Fear and Loathing in Caracas

In Caracas, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has continued pursuing Hugo Chavez’s policy program and confrontational management style.

caracas-maduro-chavezDespite the hopes that the Venezuelan polity would become less polarized and more pluralist in the wake of late President Hugo Chavez’s death on March 5, the facts on the ground have subsequently proven otherwise in the first six months following the executive succession.

If anything, Venezuela under Nicolas Maduro has witnessed an escalation of commitment to the late leader’s policy program and confrontational management style.

Seemingly determined to maintain his predecessor’s exorbitant levels of public spending, the Caracas government was recently forced to solicit a massive loan from the preferred international lender of last resort, not the much maligned IMF rather China, which has effectively kept the national economy in the black for the short-term at the expense of substantial oil futures.

Meanwhile, the continued dependence on strict monetary controls to prevent capital flight has culminated in high inflation and a shortage of foreign currency available to importers creating widespread shortages in basic goods such as cooking oil, flour, and toilet paper, not to mention a black market currency valuation that is now seven times the official rate.

While President Maduro has continued to heavily subsidize social programs for the country’s working class majority (arguably the greatest success of chavismo), there are other recipients who clearly do not warrant such substantial investment from Caracas. Specifically, this includes the bloated armed forces – yet their influence within the ruling party is possibly greater than that of the executive himself.

The subsequent lack of investment in vital infrastructure has led to reduced economic productivity, industrial accidents like last year’s calamitous explosion at the Amuay refinery, and recurring electrical blackouts which have recently paralyzed almost the entire country.

In the face of such mounting domestic challenges, on October 9 the Venezuelan National Assembly requested an enabling law which would allow President Maduro to rule by decree for an indefinite period to resolve these various crises, a tactic employed by his predecessor some four times during his tenure in power.

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Predictably, this request followed months of increased tension between the ruling party PSUV, the domestic opposition, and the United States.

As a matter of fact, the government in Caracas has made more public accusations of destabilization attempts by domestic and foreign adversaries in the last couple of months than at any other time except September 2008, exhibiting a tendency to blame others for an increasingly precarious domestic situation.

Shortages are blamed on black market hoarders and private industry, while industrial accidents and electricity shortages are the result of “sabotage“committed by the opposition and the United States.

Recent Vice President of the Economy Nelson Merentes, widely perceived as the most capable and objective of Chavez’s former cabinet ministers, was demoted from his post on the same day the legislature proposed the enabling law, ostensibly because he recently acknowledged that structural economic problems had not satisfactorily been resolved over the previous decade and a half.

Ironically, Hugo Chavez first gained popularity after a failed coup attempt in 1992 in which he, unlike any other contemporary public figure, accepted full responsibility for his mistakes, marking the beginning of a political career which was characterized by fanatical devotion.

Nicolas Maduro by contrast lacks either the charisma or widespread loyalty that permitted his predecessor to convincingly deflect the blame onto others and is clearly finding it difficult to convince supporters that his administration is not culpable for the current state of the nation. It is only a matter of time before this catches up to his party at the ballot box.

Charles Larratt-Smith is a PhD student in the Political Science department at the University of Toronto and he focuses on Latin American affairs. He holds a BA in Latin American studies from Brooklyn College-CUNY and an MA in International Relations from the City College of New York-CUNY. He recently served as a Guest Professor at the Universidad de Los Andes in Mérida, Venezuela for the 2011-2012 academic year. His interests include alliance formation, foreign policy, and security issues. Read other articles by Charles.

  • TainoImage

    Very interesting article. Seems as if the country is setting itself up for dictatorial rule. As much as I disliked Chavez’ antics, I’ve always acknowledged that his feet were well planted on the ground as opposed to Maduro who seems to want to rise above the populous. Another Latin American calamity in the making. That sad part is that even if there’s a coup, he status quo will remain (remember Argentina.)