It was a sunny afternoon in 1999. A massive, thick cloud of dust covered the green landscapes and the palm trees surrounding the golf course at the country club. We were all hitting golf balls into the distance when four helicopters landed on the middle of the driving range. The caudillo swiftly jumped out from one of them. Red beret, green uniform and military boots. That was my first encounter with Hugo Chavez. Even though he was feeling a bit restrained by the presence of what he considered to be an “elite”, he was successful in making a connection with the children and teenagers who surrounded him, excited to shake his hand. I was only 15 years old, but I remember him as a simple and confident man, a man of high ideals, very different from the person he became a few years later.
This drama we are living in Venezuela started with the oil boom that corrupted its social elites and sold the country to corporations, foreign powers and banks, forgetting the poor masses that have lived in penury for years. Chavez appeared like a breath of fresh air in the middle of a government shared between the two major political players, the AD and the COPEI, accused of facilitating a corrupt regime and mismanaging the country’s oil wealth. His failed coup attempt, his decision to speak to his comrades to give up the fight to avoid a bloodbath, and his famous words, “For now we have failed”, raised hopes and brought about the winds of change, transforming every Venezuelan heart. He planted the seeds of change in the people.
He appeared to be authentic; he taught Venezuelans as well as the poor of the world to dream about dignity, freedom and social justice. He was inspiring, courageous, and a humanist, a rare breed with a great destiny. His plan to save Venezuela and Latin America from years of plunder by imperial powers since the days of the Spanish conquista secured his election as president. He promised to work with the corporate world and foreign investors to create job opportunities to help Venezuelans find work. Chavez first won office in 1998 in a fair election with 56 per cent of the vote. Over time, his discourse changed. He used his weekly television appearances to connect with supporters like a preacher. Somewhere in between his humble beginnings as a political leader and the sudden rise of world oil prices in 2005, a “Latin American Caudillo” was born. He was a perfect example of this — an arrogant and charismatic leader, who attracted legions of loyal fans, mostly amidst Venezuela’s lower classes, with his persuasive and flamboyant speeches. His popularity was colossal, irrational, but also ephemeral. His revolution resulted in the weakening of Venezuela’s economic and political infrastructure and in strengthening his own cause.
It is possible that Chavez will go down in history as one of the most influential socialist leaders of the modern era. During his reign, Venezuela enjoyed the longest oil boom in its history. Chavez also made Latin American integration the core of his foreign policy. The revenues of PDVSA, the State-owned cash cow, allowed Venezuela to make powerful allies not only in Latin America but also in other parts of the world. Chavez began to finance politicians loyal to his cause in countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Haiti, Nicaragua and other places in Central America. He ended up building his bloc of allies in the American continent through an alternative free trade area called ALBA. He also advocated an end to Cuba’s US-imposed isolation. He helped found multinational institutions such as Petrocaribe, Petrosur and TeleSur for this purpose. As a part of this cooperative initiative, he offered 12 Caribbean countries ship-credit for oil imports. Some of these initiatives, such as Petrocaribe, were a continuation of policies framed by previous governments, but were aimed at building an anti-American bloc.
In spite of Chavez’s political agenda, the vast oil wealth did not improve conditions for the Venezuelan people. Socialism has left Venezuelans confronting a harsh reality. There is a huge economic imbalance that will have a long-lasting negative impact. Chavez’s government focused mainly on social policy, subsidies, dollar prices control and oil prices. Crime exploded — homicide rates reached historic levels in 2012. Venezuela currently holds one of the highest inflation rates in the world. However, the government’s expropriation of more than 988 foreign and domestic companies did not help eliminate the elite. It created a new class of nouveaux riches — bankers, oil contractors, and construction businessmen who profited from government spending.
Chavez was hostile to media freedom, to the point of closing hundreds of television and radio stations and harassing and persecuting journalists who were against his cause. Television networks also moderated their tone so as not to lose their licenses and avoid closures. During his 14 years in power, he came to control such public institutions as the Congress, the highest court of justice and the electoral council. According to many experts, the last gave Chavez a greater vote advantage than that of the Opposition party. It is true that Chavez was proclaimed the winner several times during the presidential elections. However, these results only took into consideration the total number of votes, and left out the political pressures and the social context in which the elections were held.
Perhaps the harshest truth to face is the division that ‘Chavismo’ has brought upon the social landscape in Venezuela. A country of eternal sunshine and laughter, here race, credo and ideas have never separated us from our fellow men. Venezuela, a country that opened its doors during the colonial period and until after the Second World War to Europe, the Middle East, China and the United States of America, has now changed. We no longer identify ourselves with our social status. Political ideology has become a far more important criterion these days. It has become so important that being Chavista or not can decide our fate while finding employment.
The next presidential elections — on April 14 — will be challenging. The official candidate, Nicolas Maduro, has the advantage of being Chavez’s hand-picked successor and has the government’s powers behind him. Strategically speaking, Chavez’s death gives Maduro a momentum he must use to swing things his way. He must sell the idea that he will be every bit as good as his predecessor. Maduro is continuing with Chavez’s legacy. It is not known which way he will turn once he is in power.
The Opposition led by Henrique Capriles, representing various political ideologies, has a big job on its hands. The Opposition must show that it has such ideas as peace and freedom, better wealth management, and better future for all, for the country. Most importantly, it needs to show that it is capable of avoiding the mistakes that were committed by the governments of the past that forced the electorate to favour the socialist party.
If the Venezuelan revolution has had a positive effect, it has to be the role it has played in awakening the people. The rich and middle classes have begun to engage in Venezuelan politics, as opposed to how they used to be before. The poor, too, finally found their voice after having been neglected for centuries by politicians who sold them empty promises. They benefited from free education, free healthcare, microcredits to start a business, and a culture that preached the importance of brotherhood, justice, and cooperation. They, however, realize that Venezuela has changed.
Now that Venezuelans are prepared to take responsibility of the past mistakes, our country will enter a new era. The next leader, Chavista or not, will face the greatest challenge of all: to unite a nation that has been divided by hatred and political affiliations, and to rebuild an economy that was broken down to pieces. Chavez will retain his popularity for decades. But the change Venezuela is seeking will come when we understand that successful economies are those that build strong institutions rather than glorify strong leaders.