Venezuelan Crisis: From The Bolivarian Revolution To Western Neoliberalism

On March 30, Venezuela’s Supreme Court magistrates, aligned with Socialist President Nicolas Maduro, ruled that it would have to take-over the opposition-led Congress legislative power. The ruling effectively dissolved the elected legislature and signed the tipping point of a political and economic crisis, which has consumed the oil-rich nation since the opposition won control of the National Assembly in 2015.

The Venezuelan crisis has been described by journalists and experts all over the world in several ways. Some economists have focused on the economic failure of a state that mismanaged to implement the form of Bolivarian socialism initiated by former President Hugo Chavez. Some others have regarded the crisis as evidence of the end of socialism itself, connecting it with other close realities such as Cuba. Political scientists have conversely addressed the events focusing on the long-term strategic advantages that the U.S. could gain from intervening both economically and militarily in Venezuela. The latter noticed that the combination of the abundance of resources and discontent of the people could mean a fertile ground for the U.S. to expand its interests.

In order to understand the complicated political situation in Venezuela, one must understand the people’s discontent with President Maduro’s authoritarian policies, which has moved from regretting Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution to supporting a Western-backed opposition. A deep analysis of this controversial popular behaviour implies connecting the long-term evolutions and predictions of the Venezuelan crisis with the implications deriving from the twilight or resilience of a complicated political settlement, such as Bolivarian Socialism, as well as the heavy and constant presence of the United States in the country’s modern and contemporary political development.

Venezuela’s current collapse did not happen overnight. Conversely, it was part of a process of institutional and economic decay that began decades before. Venezuela’s history as a democratic country starts in 1958 when after 10 years of military dictatorship, the government led by Marcos Pérez Jiménez was brought to an end by a coup d’ètat, which saw the advent of democracy with a transitional government under Admiral Wolfgang Larrazábal. The country’s democratic development was highly influenced by the controversial figure Rómulo Betancourt, also known as the “Father of the Venezuelan Democracy” and former president. Betancourt was an ex-communist who renounced his Marxist ways in favour of a more gradualist approach of establishing socialism. Nonetheless, despite evolving into more of a social democrat, Betancourt still believed in a very activist role for the State in economic matters. His major aim was to create a welfare state alimented by the full nationalization of Venezuela’s petroleum sector that would have permitted to finance cheap gasoline, education, healthcare and public services. Betancourt was part of a generation of Venezuelan intellectuals who saw oil as a strengthening power for the country. With the government managing, administrating and producing oil, the major aim was that of phasing out the private sector.

A similar rhetoric was used decades later by Hugo Chavez, which is remembered as the father of the Bolivarian Revolution. Coming from the military ranks, Chavez first tried to gain power with a failed coup in 1992 and was eventually elected president of Venezuela in 1998 on a populist platform. His presidency lasted until his death in 2013. His main political orientation implied using Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to reduce poverty and inequality. As in the case of Betancourt, nationalization was the keyword of Chavez’s socialism. His strong anti-imperialism, inspired by Simon Bolivar, the Venezuela-born revolutionary of the nineteenth century, aimed to align Latin American countries against the United States. Chavez remained popular and respected by his people during his presidency, expanding social services including food and housing subsidies, health care, and educational programs. The country’s poverty rate fell from roughly 50 percent in 1998, the year before he was elected, to 30 percent in 2012, the year before his death.

Nicolas Maduro came to power in 2013 promising he would “ensure the legacy of his commander, Chavez, the eternal father.” Nonetheless, a combination of bad political actions, external pressure and circumstances did not permit the president to keep his promise. Many leftist intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, Julian Assange and Josep Stiglitz have pointed out how Venezuela’s crisis marks a failed opportunity by Chavez’s successor to continue his socialist policies. The historian Greg Grandin recalls the “impressive gains” that were achieved by Chavez “in healthcare, life expectancy, education and social security, radically expanding political participation, bringing the excluded and marginal into the debate and giving diverse social movement access to political power.” Chavez was also very strategic in dealing with Washington’s obsession with Venezuela’s management of its oil resources. More specifically, Venezuela represented a threat as the Bolivarian revolution implicitly consisted in reversing the neoliberal aspiration of turning petroleum into a pure commodity, whose value was set by the market. Conversely, Chavez decided to use Venezuela’s oil power not exclusively as an attack to his Western “enemies,” but also as a resource for a more prosperous and equal Venezuela. His strategy implied setting high petroleum prices as a way to tax the First World and then redistribute that revenue through equitable social programs.

Unlike Chavez, who managed to stabilize social tension and make a strategic use of alliances at key moments, Maduro easily failed internal and external provocation. His authoritarianism was both a response to internal pressure from the opposition and external pressure from the US. Since 2002, Washington had openly funded the opposition so that when Maduro came to power, his bad temperament and his week popularity made him an easy target for making that neoliberal western dream in Venezuela a possible reality. With no doubts, Maduro’s greatest mistake has been responding to provocations inhibiting most democratic mechanisms. It is this temperament that has recently led Maduro to cancel the recall of a referendum, which was constitutionally legal, suspend municipal and regional elections, and inhibit an opposition politician, Henrique Capriles, from standing for office. The sociologist Gabriel Hetland highlighted how in this way “Maduro is systematically blocking the ability of the Venezuelan people to express themselves through electoral means.” Differently, from Chavez, Maduro, fronting the US-backed opposition was not fronting Venezuela’s common western enemy but ended up fronting his own people who democratically elected the National Assembly.

Maduro has not been able to inspire Chavistas in the same way his predecessor did and has conversely eroded Venezuelan democratic institutions and Chavez’s economic and social achievement. The Bolivarian Revolution was an attempt to create a united and independent Latin America that could make it competitive actors at both economic and geopolitical levels. Maduro’s isolationism had turned his people to the paradoxical situation of regretting Chavez’s policies and supporting a western opposition.

Conversely, Maduro’s political opposition also has a responsibility in fueling the current political crisis in the country. As Steve Ellner reported in The Nation, “The opposition consistently employs tactics of mass civil disobedience even though these mobilizations are accompanied by the destructive actions of small bands of combatants.” Indeed, ending Maduro’s rule is just a step for the US backed opposition to privatise Venezuela’s public services and bring social reforms initiated by Chavez to an end. As Mark Weisbrot, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, pointed out, “Ignoring the US intervention in Venezuela is like reporting on Ukraine without mentioning Russia.” The problem of Venezuela’s opposition is that of having decided to comply with US long-dated dream of regime change moving from one extremism to another, in a country which first and foremost needs balance and stability.

Today, Venezuela is a polarized country on the verge of a civil war. Observers have characterized the situation as a humanitarian crisis. In 2016, the head of the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation estimated that 85 percent of basic medicines were unavailable or difficult to obtain. Hospitals reportedly lack supplies like antibiotics, gauze, and soap. Infant mortality in 2016 increased 30 percent and maternal mortality 65 percent in comparison to two years ago, according to government figures. Diseases like diphtheria and malaria, which had been previously eliminated from the country, have re-emerged. Poverty and lack of opportunity are exacerbating Venezuela’s high rates of violence.

A negotiated solution is necessary between Maduro and his opposition to let Venezuelan people evolve politically with free and fair elections and to re-emerge from the ashes of its political, socio-economic and humanitarian crisis.

Benedetta Zocchi

MPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford
Benedetta Zocchi