Co-authored by Alvaro Salas and Antonio J. Henríquez García of Cornell University. Biographies listed below.
The current crisis of Venezuela is, as anyone might expect, much more complex than a simple ideological clash between socialists and capitalists. Simply put, the Venezuelan crisis has been the result of a historical social struggle of the poor to acquire a place in society while the entire population from rich to poor, faces a political playing field that is increasingly plagued by corruption, economic collapse, and destructive violence.
Following the end of the infamous military dictatorial regime led by General Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958, Venezuela entered a long period of democratic stability. This period, lasting for a about forty years experienced stable democracies led by two political parties Acción Democrática (AD) and Copei. Nevertheless, albeit stable, these two parties had been founded and ruled by right wing, often wealthy politicians to whom the nearly 61 percent of the Venezuelan population that lived in abject poverty by the year 1997 could not relate.
What is the connection between the forty-year period of right wing democracy and Venezuela's current social crisis? Unsurprisingly, where forty years of AD and Copei were able to maintain a period of stable democracy, the oligarchical rule forged a deep, collective social resentment from the proletariat population against the aristocratic and right-leaning ruling class.
The year 1992 proved to be the first breaking point in Venezuela's social struggle. The then constitutional president, Carlos Andrés Pérez had been severely criticized for implementing neoliberal economic reforms that benefitted only the upper classes. In the 1989 clashes known as the "Caracazo," massive popular protests against Pérez's government were violently suppressed by military forces. Following the riots, a young lieutenant of the armed forces named Hugo Chávez led an unsuccessful yet widely supported coup attempt against Pérez on February 4, 1992. Shortly after, Pérez was impeached on charges of embezzlement. It is only reasonable that Hugo Chávez's later election and reelection was at least in great part a result of his populist image of a working-class patriot who sought to empower the poor against an elitist and corrupt society.
Thus began the story of Venezuela's Twenty-First Century Socialist Experiment. Hugo Chávez, a man who possessed great charisma, advocated a discourse of socialism and social equality and attacked the aristocratic regimes that had come before, effectively winning the support of much of the middle class. At the same time, Chávez's regime quickly became radicalized. What first began as a gradual nationalizing of private corporations, led to the silencing of anti-government media (namely RCTV, the country's oldest and largest television and radio network), revision of the constitution to allow for unlimited presidential reelection, socialist indoctrination in public schools, spiteful attacks against American imperialism, and the forging of strong political alignments with other leftist governments of other Latin American countries namely the Lula, Morales, Kirshner, Mujica, Ortega and Castro regimes in Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Nicaragua and Cuba respectively.
It is undeniable that Chávez's "socialist" regime was effective in empowering the working class, improving literacy rates, and drastically lowering poverty levels. In a campaign named Mision Mercal, a chain of government-subsidized grocery stores was set up with the purpose of making basic needs such as meat, milk, bread, fruits, and vegetables, accessible to the large, underprivileged community. These products would then sell at 39% below the regular market price. A report published by the Agencia Venezolana de Noticias, under the Venezuelan Ministry of Communication and Information, concerning one of Chávez administration's most highly acclaimed social programs, Misión Robinson, which aimed to reduce the country's poverty levels, showed that 1.7 million people gained literacy between the years 2003 and 2010. According to a study published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Bolivarian anti-poverty missions were successful in cutting poverty by more than half; whereas 54 percent of households lived under the poverty line in the first half of 2003, that number stood at only 26 percent in 2007. However, after more than 15 years of Chávez's regime, followed by his successor Nicolás Maduro and the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), Venezuelan society is deeply polarized into Chavistas, government supporters, and La Oposición, the opposition to the government. There is no question that it is the forging of this profound division within Venezuelan society that is ultimately responsible for the current social crisis. It can be suggested that a primary cause for today's deep social division has been the government's discourse itself. Through his own radicalization, Chávez's discourse heavily appealed to the very social resentment fueled by the collective memory of the 40-year oligarchical rule of the country. Chávez's accusation towards George W. Bush as being "the devil," his public condemnation of the state of Israel, and his vociferous name-calling of opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski as a "majunche burgués" which roughly translates to "loser bourgeois" are only a few examples of how Chávez's discourse further incentivized hatred among Venezuelans of different social classes and contributed to the further political divide of Venezuelan society.
Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela's current president and handpicked successor of Chávez, has in many ways, continued to radicalize Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution. Within a year as president, Maduro has been able to acquire the majority of news networks that had historically been information channels for the Venezuelan opposition: Televen, Venevisión, Noticias24, Meridiano among others. Recently, the Maduro administration threatened to revoke the rights America-based news channel CNN after abruptly taking Colombia-based news channel NTN24 off the air. The radicalization of this process has led to an international media blackout of the Venezuelan social crisis and has led to a number of international demonstrations led by Venezuelan citizens living in different countries worldwide in the hopes of informing international institutions about the current social crisis in Venezuela.
Restricting access to information effectively disunites citizens. There is much diversity of opinion within the opposition groups and, overall, Venezuela possesses low levels of political culture amongst its population. In Caracas, the majority of demands are political, including calls for Freedom of Expression, the freeing of detainees and the resignation of President Maduro, while in other cities social demands are incorporated with protests against inflation, scarcity and lack of proper public services. Many are simply actively denouncing state repression and call out for aiding victims of alleged human rights violations. Exacerbated by the difficulty of having free discourse online, protests being carried out in many parts of the country and are lacking in focus and direction. Although denied by State-owed Internet operator Compañía Anónima Nacional de Telefonos de Venezuela (CANTV), several websites and applications including Pastebin, a photo-sharing tool, Zello, a walkie-talkie application, and Twitter have been blocked since the most recent nationwide protests ignited on February 12, 2014. Censorship is a long criticized practice of suppression amongst authoritarian regimes and is undeniably fueling angst amongst opposition supporters.
"Regulating how and what we communicate weakens our confidence in one another and our government. Freedom of Expression helps us be more informed as citizens and can help us to influence a government that better represents the people of Venezuela. In order to combat corruption, have fewer violations of human rights, and be led by government that reflects the desires of Venezuelans, we must be granted the freedom to view, create, and share news that informs one another without governmental bias. Our people will feel empowered and more capable of helping our country once aware of the concerns and opportunities we face. I believe this is a critical factor in settling the discontent plaguing our beautiful country," says Rodrigo Diamani Vidaurre, Founder and President of Un Mundo Sin Mordaza, a Venezuela-based non-governmental organization.
Primarily cultivated online by groups with a massive digital following like Un Mundo Sin Mordaza and SOS Venezuela, demonstrations have been carried out across the globe drawing thousands of participants. Facebook and Twitter have served as a hub for orchestrating numerous demonstrations across the Americas, Europe, and South Africa where talking points, graphics, photos, locations, and other resources continue to be exchanged. Both emphatic supporters of the opposition and those curious about what is transpiring in Venezuela converge on and offline compel greater media coverage which remains limited to reporting news strictly based on claims reported by those able to dispatch information from the front lines of protests and government loyalists. Responsibly presenting facts to back up news reporting is therefore besieged to the restrictions enforced by the Venezuelan government.
Under the pretext of creating a more equal society for the underprivileged, not only has the government nationalized key industries, but has also instituted Comisión de Administración de Divisas (CADIVI), a government institution whose purpose is to regulate foreign currency exchange. Despite the fact Venezuelans could once exchange Bolívares for US Dollars at a local bank through a simple transaction, CADIVI has imposed strict regulations in the currency exchange market. As a consequence of this, a large parallel US Dollar black market has formed in which US Dollars sell for over ten times the official exchange rate, a ratio that increases on a daily basis. The combination of nationalization of the private sector and currency exchange market regulation has driven Venezuela into an economic downward spiral that has led to uncontrollable and ever-increasing inflation rates, and dangerous levels of food and goods shortages at local supermarkets.
Whereas it is undeniable, seeing from Pérez's impeachment on corruption charges, that corruption was a real problem before Chávez's coming to power in 1999, it has severely increased over the years of socialist administration despite his anti-corruption campaign platform. Most notably, members of the "socialist" administration have been known for acquiring immense fortunes through Venezuela's oil production and the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) whose oil production represents roughly one-third of the country's GDP and makes billions of dollars in profits every year. The self-acclaimed "socialist" regime, which in principle, stands for redistribution of wealth, has been irrefutably inefficient at converting oil profits into tangible social improvement. On the contrary, politicians such as Pedro Carreño, current Minister of Interior, have become infamous for numerous public appearances in which Louis Vuitton clothing and other expensive apparel have become the norm. Upon his death, Hugo Chávez's fortune was estimated at 500 million US dollars.
Perhaps the most lamentable consequence of the radicalization of the socialist experiment in Venezuela has been the violence that has become rampant across the country. Whereas socialism has been effective at reducing poverty and improving education, it has not been effective at reducing crime levels. Over the past 15 years, homicide rates in Venezuela rose from 20.6 homicides per 100,000 population in 1995 to 45.1 in 2010, surpassing those of Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Syria, and many other countries formally recognized as "war zones." Most recently, 2014 has seen the active participation of several armed groups that are openly supported by the government. In particular, these include the so-called Colectivos de Paz, "Peace Collectives" and the guerrilla group Tupamaros. Both groups, through government support, have acquired firearms and have been responsible for brutal violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators and have led to the death of several student protestors during the week of February 12. Most recently, Venezuela has experienced the infiltration of Cuban military Special Forces known as Avispas Negras or "Black Wasps" and are widely suspected of having contributed to the many violent attacks under the orders of the Castro regime of Cuba.
The path to resolution of the Venezuelan crisis is clear. The Venezuelan population must find a way to reconcile with itself and do away with the polarization that has been promoted by the current regime. A viable solution would be to find a new leader, one that potentially originates from the slums of Petare, San Agustín, or 23 de Enero; who is able to appeal to the many unsatisfied Chavistas who do not trust the current leaders of the opposition. The emergence of such a figure could potentially represent a common ground between Chavistas and the opposition and could very well signal the turning point in Venezuela's political crisis.
About the co-authors:
Alvaro Salas is a native of Costa Rica and noteworthy scholar. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in foreign affairs, another in law, and a Master of Business Administration with a majors in finance, economics and sustainable development from INCAE Business School. Currently earning a Master of Public Policy and serving as a researcher at Cornell University, he recently concluded his term as the first Latin American President of the Cornell Public Affairs Society. Alvaro has earlier experience as a manager of an insurance company and as an academic consultant and researcher for Interamerican Development Bank, Grameen Creative Lab and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
Antonio J. Henríquez García is a native of Caracas, Venezuela and third-year undergraduate student at Cornell University majoring in economics. Antonio has had the opportunity to live, travel, perform community service, and interact in different social environments throughout Latin America. In 2012, Antonio became cofounder and Executive Director of La Visión Latinoamericana, an educational nonprofit and student organization. Antonio has since then led the organization to facilitate the visits of renowned leaders of Latin America to Cornell University including current Argentinian ambassador to the United States, Cecilia Nahón, former mayor of the city of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus, and the president of Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, Estela Barnes de Carlotto. Between 2012 and 2013, Antonio served as Vice President for Finance for the Ivy Council, a conglomerate of student leaders from the eight Ivy League schools.