The governments of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, amongst the most corrupt and inefficient in the world, have one big success: the extraordinary good will they’ve been able to garner for the so-called “revolution.” Very few authors (Will Dobson, Michael Penfold, Javier Corrales) have studied Chavez as a new form of authoritarianism. Public opinion in general, for the 14 years of the Chavez regime, viewed him as a modern-day Robin Hood: younger than Fidel Castro, less handsome than Che, but with a lot more money to give away at his discretion.
With his sharp political instinct and great advice from his mentor Fidel Castro, Chavez realized that to project himself on the world stage he needed to position himself as the archenemy of George W Bush and the U.S. In a memorable UN appearance that captured world media attention, he said it smelled like sulfur because the devil (Bush) had been there. From then on, each of his public appearances and a huge PR budget—fueled by the Venezuelan oil earnings he was supposed to be distributing among the poor—was used to build his image as the Anti-Bush. Artists, celebrities, lobbyists, and aspiring academics started going to Venezuela in a revolutionary tourism extravaganza designed to combine visits to the beautiful beaches and to experience first-hand the interesting political experiment in the Caribbean.
Meanwhile, in Venezuela, we could see every last vestige of democracy rapidly disappearing. Chavez changed the Constitution, the flag, the time-zone, and even the country’s name. Separation of powers disappeared completely and a hate campaign started on TV with the Comandante’s endless speeches in which he spoke of “pulverizing” the opposition. Anyone who did not agree with his ideas was branded a traitor, a cockroach, an insect, a piece of shit and even worse a “pitiyanky” or friend of the US. His very rudimentary notion of Venezuelan history happened to fit into the stereotypes the US and Europe have about Latin America, therefore his vision of the Venezuelan opposition as despicable fascists was accepted unquestioningly by world opinion.
And that is how these 15 years of solitude on the world stage started. Any complaint by Venezuela’s democratic opposition was perceived as fascist attempts to overthrow the beloved revolutionary government.
After the Caudillo’s death and the years of incredible ineptitude and corruption that had squandered the highest oil earnings in the history of Venezuela, propaganda money started to decrease. Due to expropriations and assaults on private property, Venezuela only produces oil, but not enough to finance the huge need for imported goods. Food, medicine and even toilet paper shortages have become chronic in a country with the world’s largest oil reserves. There are daily demonstrations by workers who have not been paid, people without homes and mostly a population exhausted by the highest inflation and crime rates in Latin America. But even then the international community is unaware. Last week at a conference in Brussels, UNESCO staffers spoke of the extraordinary education revolution under Chavez. Ignoring that in Venezuela public education has been free and mandatory since 1870, more than a century before the Bolivarian Revolution. Today there is no money for the free breakfast and lunch that used to be available in the poorest neighborhoods and Venezuela’s school teachers have the lowest salaries in Latin America.
Venezuela’s prestigious free and public universities, some founded before Harvard, were economically starved because the Chavez-funded students never won elections in them. It was precisely the students who started the most recent protests that have ended in bloodshed. One of their slogans is “they’ve taken so much away that they’ve taken our fear as well.” These fearless students have been brutally repressed by the government. They have been killed, wounded, tortured and even raped; the places where they’ve taken refuge have been raided by the military and armed paramilitary forces. This kind of repression had never been seen before in Venezuela and once again the international community and particularly Latin American countries ignore it, say nothing. Silenced by contracts and oil gifts that have flowed now for fifteen years, many presidents have expressed their solidarity for Maduro, ignoring the OAS democratic charter. Others, including the US, have protested so timidly that Maduro is convinced he can crackdown on the population with absolute impunity.
The democratic Venezuela received exiles from neighboring countries and gave asylum to political refugees fleeing military governments is, once again, alone.
These have been 15 long years of solitude.
[PHOTO: Opposition supporters stand over a monument of a tank which they dragged into the middle of the street during a protest against Nicolas Maduro's government in San Cristobal, February 19, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez]