«Chavez-Merida» by David Hernández/Flickr. Some rights reserved."The Venezuelan nation now depends on young professionals who migrate; as in the case of the Armenian Diaspora, they are the ones who will be responsible for preserving our culture." The sentence, said by an upper-middle class lady, reflects two symptoms of current Venezuela: the escapist tendencies of some of the critics of Nicolás Maduro’s regime and, at the same time, a situation that appears to be hitting rock bottom, in which – for real or imagined reasons - emigration is being left as the only option for many young, middle or upper-class professionals.
A 2012 video, available on YouTube, refers to Caracas as a "city of goodbyes". "I spend my weekends seeing friends off," says one of the citizens appearing in the film; "I'm in love with Caracas but we cannot live together," says another; "Looks like my life has stopped being interesting", says the song in the soundtrack. At the same time, the faces and the phenotypes (white) as well as the social marks (upper middle class) reveal one of the cracks in Venezuelan society, which has been there since long before Chávez, but which has become politicized since the late 90s. Today, the crisis – due both to the absence of a charismatic leadership and falling oil revenues - encourages this kind of speech. And disappointment includes many Chavistas non-Maduristas.
The legitimacy of Chavismo was based on the powerful combination of the leader’s charisma and high oil revenues, and its outreach to the whole of Latin America. The death of the Supreme Commander, officially on March 5, 2013, together with falling oil prices, eroded the very foundations of the Bolivarian Revolution. But the high expectations nurtured by the opposition regarding the parliamentary elections of December 6, do not imply any certainty that the crisis will automatically play in their favour – at least, not as much as its leaders and supporters wish. To them, the winning card is now the "López factor": i.e., jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López who, after his recent conviction, has become a virtual martyr of democracy and freedom in his Ramo Verde prison.
Aged 44 and an economist by trade, related to Simón Bolivar through his mother’s family, a good speaker and former mayor of Chacao, Leopoldo López was imprisoned one and a half years ago under the accusation of stirring the protests in which he sought to deploy in the streets a strategy known as "La salida” (The way out), designed to force the resignation of Nicolás Maduro (whose term ends in 2019), seasoned by the so-called "guarimbas" (road-blocking and barricading). On September, 10, López was sentenced to 13 years, 9 months, 7 days and 12 hours in prison by interim Judge Susana Barreiros. "If I am convicted, you will be more afraid to read the verdict than I will be to hear it," the opposition leader said to her in the last hearing, while Caracas was eagerly awaiting the court's decision.
The street occupation - which ended with 43 dead, 600 injured and hundreds arrested -clashed with the electoral commitment of political leaders like Henrique Capriles, from the Primero Justicia (Justice First) party, who in 2013 came close to defeating Maduro at the polls. Today, the opposition is calling upon Venezuelans to "channel their discontent" by going and voting on December 6.
In this new setting, going out on the streets means going and voting massively against the government. "Justice is rotten in our Venezuela, today more than ever let us understand that the path to freedom for Leopoldo and all of us begins on # 6D", tweeted Capriles.
“To kill a young tiger”
The so-called bachaqueros (who indulge in the illegal activity of bachaqueo) are an emerging social group in the Venezuelan crisis. They resell basic commodities which are not to be found in stores, and the long queues their shortages generate are now a familiar feature of the Venezuelan landscape. Many of these products are regulated by the Fair Pricing Act, which sets a five-year prison penalty for this activity, but has failed to contain the "plague", as the powerful chairman of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, calls the bachaqueros.
The governing mayor of La Victoria, Juan Carlos Sánchez, went further: in the logic of "re-education", he forcefully obliged several bachaqueros to perform community work dressed in gaudy overalls with a sign saying "I am a bachaquero, I want to change." The same happened in Puerto Cabello despite criticism from human rights organizations denouncing the fact that mayors cannot impose penalties.
But the breeding ground for this "plague" is the shortage situation that President Nicolás Maduro attributes to an "economic war" being waged against his government. Many Venezuelans spend seven or eight hours a week queuing (according to their available time). In theory, everyone can buy on a given day depending on the last number on their identity card, but many join the queues to barter, to "resolve", to "matar un tigrito" (literally: to kill a young tiger; the expression means to do a quick job for a little money).
To purchase regulated products, you have to put your finger on an electronic fingerprint reader. In Caracas they say that “to dive” was the usual term for eyeing a girl or a boy in the street; now it is also used to describe the way in which people look at what others carry in their bags: pre-cooked white corn flour (used to make arepas), shampoo, deodorant, razors and toilet paper, as well as several drugs, are some of the "scarce" goods - overpriced on the black market – that give Venezuelans many a sleepless night.
The closing down of the border with Colombia in the state of Táchira is linked to the same problem: corruption and smuggling, especially of fuel, which in Venezuela is almost free (3). Filling a tank of an average car costs about 4 bolivars, while a pack of gum costs 60. But to this, you have to add the four exchange rates existing in the country, which range from 6,30 bolivars (for import medicines and food) to 700 bolivars (the so-called parallel dollar), through 13,50 bolivars (used for bolivarizing travellers’ expenses) and yet another intermediate rate of 200 bolivars.
A common practice is to travel abroad to "scrape the cards": i.e. to get dollars in cash through false shopping, then bolivarizing these purchases at the official rate, and finally exchanging upon return the dollars obtained on the black market. There are “scraping” points in several cities in Latin America and the proceeds make up for the trip and the stay out of Venezuela.
At a meeting of the Unión Vecinal (Neighbours’ Union) NGO in the popular West Caracas neighborhood of Catia, critics and skeptics prevail. "We have to make kilometre-long queues to buy a couple of chickens; we have to guapear (be up to it) every day here. What do we expect? Sometimes we no longer expect anything", says Mercedes Pérez, who leads ATRAEM, a group of women entrepreneurs. Another resident says, explaining his plight: "I have no gun, no connections, no contacts with the government", and a third describes why it is so hard for the opposition to grow, even in the current crisis context: " Some opponents believe that we are still in the Fourth Republic (i.e.before Chavez’s Fifth), that because people are angry at Chavism they will vote for the opposition. It used to be like this, between adecos and copeyanos, but things no longer work that way ".
The opposition clusters around the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Roundtable - MUD), which groups thirty parties and is controlled by the so-called G4, consisting of Leopoldo López’s Voluntad Popular (People's Will) party; former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles’s Primero Justicia; a weakened Acción Democrática (Democratic Action - AD), and Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Time), led by another former presidential candidate and former governor of Zulia State Manuel Rosales, currently in self-exile in Panama.
One problem the opposition encounters to reach Venezuelan popular sectors is the "rich kid" origin of its three main leaders (Capriles, López and Maria Corina Machado), in a context where class and race is the basis of a social hierarchical structure that Chávez was able to make visible and politicize by presenting himself as a mulatto. Many anti-Chavists called him a monkey. While the party led by López considers itself to be “social democrat” and has been accepted as an observer by the Socialist International, to the oficialismo (officialism) it is a far-right opposition party which aims at de-stabilizing the government with support from abroad.
Today, in the context of economic decline and lack of a charismatic leadership, Chavism lives an emotional crisis and smaller parties like Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide) try to capitalize discontent touching on a "chavista but not madurista" key. The centerpiece of its current campaign is the platform for a public and citizen audit to "stop embezzlement, capital flight and corruption". "Marea seeks to contain the disappointed, preventing them from joining the opposition", says their leader Nicmer Evans, who believes that his party suffers from a kind of proscription, judging by the number of invalidated candidates, including him.
A thorn in Chavism’s side was, from the beginning, the strong presence of the military in government, a presence that has increased after the death of the president. "The military never carried so much economic and political weight, not even under General Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s dictatorship (1953-1958)", says historian Thomas Straka. Twelve of the twenty state governors come from the military. And large proportions of senior officials wear or used to wear olive-green uniforms. Chávez himself said, in 2013, that Pérez Jiménez was one of the best presidents Venezuela had ever had.
Today, some critical Chavistas are caught between the devil - the military - and the deep-blue sea - Nicolás Maduro, Chavez's successor, former bus driver and very close to Cuba. Maduro validated his power by narrowly winning over Capriles (50.6% vs. 49.1%) on April, 14, 2013. Today, the military are accused, and there is some evidence backing the accusation, of being part of vast smuggling networks in the Colombian border and of being involved in numerous corruption schemes and illegal food and medical equipment imports, especially from China.
The problem is that in so far as Chavism has an authoritarian streak, not only does it violate the separation of powers, it also fails to generate order. This authoritarianism is often disruptive in several ways. In this context, Venezuela is experiencing a deep security crisis: the nightlife of Caracas has been dying off at the same quick pace than the data which rank it as one of the cities with most crimes in the world. Kidnappings are certainly one of the reasons for migrating, and prisons are strongholds where the State only controls the walls and lets all types of criminal networks, led by the so-called pranes (from PRAN: Preso Reincidente Asesino Nato – Born Murderer Recidivist Prisoner), run things inside. The assassination of former beauty queen Mónica Spear in January 2014 shocked Venezuelans and helped the issue reach the international media. In every restaurant in Caracas there is a sign prohibiting the carrying of guns and ammo. It is this climate of violence that prompted the controversial Operación de Liberación y Protección del Pueblo (Liberation and Protection of the People Operation - PLO) which, according to human rights organization Provea, encourages military actions lacking any safeguards. Even critical Chavists think that they end up criminalizing the neighborhoods and poverty.
To this should be added the different armed political groups, like some of the so-called colectivos, organized to “defend the revolution", each under a different leadership. Among them: La Piedrita, Tupamaros, Alexis Vive or 5 de Mayo. Other organizations include the paramilitary Comandos Populares Antigolpe (Anti-coup Popular Commandoes), the Milicias Estudiantiles y Campesinas (Student and Peasant Militias), the Brigada Especial contra las Actuaciones de los Grupos Generadores de Violencia (Special Branch against the Activities of Groups Generating Violence), the Fuerza de Choque de la Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana (Bolivarian National Army Strike Force) and the Milicias Obreras (Workers’ Militias).
Yet again, Maduro resorts to a familiar libretto: he denounces assassination attempts by the Uribista right (from Álvaro Uribe, former president of Colombia and paramilitary chief, now opposition leader), an economic war, and other - real, inflated and imagined - threats, rather than pay enough attention to the economic dynamics generated by the monetary disorder. The minimum wage in Venezuela is $ 10 at the out-of-control parallel exchange rate, encouraging people's creativity to get basic products. Venezuela continues to import almost everything it consumes, a fact that exacerbates the crisis, and "oil planting" has again proved to be a pipe dream, as it did in the previous oil boom of the 70's, with Carlos Andrés Pérez’s Great Venezuela and its welfare state.
Chávez's death and current economic disruption has ended the prospect of some kind of "Socialism of the 21st century" (the originator of the term, Heinz Dieterich, is today a radical opponent of Maduro). Cabello himself warned in his TV program “Con El Mazo Dando" (Hammering Away) about the risks of division within Chavism and the governing Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela - PSUV). In that program, the leader of the military wing of Chavism often uses information from "cooperating patriots", informants who fight the “escuálidos” (the skinny ones), as opponents are called in Chavist militarized language.
An uncertain situation
The opposition is thinking of winning a majority of seats in the National Assembly and, from there, to open spaces for negotiation with the government. Despite the crisis, though, the electoral race is not an easy one and the layout of the constituencies benefits the oficialismo. Many opponents try to distance themselves from the rightist tag given them by the Chavists. For example: Freddy Guevara, 29, who belongs to a generation of students who were mobilized in 2007 and is now one of the leaders of Leopoldo López’s party, lists among his influences: "social democracy, liberal socialism, Kropotkin’s brand of anarchism and liberal democracy".
In an expectant atmosphere, some imagine that boatloads of food will be downloaded just before the elections and expect other last-minute oficialista moves linked to consumer staples. Something like the "Dakazo", when the government occupied the Daka store during the last local election campaign and put up for sale its products at "fair prices", justifying the intervention with the economic war narrative.
Today, some santerías in Caracas sell pictures of Chávez and the big question is what the disenchanted Chavists will do on December 6. What is clear is that very few opponents seem to imagine that Chavism will be replaced tout court and anticipate an intricate, winding situation where sectors of the ruling and opposition parties will reach agreements to design post-Chavista Venezuela.
After the failed coup attempt of 1992, Hugo Chávez was imprisoned and then released by President Rafael Caldera... "We couldn’t make it this time," he prophesied. It now remains to be seen how the harsh sentence will affect the leader of Voluntad Popular and the opposition as a whole.
This article was previously published by La línea de fuego.