening to cut services because the government owes them $3.3 billion. Food companies are owed $2.4 billion. Bond prices have plunged to levels associated with default. Recession hovers. An infrastructure once the envy of South America has suffered from lack of investment and maintenance. Power cuts leave cities in darkness. Potholes make highways look like they have been mortared. Cobwebs shroud abandoned cable cars. Even the facade of the presidential palace, Miraflores, peels and rots.
Crime is out of control. The government has stopped publishing regular statistics, but NGOs estimate the murder rate at 25,000 annually, one of the world’s highest per capita rates, deadlier than Iraq. Kidnappings — people are snatched for ransom from bus stops, universities, shopping malls, airports — compound public anxiety. Corrupt police and politicized, overwhelmed courts breed impunity. An estimated 97 percent of murders go unpunished. The list goes on. A catalogue of neglect and decay. This does not signify collapse. Venezuela is the original El Dorado, a land that seduced conquistadores with a false promise of gold only to find itself atop the world’s biggest oil reserves. Billions of petrodollars gush into the treasury every month, a replenishing source of patronage. Yet the nation’s stitches are coming loose. Venezuela is unraveling.
Even if the protests abate, Maduro faces a desolate vista that mocks Chavismo’s grandiose rhetoric. An anti-imperialist beacon? A new path for humanity? Not while fistfights break out in supermarkets over scarce chickens. Or a diaspora of the best and brightest scatters around the world.
Middle-class anger the government can channel and convert into polarization. But danger lies in discontent in the barrios and pueblos, the hillside slums and dusty villages that comprise core support. It almost sank the revolution a month after Chavez’s death from cancer last March when Maduro, despite lopsided advantages in money, media and institutional control, managed just a narrow election victory over opposition leader Henrique Capriles. That was a sign that government patronage and handouts were no longer sufficient compensation for the shortages, inflation and crime.
Chavez, first elected in 1998, created the system. A gifted politician and communicator, he expanded social programs that sharply reduced poverty, cementing his image as champion of the underdog. But he proved to be a disastrous manager. Expropriations, subsidies and currency and price controls trapped the economy in a populist labyrinth. A historic oil boom and manic spending sustained the illusion of a new Jerusalem. You could fill an SUV tank for $1. Chavez dreamily spoke of the population doubling, even quadrupling. He changed the clocks, the flag, the country’s name, vowed to build new cities, artificial islands, a transcontinental pipeline.
There was a whiff of Ozymandias to it all, but foreign supporters applauded the fantasy. Oliver Stone, visiting Caracas to make a documentary, looked blank when I asked about the distortions and corruption hemorrhaging the economy. Shrewder observers — writers and academics — would visit and confide over rum that, yes, it all seemed a bit chaotic, then return home and publicly laud the revolution’s progress.
The squandering reached such proportions that even amid record oil revenues Chavez had to borrow billions from China to confect artificial booms before elections. Maduro inherited this model — and made it worse. Where Chavez had the confidence to bow to economic sanity and make painful adjustments, his successor, weaker and unloved by many on his own side, has plumped for even more reckless populism, ordering supermarkets to slash prices, imprisoning business owners as “speculators,” sending troops to stores to liberate washing machines “for the people.”
“We are in a critical situation of shortages and that’s only the tip of the iceberg,” said Luis Vicente Leon, a Caracas pollster. He predicted the difficulties would soon worsen. Workers at state-owned factories in Ciudad Guayana are in near open revolt. Teachers, doctors and nurses take turns striking. Chavez’s gift for showmanship enabled him to create distractions and defuse frustration, but Maduro relies more on thuggery.
There is no more pretense that the revolution is pretty. It is in the business of keeping power, no more, no less. It offers no solution to the fiasco, the tragedy, that is Venezuela.