Crisis in Venezuela: Chavismo on Trial

(Originally published on The Diplomacist)

While the world's attention has been fixated on the Ukraine, Crimea, and a missing Malaysian airplane, opposition forces within Venezuela have, since the beginning of February, mounted the greatest challenge to the Chavista project since a U.S.-backed attempted coup in 2002, and the worst unrest in Venezuela in nearly a decade. Images of burning vehicles, masked youths lobbing Molotov cocktails, and the National Guard firing water cannons into barricaded phalanxes of protestors have proliferated in international media, often without providing much context to the complex class politics that have fueled the violent period which has caused the deaths of twenty nine citizens on both sides of the political divide.

Sources indicate that the predominately affluent and educated body of protestors that, since early February, have established a boisterous presence in the quaint Plaza Altamira in the wealthy, eastern side of Caracas, has been cleared by National Guardsmen, and a “territory of peace” has been reclaimed. Fatalities as a result of the violence initiated by the Right-wing protestors, whom Maduro has repeatedly called “fascists” as well as “Chuckys,” in reference to the murderous 1980’s film character, have included a National Guardsman shot in the head by a “Chinese mercenary,” a motorcyclist decapitated by a wire strung across a road in an impoverished neighborhood, and an elderly woman who was blocked from entering a hospital emergency room by anti-Maduro protestors. Many hundreds more have been injured during the violence, and some 1,500 arrests were made, with 100 still sitting in prisonAlso imprisoned are 21 members of Maduro’s National Guard accused of committing excesses against protestors.

The early state response, or lack thereof, escalated with the deployment of tear gas and a series of speeches by President Nicholas Maduro, a 51 year old former bus driver, whose recent fiery anti-U.S. rhetoric has inspired comparisons to his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez. With March 5th marking the one-year anniversary of Chavez's death, the protests have forced Maduro to reflect upon his precursor’s particular model of grass-roots socialism, whose redistributive capacity is under great pressure due to rampant inflation, a critical shortage of basic foodstuffs and household essentials, widespread corruption, and a dangerously unproductive industrial sector.

The main grievance that has mobilized Venezuelan citizens, however, seems to be the remarkable scarcity of basic goods ranging from flour to milk to diapers. The opposition blames the shortages on the statist impositionof price controls as well as mismanagement of the factories and farms expropriated by Chavez during the early nationalization phase of his presidency. Maduro’s supporters in government, however, blame a systematic destabilization of the economy by businessmen and oligarchic families who have not benefitted from Chavismo, which undoubtedly favors the social and economic betterment of the urban poor. Also cited as a reason for the shortages is the wave of hoarding by Venezuelan citizens nervous about the consistent availability of goods.

Having weathered this violent storm of opposition for now, President Maduro will have to stem the black market trading of U.S. dollars and bring inflation down to a manageable level, plan known as Sicar 2, before even the loyal Chavista foundation of support begins to erode. Wall Street analysts reportedly favor such measures to stabilize the economy. 

The Venezuelan left, however, has reason to be afraid. The last national elections gave Maduro only a 1 per cent majority over the right-wing candidate, a competitiveness that contradicts the Right’s insistence that the Maduro government is a dictatorship. Unless Maduro can stabilize the economy, his narrow margin of victory may be eclipsed, and the devastating neoliberal economic programs of the 1990s may return, as those who called for the protests at the same that instituted those programs. In the past, threats to Chavismo have been met with a resounding cry of support from its working class and impoverished constituency. Whether Chavez’s revolution will continue will depend on their courage to face down wealthy interest groups as they did in 2002. If not, an omnipresent threat of Right-wing street violence combined with continued economic malaise may propel Venezuela toward a coup such as occurred in Chile, 1972-3. More than ever, the revolution is in their hands.

From Flickr, Creative Commons

From Flickr, Creative Commons