Last month's ceremonies in Venezuela to mark the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez's death were hardly as elaborate as the ruling regime would have liked. Equally, that Venezuelans were largely indifferent to celebrating the Comandante's life is hardly surprising, given that the system he created is on the verge of violent collapse.
For a time, these subsidies increased the purchasing power of the poor, yet the real beneficiaries were not the vulnerable, but a variety of interested parties who cozied up to Chavez out of self-interest.
In the period since Chavez died, Venezuelans have been subjected to the disputed election that brought Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor, to power. They have watched helplessly as their oil-rich economy has collapsed under the weight of corruption, mismanagement and runaway inflation. They have endured the demonization of thousands of pro-democracy protestors, whose basic human rights have been violated through brutal repression.
All this has happened since Chavez died, and yet in many ways, he continues to rule Venezuela from the grave. Maduro's constant references to Chavez, along with his apocalyptic warnings that the "Bolivarian revolution" is being fatally subverted, simply underline Chavez's pivotal role as the architect of the present system. Without Chavez's imprimatur, Maduro is nothing.
Hence, with growing numbers of Venezuelans disillusioned with the country's direction, the opposition now has an unprecedented opportunity to expose and reverse the narrative at the heart of chavismo. Breaking the myths that sustain the ruling regime is, I submit, the first step toward achieving national healing.
Here, then, is the first myth: that chavismo has reduced poverty. This deeply misleading idea has been pushed by influential figures in the west as well as the regime. It rests upon statistics that are published by international organizations who are reliant on the unreliable data passed to them by the government. The majority of the indicators come from benchmarks or thresholds gauged in U.S. dollars, and are calculated using a value for the Bolívar, Venezuela's national currency, which takes no account of the frequent currency devaluations.
It is far more accurate to say that Chavez plundered the country's wealth, through economic policies and subsidies that have proven unsustainable time and again. For a time, these subsidies increased the purchasing power of the poor, yet the real beneficiaries were not the vulnerable, but a variety of interested parties who cozied up to Chavez out of self-interest. The list includes the Cuban government, which keeps its own economy afloat on the basis of the $12 billion of free oil received from Venezuela every year, and the Chavista “nomenklatura” also known as the Boliburguesia – a word that contracts "Bolivarian" and "bourgeoisie" to denote those Venezuelans who have amassed fortunes thanks to their connections with the regime.
We hear a great deal about Chavez's "social missions" to relieve joblessness and illiteracy in poor urban neighborhoods, and about his institution of a minimum wage that reduced poverty. We hear less about how any temporary gains for the poor have been swept away by a rate of inflation that, at 56 percent, is the highest in Latin America, and rendered meaningless by an accumulated currency devaluation of 2,000 percent over 15 years, and of 100 percent in 2014 alone. Note, as well, that these calculations are based on the officially-controlled market rates for the U.S. dollar, which is one-sixth of the value of the dollar on the black market.
These days, the poor, like everyone else, spend fruitless hours searching for basic goods in shops, and even if they find the goods they need, they can't afford them: thanks to the devaluations of the last year, the minimum wage of $600 has been reduced to $270 – well below the $300 a month poverty line set by the World Bank. (At black market rates, by the way, that $270 becomes a pitiful $40.) As opposition leader Henrique Capriles pointed out, following the government's latest pitiful attempt to bridge the gap between official and black market exchange rates, "Venezuela becomes the country with the lowest minimum wage in Latin America after Cuba."
Indeed, according to CENDAS, a prestigious social research think tank linked to the labor unions, in Venezuela these days, a family household needs three monthly minimum wages to be able purchase the basket of basic nutritional goods. Looking at these figures, we come to the inescapable conclusion that chavismo was able to increase the spending power of the most vulnerable with unsustainable subsidies (particularly up to 2010), but that the economy is not ensuring equal opportunity and upward social mobility for the poor. Therefore, now that the regime has reached the limits of populism, it has failed to deliver on its fundamental promise to reduce poverty and promote equality.
This brings me to the second myth in the chavismo narrative: that the current demonstrations are nothing more than a temper tantrum on the part of rich, spoiled Venezuelans. Maduro desperately wants us to believe that the protests are restricted to wealthy eastern Caracas, while life continues as normal in the Chavista barrios in the west of the capital.
The opposite is true. As Eusebio Costa, one of the student leaders, has pointed out: "We know that in Caricuao, El Valle and all the poorer areas of the west of the city the people are tired of queues and that there is no food or medicine." Meanwhile, Father Alejandro Moreno, a resident of western Caracas, had this to say: "It is telling that nowhere in the poor areas have people come out in support of the government. In my own barrio, no one went out.” Nor can we rule out the “social control” and intimidation that the colectivos, the pro-government paramilitaries, exercise in the barrios of Caracas, much less forget the interior of the country where, in cities like San Cristobal and Valencia, the vast majority of residents actively support the pro-democracy movement while trying to eke out a living.
The claim that chavismo remains strong among the working class isn't based on solid evidence. The country was evenly split in the presidential election of 2013 as well as in the municipal elections of last December – a poll that saw the opposition gain control of 90 cities, among them Barinas, in Chavez's home state. By the same token, neither is the east of Caracas a monolith, since many members of the Chavista corrupt elite have moved to these districts in recent years.
The groundswell of support for the opposition – an achievement sustained at great cost, given that around 1,000 people have been detained and subjected to grotesque physical and psychological abuse – explodes the third great myth of Chavismo: that Chavez made Venezuela more free and more democratic. Again, the reality is the polar opposite. Independent media has been suffocated, with over a dozen opposition newspapers closing down because of government-engineered increases in the price of newsprint, and the once critical Globovision television station taken over by regime-friendly interests. Opposition leaders like Leopoldo Lopez remain in jail, while Maria Corina Machado, a vocal and eloquent opposition member of the National Assembly, has been stripped of her parliamentary immunity. Even Henrique Capriles, the head of the opposition MUD coalition and Governor of the State of Miranda, has been threatened with arrest on several occasions during the past year.
Is there a way out of this crisis? Venezuelans need an authentic national dialogue with the government and the opposition participating as equals – a far cry from Maduro's offer of talks while the National Guard and the paramilitary colectivos remain on the streets. For that to happen, the support of international organizations like the UN and the Organization of American States (OAS) is essential, especially as the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Elias Jaua, has been trying to persuade these bodies that there is no social unrest in the country.
The Maduro government doesn't want the truth to come out. In their heart of hearts, they know that the Chavista experiment is over – and with it, the myths that have sustained this regime for 15 years.