Let’s hope change in Caracas follows change in Havana

Dilma Rousseff receiving a Hugo Chávez picture from Nicolás Maduro

As the United States ends its embargo on Cuba, many foresee the slow break down of the Caribbean country’s isolation, with an American-style way of life seeping in, bringing with it more business, liberalisation, democracy, and of course more McDonalds.

The reverberations of this deal are being felt across Latin America. Perhaps the biggest impact will be in Venezuela, which has been Cuba’s strongest ally for the past 20 years.  Under Hugo Chavez, and now his hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has provided cheap oil in exchange for, among other things, high-level intelligence expertise and many thousands of Cuban medical personnel.

Both countries have been united in their vilification of the United States. One memorable rambling speech by Chavez on one of his live television shows features him calling George W. Bush a donkey. The USA remains Venezuela’s biggest trading partner but has served as a useful distraction and scapegoat for the government.

While Obama was preparing to announce the historical change of policy towards Cuba, Venezuela was fuming about new sanctions by the USA.  These freeze the assets and visas of Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses during protests in the country in early 2014.

As with Cuba, many on the left heap praise on the Venezuelan regime because its socialist rhetoric and anti-imperialist (i.e. anti-American) stance appeals. But those who support universal human rights and democratic norms should realise that the project has had its time.

Gabriel García Marquez, the late Nobel Prize-winning novelist, interviewed Chavez when he was on the cusp of taking up the presidency in February 1999 after winning a landslide election result. In a fantastic prophecy, the Colombian writer recounted that Chavez felt to him like two people: “One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot.”

At this time Venezuela did need someone to rescue it. The democratic system that had lasted 40 years had been dominated by two parties which guarded power and rewarded support in a closed system of clientelism. This neglected the poor in a country with tremendous oil resources. Riots in 1989 led to the security services killing unarmed civilians. Some reports suggest up to 3,000 people died in the clashes.

Yet the second half of Marquez’s prophecy is also reminiscent of Venezuela’s more distant past, haunted by caudillos, autocrats who to varying degrees terrorised their populations. Chavez himself had attempted a coup several years earlier, but for those wishing for a fairer society he seemed like a potential saviour.

On some counts, the regime has been successful. It allowed the poor to become proper citizens with access to state help and a say in the running of their region and country. A 2011 report by academics Magarita López Maya and Luis Lander (Participatory Democracy in Venezuela: Origins, Ideas, and Implementation) showed that over eight million identity cards have been issued and misiónes have targeted social problems. One ‘mission’ eradicated illiteracy (down from 1.25 million people) while another distributed cut-price food and other basic necessities, reaching an estimated half of the population.

But in a country where the national oil company made $980 billion while Chavez was in charge as the price of a barrel increased from $9 to over $100, so much more could have been achieved. The real lesson is that removing accountability has led to everything else unravelling.

Hostile media outlets have been harassed, courts have been stuffed with government supporters and for certain periods the president has decided to rule by decree. Political opponents have been jailed for dubious reasons. The state reaction to the protests in early 2014 led to allegations by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of unjustified lethal force, torture and the arrest of innocent people.

The government has operated in that grey area between autocracy and representing popular will, because it has won elections and referenda against opposition groups. In Rory Carroll’s excellent book about the regime, Comandante, he concludes “The farces and follies did not add up to despotic horror but they bore the melancholy echo of opportunity squandered, of what might have been, and there was the tragedy.”

Economic mismanagement and corruption means much of the immense oil wealth has disappeared into black holes.  A 2011 Reuter’s investigation found that half of public investment went into secret funds controlled by the president with no supervision from auditors or congress. Meanwhile crime blights the lives of Venezuelans rich and poor; the Venezuelan Violence Observatory estimates the murder rate in Caracas is over 100 per 100,000 residents (the USA rate is 4.7).

A corrupt elite makes a mockery of the government’s socialist rhetoric by siphoning off money to pursue a distinctly consumerist lifestyle, buying Hummers, drinking whiskey, and renting out venues for parties at prices beyond the wildest dreams of the average Venezuelan. Carroll’s book recites one designer recounting how he sells the elite dresses costing up to $25,000 in revolutionary red.

Nicolas Maduro has accelerated the deification of Chavez after his death and has promised to continue the ‘revolution’. In his campaign he claimed Chavez appeared to him on earth as a bird and called him Chavez’s son. While Chavez excelled at weaving together a convincing and emotive national myth with himself as the liberator of the country, Maduro does not. The present regime revolves around feeding on the mythologised past of Chavez and Simón Bolívar, regarded as the country’s liberator.

Meanwhile, in 2015 Venezuela faces a horrendous year. Inflation is officially running at 63% and the recent plummet in oil prices is hitting hard in a country where oil makes up 96% of export earnings, up from 80% in 2002. Shortages of basic commodities and blackouts are the daily backdrop to a socialist dream turned nightmare.

The combined effect of the two new USA foreign policy stances, the sanctions on Venezuelan officials and the end of the embargo on Cuba, is likely to isolate and weaken the regime. What is most humiliating for Venezuela is that it is rumoured Maduro did not know about the negotiations between Cuba and the USA.

Some saw the funny side: Venezuelan satirical website Chigüire Bipolar imagined a WhatsApp conversation between Maduro and an unresponsive Raul Castro. Maduro slowly realises the agreement he has heard about is not a joke. “What am I going to tell people?” he finally asks desperately.

If all this forces Maduro to respect democratic norms and accountability, and thus gives Venezuela a chance to end its awful mismanagement, it is for the better. Maduro may find it harder to deflect and channel anger towards the USA when his staunchest ally has just ended the freeze in diplomatic relations.  If Venezuela does not change course, however, it drifts towards being a pariah state awash with violence and fraud, and the future looks grimmer and bloodier than ever.

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