One year ago, Venezuela was appointing its new president Nicolas Maduro, as a result of a narrow (and contested) victory from the elections which followed the death of President Hugo. Ahead of those elections, I voiced on this same blog the open questions that were ahead for the new Venezuelan government, along with my hopes that such government would not spend its energies in the impossible reiteration of Chavez’s myth and rather, face the tough complex challenges of the present.
Regrettably, my hopes were contradicted by reality, as the open questions on violence, economy and regional integration found only negative answers. Violence and crime are thriving across the country (e.g. 23763 murders in 2013), corruption and black market, for energy and food in particular, are expanding at the expense of legal activities. Economically, Venezuela suffers the highest rate of inflation on the continent (close to 57% according to the International Monetary Fund), the hyper-devaluation of the bolivar against the dollar is at -44%, oil production continues to fall and imports reached 80% of products for domestic consumption. In the region, the platform that previously was the ideal forum to pursue economic and political integration, UNASUR, is now called upon, together with the Vatican, to mediate between the opposition and the Government.
Protests started in early February and have led, so far, to about 41 deaths, 650 injured, as well as more than 2,000 people detained, of which more than 170 are still behind bars (Reuters). The country seems split in half, but the two opponents are all but homogeneous. Maduro, while continuing to present himself as the “son” of Chavez, is losing support even among the poorest layer of society that had formed the heart of the Chavez revolution. The government’s opponents, led by the leader Leopoldo Lopez who is now in jail, are split among those that call for protests to continue, hoping that this will force Maduro to resign.
Last Tuesday, Maduro led the government team at preliminary talks with the main opposition group, MDU (Mesa Unidad Democratica, Unity Democratic Roundtable) and the first of a cycle of meetings will take place this Thursday, again with the mediation of representatives of the Vatican as well as the South American regional bloc UNASUR. The crime epidemic and economic troubles are the main focus of the talks. Both sides welcome the start of dialogue. However, while the opposition advances requests, such as the release of jailed protest leader Leopoldo Lopez and dozens of imprisoned students, Maduro made clear his unwillingness to negotiate any deal.
If the dialogue is a very much hoped development, the words of Maduro after the talks, “neither will we try and convert them to Bolivarian socialism nor will they convert us to capitalism” are, in my eyes, a worrying sign. One year after, the new Venezuelan government seems still unable to resist the rhetoric of good v bad, socialism v capitalism, or people v empire. But now that the US no longer plays the ideal role of opposing such rhetoric, and now that the Venezuelans are more fragmented than ever, the government should give up the attempt to refurbish Chavez mythology, get in line with the current (hard) times and learn from some of the visions of those students that have led the pacific streams of demonstrations. The country’s political instability is intricate, linked to structural problems and, as such, risks endure. The populist narrative is too simplistic to help to solve Venezuela’s troubles and break the vicious circles of unrest, violence or economic disaster. Hopefully, in one year time, another article will be able to recount more positive answers for Venezuela.