World Citizen: In Post-Chavez Venezuela, a Dystopian Drama Unfolds.
The depiction, with its post-apocalyptic overtones was, of course, fictional, even though thousands of squatters do live in unfinished buildings in Venezuela, and crime levels are a growing threat. But there is no escaping the fact that, lately, Venezuela under President Nicolas Maduro, the heir to the mythical late President Hugo Chavez, is experiencing days when fact seems stranger than fiction.
Earlier this month, Venezuelans woke to discover the army had “occupied” a major appliance store—almost literally declaring war on high prices—arresting managers and setting off riots of bargain hunting, some of which ended in wild looting. Maduro, who had already ordered the occupation of a toilet paper factory, warned that the campaign against the retailers was “the tip of the iceberg.”
An iceberg is, in fact, what stands half-hidden in the near distance as Maduro charts a disastrous course for the Venezuelan economy and stokes the already intense animosity that divides the population.
Late last month, Maduro referred to the top opposition leaders as “fascist parasites.” The next morning, Caracas neighborhoods were plastered with posters featuring the faces of the three, including former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, under the banner “Trilogy of Evil,” saying, “They’re stealing your electricity. They’re stealing your food.”
The Chavez days, to be sure, brought high-octane histrionics and drama to Venezuela. Maduro’s personality is much less fiery. But the stage didn’t become any more sedate after he took office.
Chavez’s hand-picked successor is making up for his shortfall in charisma with a bounty of downright bizarre moves, all aimed at strengthening his hold on power in a country that is spiraling into economic chaos.
His efforts to blame the opposition for the country’s woes have gained urgency as Venezuelans prepare for local elections scheduled for early next month. The opposition has characterized the vote as a referendum on Maduro’s seven-month rule. And the polls bring troubling signs for the ruling Socialists.
The most pressing problems for the majority of the population are shortages of the most basic goods, from toilet paper to electricity; an ever-accelerating rate of inflation, already meriting comparison to the early days of hyperinflation in Weimar Germany; and a crime rate that has escalated so far out of control that authorities simply decided to stop keeping statistics.
With a few weeks left until the vote and polls showing nearly three of every four Venezuelans pessimistic about the country—20 percent more than when Maduro took office—the president rushed to cast blame and to grasp for more power.
In order to wage his battle against corruption and price-gouging, Maduro asked the Chavista-dominated legislature to grant him the right to rule by decree. After expelling a dissident member to achieve the necessary qualified majority, the National Assembly obliged. For the next year he can govern with the stroke of a pen, without bothering with legislative approval.
The extraordinary powers, the president says, are needed to defend against those waging “economic warfare” against him. The corruption, he assures the people, stems solely from his critics.
The country was already deeply polarized during the Chavez days, but Maduro’s strategy is to demonize the opposition even more, while turning the ghost of Hugo Chavez into a powerful mystical figure.
Chavez’s social programs and his devotion to the poor built good will that still buoys the current president, but Maduro lacks the popular adoration that fortified his mentor.
While he disparages and launches criminal investigations against his critics, Maduro is relying on Chavez’s memory to cement his standing. After all, his legitimacy rests on the fact that Chavez personally anointed him.
Maduro has described a series of mystical apparitions of the dead president, first in the form of a little bird and more recently in a subway tunnel.
To honor the former president, Maduro announced that from now on Dec. 8 will be known as the “Day of Loyalty and Love for the Supreme Commander Hugo Chavez.” That date, not coincidentally, was when Chavez appeared in public for the last time and told Venezuelans to support Maduro. It also happens to be Election Day.
The Chavez card has served Maduro well so far, but its power is wearing off. He won the first post-Chavez presidential election by a thin margin, and now polls show the opposition narrowly ahead.
Among all but the most fervent Chavistas, the harshness of daily life has the power to trump the memory of a revered leader.
Inflation for the first 10 months of this year soared above 54 percent, crossing the threshold into hyperinflation. And Maduro’s maneuvers to stop price rises and shortages are doomed to failure, because his policies are, in fact, causing the problem.
Government orders to cut prices, for example, have spurred a booming smuggling trade, in which staples end up across the border in Colombia, where they sell for many times their price in Venezuela.
The currency has collapsed, with black market rates reaching as much as 10 times the official rate and rising practically every time Maduro tries to explain his approach to solving the country’s many crises.
Kidnappings, robberies and murders are affecting all segments of the population. The government avoids the subject, but the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime says Venezuela has the highest murder rate in South America.
Though worthy of a made-for-television drama, the Maduro show is starting to tire many Venezuelans. The hardships are not all new, but when it was Chavez in the lead role, many more were willing to forgive. Maduro knows he is not Chavez. He is trying to take control of the narrative, lest he end up written out of the script.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday.