It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. Venezuela was going to be a workers’ paradise. President Hugo Chávez said so and declared early into his first term, in 1999, that Venezuela and Cuba would sail toward the same “sea of happiness.” Not surprisingly, Venezuela is now a workers’ hell. Authoritarian and dysfunctional, the oil-rich yet impoverished South American nation of 31 million people suffers dire food shortages; soaring levels of violent crime (28,479 deaths reported last year); and epic levels of corruption and drug trafficking. Unemployment is soaring – not surprising given that large swaths of the economy have been nationalized. Venezuela’s court-ordered seizure of a General Motors plant is the latest such calamity.
Now Venezuelans are venting their anger like never before, and this includes protesters who were once the bedrock of Chávez’s political base – the poor. In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Venezuelans have staged massive anti-government protests that turned streets and highways into seas of humanity. Security forces and armed pro-government militias – _Chavista_ enforcers riding motorcycles – have met the protesters with force: rubber bullets, tear gas, and deadly gunfire. More than 30 people have died and hundreds injured and arrested. Protesters are demanding fresh elections and the restoration of an independent parliament. Human rights watchdogs and neighboring countries are voicing concern over the unfolding crisis.
The protests are aimed at President Nicolás Maduro, the bus driver-turned politician who succeeded the late Hugo Chávez. Maduro has double downed on Chávez’s policies. Now he embodies all the traits of a dictator in an oil-producing country whose coffers hit rock bottom as oil prices tanked. Venezuela produces little for itself. It is dependent on oil. Petrodollars, however, can no longer pay for Venezuela’s traditional style of governance: statism and bread-and-circuses populism. Maduro, for his part, blames the chaos on an “economic war” being waged against him by Washington and Venezuelan elites.
Besides massive protests, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding as thousands of refugees from Venezuela flood into neighboring Brazil on a quest for food and medical care now unavailable to ordinary Venezuelans thanks to shortages created by Venezuela-style socialism. Yet amid the chaos, well-connected Venezuelans and officials are getting rich thanks to epic levels of corruption and drug trafficking. Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s vice president, is accused by U.S. authorities of being a drug “kingpin.”
Portents of the coming chaos were obvious (or should have been) months into Chávez’s first term 18 years ago, even if Washington turned a blind eye to it. First came Chávez’s words, his anti-Americanism and leftist rhetoric – words that some in the Clinton administration naively believed were mere bluster. They wanted to believe Chávez was a democratic reformer who would take on Venezuela’s endemic statism and corruption. But then came Chávez’s actions.
Once in office the former Army lieutenant colonel, who had led a disorganized and aborted coup in 1992, surprised many voters who had elected him in a landslide. They had believed his campaign pledge – that he was a moderate anti-establishment reformer who would steer a “Third Way” between capitalism and socialism.
“I am not a socialist,” Chávez told reporters.
Yet months into office, Chávez betrayed that promise. He began to describe himself as a “revolutionary” in the mold of 1960s-era Marxist guerrillas, some of whom ended up in his administration. Believing that U.S. hegemony is bad for the world, he sought to develop a military and economic alliance to balance that influence. Chávez’s anti-American tirades became increasingly apparent as he consolidated his power, rewrote the constitution, and even renamed the country Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, after South American independence hero Simón Bolívar. Until Chávez anti-Americanism had been a mere sideshow in a nation which enjoyed friendly ties with the U.S., its biggest oil customer.
Clinton-era wishful thinking
The Clinton administration was caught off guard by Chávez’s anti-Americanism months into his presidency and missed chances to contain the growing storm in a country with the biggest oil reserves outside the Middle East – oil that Chávez vowed to use as a “political weapon.” This strategy utilized sweetheart oil deals to spread his leftist and anti-American ideological agenda. This anti-American program even extended to the U.S. where CITGO Petroleum Corporation, the Houston-based arm of Venezuela’s state oil company, provided free home-heating oil to poor Americans in a program run by former U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II. Chávez could afford to do all this thanks to high oil prices. They soared during his first term after he convinced fellow OPEC members to close ranks and reduce oil production.
Washington’s point man in Caracas at the time, U.S. Ambassador John Maisto, put the best face on Chávez’s hostility toward America and praise of Fidel Castro. “Watch what Chávez does, not what he says,” said Maisto, a career diplomat with an academic bent. Maisto peddled a soft-line approach on Chávez, viewing him as a late-blooming democratic reformer. The so-called “Maisto Doctrine” encapsulated Clinton-era wishful thinking about Chávez observed Paul Crespo, a military attaché in Caracas during Maisto’s tenure.
Chávez, meanwhile, was a man of his word. He quickly closed ranks with Cuba; sought alliances with Middle Eastern dictators; and expressed solidarity with imprisoned Venezuela-born terrorist “Carlos the Jackal.” In addition, he expressed veiled sympathy for Colombia’s Marxist narco-guerillas; it’s also likely that he clandestinely provided them material support. It was not until Chávez denounced the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as a “slaughter of innocents” that the Bush administration undertook a belated post-9⁄11 reassessment of Chávez and the soft-line “Maisto Doctrine” that astute observers had harshly criticized. Maisto was “a career diplomat strongly associated with the Democratic Party and Liberation Theology ideas,” wrote Heritage Foundation analyst John Sweeney in an essay, “Playing the Washington Blame Game.” “Maisto was always soft on Chávez like he was soft on Daniel Ortega during his stint as Ambassador to Nicaragua in the 1990s, before he was sent to Venezuela.” Whatever became of Maisto after departing Caracas? Incredibly, as Sweeney points out, Maisto “became the first senior appointee on Latin America in the Bush administration.”
Eventually, Chávez’s anti-Americanism had its intended effect – poisoning the positive view that millions of Venezuelans once had about the U.S. as Havana exerted an increasingly strong influence in Caracas and enjoyed Venezuela’s oil largesse.
To combat the growing anti-Americanism, the U.S. Embassy finally decided it must respond with a major publicity campaign. It sent a confidential cable on March 26, 2008: “Embassy Strategic Communications – Countering Chávez’ (sic) Anti-Americanism.” It stated: “The strategy’s goal is to counter the active and deliberate campaign by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (BRV) to instill in the population a negative perception of the US. and distort more than 100 years of close and mutually beneficial relations between our two countries. Regrettably, the BRV has had some success. From a pre-Chávez level of over 65% approval, today the positive image of the US has fallen to a historic low of 31% in Venezuela.”
But anti-Americanism may be waning as Venezuelans with empty stomachs realize Cuba and its over sized influence (with its many agents and advice coming from Havana) is the real enemy of Venezuelan democracy and prosperity. One thing is certain: the Trump administration has another crisis on its hands along with North Korea and Iran. As Venezuela descends into chaos, this may be an opportune time for the Trump administration to turn a crisis into an opportunity.