On 27th February 1989 in Venezuela, there happened the event that perhaps marked the beginning of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. The ‘Caracazo’, so named because it combines ‘Caracas’, Venezuela’s Capital City, with -azo, Venezuelan for ‘blow’, or ‘magnitude’, was a riot which broke out due to the recent IMF restrictions put on Venezuela, negotiated through then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez. It brought the country to the verge of civil war through heavy curtailing of social spending and price controls, which inevitably affected the country’s poor. Three years later, in 1992, a coup d’etat was staged by a man named Hugo Chavez. It failed. However, through a series of shrewd decisions, including managing to convince state guards not to execute him, and then convincing them let him apologize on air to the nation in military outfit – not, as had happened with more than one would-be revolutionary, the attire of a jailbird- he became a darling to Venezuela’s poor; a man from the barrios working towards their prosperity.
On December 6th 1998, he was democratically elected as Venezuela’s President. Hugo Chavez has been called many things, most notably by the Bush Administration. He has been considered a terrorist, an idiot, a socialist, a communist and a dictator. Some of them, arguably, are true, though none could ever suggest he was an idiot, and no evidence exists that he held communist sympathies, nor was he any more of a dictator, or indeed a terrorist, than his counterparts North of the border; Clinton and Bush Jr.
When Chavez died in March, Venezuela had an extra 1.2 million people able to read, it had better doctors, a better educational infrastructure and had broken the system that had existed in Venezuela since 1958 in which the centre-right, neo-liberal consensus had run the country’s government and its media and pretended to have a multilateral debate. In essence, as with the United States and many European countries, the debate was one which allowed those not in power to speak, but hardly ever listened.
So when a new President is decided on April 14th it will undoubtedly be the most crucial day in Venezuelan history since the 1998 election, since it will decide whether the last two decades were indeed the story of the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution, or just the story of Hugo Chavez. The recent story of Chavistas (Chavez-supporters) brutally attacking Bolivian Reporters at a Chavez rally was a prime example of the horrendous violence that still plagues the country, and though it is in no way mitigated it could be better understood through the fact that these people thought the reporters were from an anti-Chavez news channel. All anti-Chavez news channels, especially Globovision; the station from which the attackers believed the reporters were from, all expended countless energies during Chavez’ Presidency to oust him in ways that even the Fox Network could not get away with. The tragedy of Venezuela is that, through empowering the poor, Chavez has left Venezuela a far more volatile country than it was when he came to power.
The United Socialist Party of Venezuela’s candidate and Chavez’ named successor as interim President, Nicolás Maduro, has already declared his Bolivarian credentials. He talks like Chavez and has declared that he will continue his mission, but he faces a fractured coalition which now has no one to guide it as it had done. He is also notably anti-pragmatic. Yet the former bus driver and Union organiser has declared that he has the support of those who profited under Chavez’ Government – which includes both the rural and urban poor and those who profited from lucrative oil and business deals. What is more, the Venezuelan economy grew by 5.5% in 2012, and is predicted to grow at 6% this year. He does not have to worry too much about defending his predecessor’s record.
His opponent, however, is not lying down. Henrique Capriles Radonski, who ran against Chavez in 2012, has already turned heads by using Chavez’ famous rhetoric against his successor, notably referring to Maduro as ‘kid’. But his credentials speak of the old ruling elite of Venezuela; his father a wealthy businessman who brought Kraft Foods to Venezuela in the 50s, himself a trained lawyer, first in Venezeula, then in Amsterdam, Italy, and Columbia University in New York. Well known as a jet setter – though Chavez himself was notable during his Presidency for his ‘world tour’ -style of diplomacy, particularly with other South American and OPEC nations – Radonski is undoubtedly a candidate of those who have felt snubbed during Chavez’ years in power – and no doubt look to reclaim their nation.
This election’s gravity comes from the fact that it is one of a handful of those types of elections: ones that will undoubtedly change the game either way. Maduro is predicted a comfortable win, but it is telling that scepticism does not come from his prospects of winning the election but of staying on firm ground if he gets in. Diosdado Cabello’s failure to be named successor by Chavez, a shock to some, means that if Maduro wins he might struggle to create strong links with the armed forces with whom Cabello is influential – which could be disastrous for the country. Chavistas might argue that they want to see the continuation of the Bolivarian Revolution, but if what they truly want is a continuation of Hugo Chavez, that is impossible, and his supporters should be prepared for that.
Image Credit: Agencia Brasil, Victor Soares:ABr