CARACAS, Venezuela — In his last televised message before dying of cancer, the late President Hugo Chávez told Venezuelans to elect Nicolás Maduro as his successor, pledging that left-wing policies aimed at reducing poverty would continue headed by the then Vice President.
That promise remains unfulfilled ten years later. Venezuelans find themselves in a country that has largely fallen apart as lavish public spending enabled by a historic oil boom has ended, democratic standards and respect for the right to free speech have further eroded, and economic liberalization measures have made the rich richer and the poor made poorer.
As the nation reflects on Chávez’s death a decade ago this month, Venezuelans now recognize that Maduro’s approach to governing the oil-rich South American country, whether by choice or circumstance, is different from that of his mentor, even though he repeatedly pays his respects to Chávez.
“Things are really bad,” said Ana García, a 37-year-old housewife, in Caracas on Sunday as she carried an image of Chávez at a memorial of his death. “The government rightly blames (economic) sanctions, but I’m sure Chávez would have found a way to help us; sometimes you feel that Maduro and the people around him are not doing enough.”
Chávez used a windfall of hundreds of billions of petrodollars to launch numerous initiatives, including state-run food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs.
But a global fall in oil prices and government mismanagement, first under his oversight and then under Maduro, pushed the country into the political, social and economic crisis that has marked the latter’s entire presidency.
Since then, more than 7 million Venezuelans have left the country as poverty skyrocketed, malnutrition became widespread, and opponents of the government were harassed and imprisoned.
The crisis also fueled a US government-backed opposition movement to overthrow Maduro. International pressure included economic sanctions against PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned energy company designed to keep the country’s oil out of some Western markets.
In response, Maduro has turned to policies such as the distribution of heavily subsidized food parcels through a nationwide network of ruling party neighborhood organizers, as well as the issuance of millions of so-called Fatherland Cards, which are used to access social programs and benefits. including bonuses. Opposition leaders and international observers accuse the government of using the two programs as a carrot and stick during elections.
According to human rights activists, Maduro has also cracked down on demonstrators and activists, ordering the arrest and torture of political opponents. After the opposition won control of the National Assembly, it bypassed the body altogether by establishing a parallel legislature with supreme authority over legislation. Anti-Maduro parties and politicians are not allowed to participate in elections.
Maduro has consistently denied there was any crisis at all, although he did eventually accept food aid from the United Nations.
The president printed more and more bolívars, the country’s currency. This caused inflation to soar, a problem he tackled twice by removing several zeros from the bolívar, introducing new bills and renaming the currency. Maduro instituted price controls and then partially lifted them. As the US dollar proliferated as the de facto currency in the country, the president first denounced it only to later embrace it as an “escape valve.”
“We have a more personalistic regime that revolves more around Maduro and the (ruling party’s) survival than any kind of Chavista ideas,” said Ryan Berg, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington DC. based think tank. “With Chavisme, you had almost state control over pretty much most industries, but there’s no more spending like that.”
Today, about three-quarters of Venezuelans live on less than $1.90 a day, the international benchmark for extreme poverty. The minimum wage paid in bolivars is the equivalent of $5 per month, down from $30 in April.
Millions of teachers, professors and public servants earn minimum wage plus bonuses, often using outside activities or remittances from relatives abroad to make ends meet. Others, such as older retirees, depend entirely on their pension, which is equivalent to the minimum wage, and the occasional supplement.
“People support him for different reasons,” Berg said. “Some are quite dependent on the government, and if it weren’t for the government, you could say they would probably have less food, even if it’s of very questionable quality.” He added that the government is also using fear, propaganda and disinformation to maintain control.
The pool of support for Maduro is not endless, and as the crisis continues, even longtime supporters of Venezuela’s ruling United Socialist Party are questioning him.
“The government … needs to do things better,” García said at the memorial. “We miss Chavez.”
Widespread, severe food shortages, which led people to travel hundreds of miles to buy groceries or fight over a sack of flour, have given way to fully stocked supermarkets and import goods stores. But rising food prices – rising 30% in August alone – coupled with meager wages and an unstable exchange rate are leaving millions of people hungry.
Likewise, what were once days-long lines for gasoline are gone, but fewer stations now sell subsidized fuel and more prices in the marketplace.
According to the United Nations, the government has recently touted an economic upswing: 12% growth in 2022 and 6.5% for this year.
But that recovery still leaves Venezuela well behind where it was after its economy contracted by 80% between 2014 and 2020. And very few people, mainly a small group in the capital, benefit from it.
Today, signs of a capitalist playground are everywhere in Caracas: long-empty storefronts have been transformed into Instagram-made coffee shops, upscale clothing stores and upscale restaurants where customers arrive with armed bodyguards.
Many of them belong to a nouveau riche class of individuals who took advantage of political connections with the powerful elite and gained access to lucrative opportunities – contrary to Chávez’s claim that “being rich is bad”.
Meanwhile, socialist propaganda, once omnipresent, is also disappearing. Advertisements for shops, plastic surgeons and top concerts have replaced images of Chávez on billboards. Some of his once colorful murals are fading.
After Chávez died on March 5, 2013, Maduro became interim president and was narrowly elected a few months later. He was re-elected to a six-year term in 2018 in an election process that has been widely criticized as fraudulent and which the opposition and numerous foreign governments have refused to recognise. By law, the next election is due in 2024.
Opposition factions, struggling to regain support after public rows and repeated disappointments, plan to hold a primary in October. But no matter who lands on next year’s ballot, voters want economic relief.
“Right now, in 2023, Maduro has a Venezuelan society that is essentially focused on surviving and taking advantage of the economic opportunities that arise,” said Daniel Varnagy, a political scientist at Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar University.