Supporters of Nicolás Maduro as seen in front of the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) in Caracas, Venezuela, on January 10, 2019. Xu Ye/ PA Images. All rights reserved.
Sporting a smart liquiliqui suit with the vest buttoned up to his neck as worn by the men of the plains - which, by decree of the Executive Power, has become the "National Dress Code" -, Nicolás Maduro announced the good news.
Venezuela, he said, will soon be a "branded country": a major international tourist commodity. Dollars will finally start pouring in to benefit its desponded people. Facing an audience that was and could only be his own, he revealed the slogan of the campaign: "Venezuela Open to the Future".
The hedonistic utopia came with pictures of packed-full beaches, sophisticated cocktails and, of course, hot mulatas - pure enjoyment, beyond the class struggle that usually fills the official discourse.
Outside the Venetur Alba Caracas Hotel, the word "future" had other meanings, all of which are related to danger. The political conflict in Venezuela is so deep that everything is divided in two: there are two markets - one white, one black -, and two kinds of dollars.
For the first time in the history of Latin American instability, a civilian has staged a coup against a quasi-military government headed by a civilian
There is a Parliament controlled by the opposition, which has been declared in contempt, and a Constituent Assembly acting as another Congress. A Supreme Court sits in Caracas and another one in exile.
The same happens with the attorneys general: there are two of them. And there is, finally, a more dangerous duality: two presidents - one, Maduro, the winner of presidential elections whose legitimacy is being interpreted in two different ways; and another, Juan Guaidó, a self-proclaimed "interim" president who has been blessed by the US and 60 other countries.
For the first time in the history of Latin American instability, a civilian has staged a coup against a quasi-military government headed by a civilian – an unsustainable contradiction.
Another fall of the wall effect?
Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the American invasion of Panama, the connection between these two historical events and the Venezuelan tragedy is rather peculiar.
The followers of Guaidó are convinced that the humanitarian aid that the anti-Maduro coalition will be sending in across the Colombian and Brazilian borders as of February 23 will gather mass support and become the equivalent of what happened in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) in 1989.
Maduro, the "worker-president", will be the new Erich Honecker, he will go into exile and the foundations of the Bolivarian project will be swept away. If not, they predict a fate similar to that of Panama’s Manuel Noriega. For the former to happen, the military front, which currently supports the government, must split.
An officer disobeying at the border would have a domino effect - it's that simple, they reckon. The latter scenario, on the other hand, implies a US invasion - and Guaidó is considering it already.
An agonizing model
The survival of the Bolivarian political model is being questioned as never before. Immolation or last rites: these seem to be the options. But how has this come about? How has it reached this point of apparent no return?
Madurismo’s diagnosis of the situation is unwavering: the collapse of GDP - 44% since 2013 -, the mass exodus and the criminality have all been caused by Washington’s and its domestic allies’ financial choking of the Venezuelan economy. However, not "everything" is attributable to the United States and, in order to understand it, we must refer to the same parable that Hugo Chávez drew on the rubble of the Fourth Republic.
Madurismo’s diagnosis of the situation is unwavering: the collapse of GDP - 44% since 2013 -, the mass exodus and the criminality have all been caused by Washington’s and its domestic allies’ financial choking of the Venezuelan economy.
The "Eternal Commander" came to power promising redemption for the usual losers. As Fernando Coronil points out in his essential The Magical State, Nature, Money and Modernity in Venezuela, "Chávez invited them to stop watching from the stands, to come down to the main court and participate in a story that would finally be theirs".
In practice, he mended social wounds through the redistribution of the oil rents. Coronil’s explanation of the new ways in which Chavism used black gold is based on a line of reasoning he borrows from Indian anthropologist Veena Das. In her book Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, Das argues that "subaltern rebellions", when facing massive structures of domination, can produce "just one night of love" but not "a whole loving life".
This is what happened in Venezuela. In other words: the promise of Bolivarian progress was unsustainable from the outset. Under the prevailing circumstances, the State, through sheer will power and the international prices of crude oil as a determining factor, could only produce "acts of magic instead of miracles".
Twenty years later, 96% of Venezuela’s income in dollars comes from the same productive matrix. And the government is importing even the rice, sugar and flour in its social assistance packages.
There was not a Cuban-like revolution
Even though Maduro is fond of speaking of "revolution", the structure of property in Venezuela has not changed, as it did in Cuba. The leadership takes its wishes for reality: even when support for the government was at its highest, 40% of Venezuelans were against it.
It is striking how Chavismo has failed to learn from the errors of previous historical experiences. Fidel Castro’s obsession with accelerating the phases of the revolution in Cuba led him, in 1968, to set a high goal for himself: building at the same time Socialism and Communism.
The so-called "revolutionary offensive" had very unfortunate effects and led to the nationalization of most things - even barbershops. Chávez did not want to do any less and carried out expropriations often with no clear aim in mind.
The other lesson not learned has to do with Popular Unity’s Chile. "I am not the president of all Chileans", said Salvador Allende. Chavism dug that same rhetorical trench. And his opponents, turned into enemies, acted symmetrically. The result has been a zero-sum game.
A third mirror was hung on a Miraflores’ presidential palace wall to reflect China in the sixties. Chávez promoted communes inspired by one of the most disastrous undertakings of Maoism, the “Great Leap Forward".
The initiative, based on self-management, contained, according to the "Eternal Commander", the true seeds of Socialism. It did bear some fruit in the rural areas but failed resoundingly in a country where more than 90% of the population live in cities, some of which are extremely violent.
Although it was intended to do away with bureaucracy and minimize the role of the State, it boiled down to trying to "plough the ocean", to use Simon Bolivar's expression, mostly due to economic deficiencies and collective practices derived from scarcity and the black market.
Chávez’s initial distributive feat had a defective original imprint: it was achieved manu militari
Currently, it is just a device for patronage. The opposition sums it up in perhaps a simplistic but not altogether wrong equation: food in return for rhetorical loyalty.
Chávez’s initial distributive feat had a defective original imprint: it was achieved manu militari which obviously offered a flank to not only the wealthy sectors for questioning the Commander’s democratic values.
Maduro has deepened the dubious democratic practices. He often says that the Bolivarians have won 23 out of 25 electoral contests, but his opponents respond with a long list of accusations: on the one hand, Chávez's attempt to establish indefinite presidential reelection; on the other, the limited acceptance of his stumbles at the polls. In 2008, when the opposition won the mayoralty of Caracas, the "Eternal Commander" built from scratch a parallel administration, with its corresponding budget, and then redrew the electoral boundaries to avoid tripping on the stone of defeat so easily.
To win elections is not enough
Maduro succeeded Chávez and won the elections by a very narrow margin: less than one percentage point. Radicalizing a process in conditions such as these, of near parity, was utter nonsense.
In the midst of economic adjustment and external indebtedness, Maduro took unpopular measures. The opposition, whose democratic credentials are far from immaculate, went over his head. The streets became the territory for the dispute.
Maduro was miserably defeated at the 2015 legislative elections. The opposition gave him six months to pack his bags. The president decreed an economic emergency and then the Electoral Council prevented a recall referendum. Straight away, the Supreme Court of Justice declared that Parliament was in contempt.
When the political confrontation moved to the public space again, scoring many more casualties, a Constituent Assembly was called to act as a counterweight to the legislative body. Negotiations to find a negotiated solution never came to fruition, both parties reproaching each other for the successive failures.
Supported by historical, sentimental voters, Maduro was re-elected in 2018 under conditions of undeniable advantage. He ran against token candidates. Some of the leading opposition leaders were banished and others called for abstention, so that his new term could only portend greater setbacks.
This is how we reached the current ruinous present, a situation that just cannot go on any longer. Disaffection at what is left of Chavismo is now not only a phenomenon of the middle class and of some of historical figures who have severed their ties with the "worker-president". It has now reached the popular sectors.
Maduro still counts on a social base, but it is hard to know how thin a line separates support, with its compensations, from simulation and fatigue. The forthcoming decisive hours will reveal it.
This also applies to the military front. Augusto Pinochet proclaimed his adhesion to Allende hours before the coup of September 11, 1973. We know what happened later: he was the cruellest of converts.
Finally, at this point, the Venezuelan conflict has ceased to be a domestic-only issue and has become a piece of the Trump administration in the board of its disputes with China and Russia for unrelated reasons.
There is something Maduro is right about: Venezuela is part of a higher objective for the most illiberal sectors in the US who are seeking to completely redesign the region politically.
There is something Maduro is right about: in addition to its oil, gas and gold, Venezuela is part of a higher objective for the most illiberal sectors in the US who are seeking to completely redesign the region politically. This means Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua as the next steps.
Elliot Abrams' comeback in Washington's conspiratorial vanguard embodies these wishes. From his proven hawkish hand in events in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras in the 1980s, we can deduce what the outcome of the conflict is likely to be and what shape the future could take.
Will it resemble 1989 Communist Germany or Romania? Will we see the rubble of Iraq and Syria? None of the possible criticisms that can be levelled against Madurism, from its authoritarianism and its cult of uniforms to its dubious transparency, justifies a violent solution to this historical disjunctive.
Unfortunately, at this point in time, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than to find a negotiated solution.
Get our weekly email