by Daniel Cristini
Author’s Note: I have tried to include as many references in English as I could for Venezuela’s pertinent historical events. Unavoidably, some of them are in Spanish. The Wikipedia entries seem impartial enough. I avoided those in dispute and instead used references from major news media outlets. These references are embedded as links in relevant parts of the article and also listed at the end.
This article is in response to “How Totalitarianism Rhymes Throughout History: Czechoslovakia, China, & Venezuela” published in The Havok Journal on May 24, 2021. That article provided examples of how Communists took over national governments and installed authoritarian regimes. That article examines three cases: The takeover of Czechoslovakia by USSR-backed Communists in 1948. The so-called “Cultural Revolution” instigated by Mao Zedong in China in 1966 and the gradual takeover by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela from 1998 onward.
I am Venezuelan and have lived in Venezuela all of my life and take issue with what was presented in that article. The article suggests that Chavez’s gradual takeover was helped by extensively misleading the public and by systemic election fraud. While I agree in part that Chavez and his clique misled
the general public, it was nowhere near as simple as the article claimed. As for election fraud, I strongly disagree. Up until 2015, Chavistas didn’t cheat at elections. Not because they suddenly turned autocratic, but because they simply didn’t need to. In fact, I think that they were helped by a set of circumstances that are uniquely Latin American and by a lot of luck. Most of it is in the form of an
unwitting, incompetent opposition.
In order to understand how this came to be, it’s important to know a bit about the history and culture of Latin America. The entire region, since the early 20th century, has been receptive to left-wing ideologies. There are two reasons for this:
- Latin American societies tend to be feudal in nature. In societies like these, for obvious reasons, left-wing policies are popular. Even communism easily sells its empty promises of a “Classless Society” and “Wealth Re-Distribution.” After all, they sound better than the alternative. A good example of this is Socialized Medicine: Publicly funded health care exists in Venezuela since the mid-30s. And it was set in place by a right-wing military government.
- Throughout the region, our culture has shown quite a bit of tolerance for authoritarian figures. There is a reason why the word “Caudillo” has been traditionally associated with Latin American warlords. In the case of Venezuela, the country weathered numerous civil wars throughout most of the 19th Century. The last Caudillo we had, simply eliminated all the others and installed a military dictatorship that lasted 27 years.
Communism started to gain acceptance in Venezuela, like in most western countries, in the 1930s (Nothing like a good recession to bring the communists out of the woodwork). Originally, the military governments of the times outlawed and repressed the communists. Despite that, they were not successful in stamping out communism, they tried blunting its appeal by gradually loosening control over political activities and enacting policies like the aforementioned public health care. All of which were funded by oil revenues the country received at the time.
Even so, those military governments eventually gave way to a directly elected center-left government in 1945 due to a popular uprising. It didn’t last long. The military staged a coup in 1952 and took over. This government expanded those policies but, at the same time repressed communists as much as it could until another uprising toppled that government in 1958. From then on to 1998 we had a string of quasi-representative, directly elected center-left governments that expanded those policies. Communists tried to start a civil war in the 60s just like they did in most countries throughout the region. But, they were beaten back by those same Center-Left governments.
Yet, despite their defeat, communists were quite common. Venezuela had since at least the end of WWII welcomed immigration from all over the world. First from European nations and later from all over Latin America. Particularly, people fleeing authoritarian governments in the region. Many of them were Communists. How common are they? In this country, it’s not unusual to find people who have given names such as “Lenin” or “Stalin”. Furthermore, several ex-guerrilla leaders entered politics after they were released from jail.
Obviously, a comprehensive rundown of our modern History is well beyond the scope of this article. However, it’s important to understand the context and background of the events that led to the Chavistas gaining power in order to understand how their Communist agenda came to fruition. So, I’ll try to compress the history of my country from 1973 to 1998 as much as possible while trying to
make note of the relevant events that led to Chavismo.
The oil embargo to Western Countries instigated by Saudi Arabia quadruples the price of oil.
Carlos Andres Perez of the Social Democrat-leaning “Accion Democratica” Party is elected President of Venezuela. He immediately activates an “enabling law” to bypass Congress and increases government spending to levels never seen before. Government intervention of the economy, which started rather timidly by the last three governments, increases significantly. In the form of direct subsidies for different goods, the establishment of government
The Perez government nationalizes Oil and Iron extraction in quick succession.
The so-called “Oil Glut” causes a collapse in the price of oil.
February 18 (which we call “Black Friday“) The government, just like other governments in the region, facing a foreign debt crisis not seen in almost a century imposes strict foreign exchange controls trying to stop capital flight from the country and increases control of the economy even further.
Carlos Andres Perez is re-elected president after being out of power for 10 years. He quickly starts negotiations with the International Money Fund and the International Banking System to settle the Foreign Debt outstanding since 1983.
February 27. After Perez starts enacting a set of sweeping IMF mandated economic reforms, the country is shocked by a popular uprising known as “El Caracazo“
February 4. A faction of the Venezuelan Armed Forces attempts a Coup d’Etat. The attempt fails when Hugo Chavez fails to capture Perez and secure Caracas.
November 27. A second coup attempt fails. Several high-ranking officers, including an Air Force General, flee the country.
Carlos Andres Perez is impeached and convicted under charges of corruption. Ramon Jose Velazquez is named Caretaker President to finish Perez’s term.
Rafael Caldera is elected President. He had broken with the political party he had founded (COPEI, which modeled its ideology around Italian Social Christianism) and formed a coalition of several smaller parties.
Chavez is released from prison and enters politics.
Hugo Chavez is elected President of Venezuela.
The center-left governments that led the country from 1958 onward continued the policy of using oil revenues to finance public infrastructure. Thanks to those revenues, and through reasonable public spending, the Venezuelan economy had been rock stable since the 1930s. However, this stability hid the fact that the bulk of the population of the country was cut off from the economy. The right-wing military dictatorships of the 40s and 50s and the center-left governments afterward, subsidized the economy with two ends in mind: Creating a middle class that would support a consumer-led economy like that of first world countries, and blunt the appeal of communism in the country. They failed, obviously.
Venezuela’s economy remained in what economists the “Middle Income Trap.” Public spending rose dramatically after 1973. Simply put, the government didn’t know what to do with the expanded income the country received. So, the government-subsidized the economy even further, embarked on several expensive infrastructure programs that mostly failed, and borrowed heavily from the international banking system.
The short-term effect was of course chronic inflation. Something not seen in the country in several decades. I distinctly remember television programs from those days where economists actually had to explain what inflation was. The long-term effects were much worse.
The situation was unsustainable. The price of oil collapsed in 1981. Despite this, the government at the time, unwilling to weather the political cost, refused to act. Furthermore, it hid from the public the fact that the country was heavily in debt. The debt was quickly becoming insurmountable because of rising interest rates in the U.S. This led to the crisis of 1983 when Venezuela, for the first time in seven decades, defaulted on its foreign debt, and the price of the U.S. Dollar rose for the first time since 1961.
The gross mismanagement of the economy became apparent. It was obvious that despite several decades of public investment, the economy was still overly dependent on oil exports, and, even worse,
the country was a net importer of virtually everything, including food. Even more fearful of the consequences, the government’s answer was to further manipulate the economy through exchange and consumer price controls.
By 1989 it was obvious that the economy was heading towards complete collapse. Unable to find any other source of financing, the incoming government resorted to making a deal with the International Money Fund. The IMF demanded broad changes to the economy: Privatization of state-owned companies and industries, elimination of direct and indirect subsidies, removal of price controls, and general deregulation. Including allowing foreign companies to exploit the mineral resources of
the country. Oil was included of course. Amazingly enough, the IMF also demanded that the government raise taxes and curtail the endemic tax evasion problems that had plagued Venezuela since the 70s.
Since the government had resisted taking those measures for close to a decade, the resulting economic shock was pronounced. Perez had said at the beginning of his second term that if these policies caused inflation to reach 80% that year that he would leave the country. Inflation reached at least 81% that year.
The direct consequence of the new policies was a popular uprising against Perez and the traditional parties. Economic instability had finally turned into political turbulence. During his election campaign, Perez strongly implied that he’d bring back the “good times” from the 1970s. He never admitted that the current economic turmoil was the result of the incompetent economic policies that started during his
Policies that were continued by subsequent administrations and had bankrupted the country. furthermore, his campaign as well as the two administrations that followed his own had misled the country about the extent of the damage to the country’s economy. Therefore, once he started his second term and implemented the policies required by the deal made with the IMF, the response
was extensive rioting that required heavy-handed police response and martial law for several days. This was something unseen since the late 50s. These events shattered the credibility of the political elites; to the point that Chavez’s first coup attempt in 1992 was received (to the horror of the “establishment”) with muted approval by the public.
Despite that this coup attempt and the second one in November 1992 had both failed, the political system put in place in 1961 began to fall apart. Although they were just as guilty as he was for the mismanagement and generalized corruption that led to the economic and political failures that destroyed the status quo, political elites pinned the blame on Perez. He was impeached and later convicted of corruption.
A caretaker government was set up to finish Perez’s term and the last member of the old political elites managed to get elected in 1995. He had saved some face by stating publicly that although he condemned the coup attempts, he understood the reason for them. He also dismissed the criminal charges against Chavez and his acolytes allowing the latter to participate in politics. Ironically,
he was one of the more moderate left-wing politicians in the country (relatively speaking).
The events that started in 1973 led to Chavez being elected. Due to their inability to solve the economic quagmire caused by the drop in the price of oil, traditional parties had lost all credibility. Chavez presented himself as a “Non-Politician” and as a “Problem Solver”. Since the country had been led by Left-Wing governments since 1961, his ideology wasn’t seen as a liability, although he was seen with suspicion since several hard left-wing parties supported him. To allay those suspicions, he also presented himself as a “Third Way” candidate.
After he was elected, he of course started to gradually implement his agenda. Despite the fact that as time passed, it was obvious that he leaned further left than the traditional politicians that had led this country before, he remained very popular and he used that popularity to further push said agenda. However, he was greatly helped by both circumstances and a string of stunningly bad decisions taken
by the opposition. This allowed Chavez to further his agenda much faster than he and his acolytes could have dreamed.
From the moment Chavez was elected. He faced opposition from the remains of the two traditional political parties. However, Chavez’s popularity was high enough that he could dismiss the threat. The opposition had credibility problems even before it started and their unforgivable incompetence just made those problems bigger. In the meantime, to Chavez’s good fortune, by 1998, the International Oil Market was booming again. So he also had the financial means to subsidize the economy just like the governments from earlier times.
Chavez managed to have an “enabling law” passed that allowed him to bypass Congress and issue executive orders regarding economic matters. In the meantime, he managed to win a referendum to rewrite the Constitution. This Constitution was approved in a subsequent referendum and he was re-elected in the elections that took place immediately after the approval of the rewritten Constitution.
As mentioned in “How Totalitarianism Rhymes Throughout History: Czechoslovakia, China, & Venezuela,” the Constitution of 2000 was a 300 plus article hack job. And it did allow for two consecutive presidential terms. Something that at least at face value didn’t seem alarming. While the 1961 Constitution was considered to be a rushed document due to the urgency of establishing a constitutional government after the military dictatorship had fallen, this one was basically a catalog of good wishes, trying to cover literally everything. The referendum was marred by extreme polarization and there was an avalanche of technical problems. However, unlike what was claimed in that article, the Carter Center was monitoring the entire process during the year 2000 and concluded that while the electoral process was flawed, there was no evidence of systemic fraud.
After the 2000 election, the opposition grew increasingly desperate. Chavez was implementing his communist agenda to popular acclaim and he seemed unstoppable. He and his party then started pushing for several radical policies that included land redistribution. When Chavez took advantage of the enabling law that allowed him to pass legislation without the National Assembly, most of the economic elites turned against him. This was also supported by most trade unions and even the Catholic Church. So, the opposition called for mass protests and labor strikes to show that Chavez’s policies were not being well received by the bulk of the country and to force him to resign. This led to the first major mistake made by the opposition.
During a demonstration in April 2002, 19 people (both protesters and Chavez supporters) were killed and several hundred were wounded in a shootout started by parties unknown. Although several police officers were sentenced to prison afterward, it was believed, but never proven, that several Chavez supporters were involved in the shooting. This resulted in a crisis that led to Chavez being ousted by the Venezuelan military. The president of the national chamber of commerce, who had recently become one of the leading figures of the opposition was entrusted to form a government.
It was a disaster: the new “administration” dissolved the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, and the National Election Board. It revoked the authority of literally every elected official in the country and invalidated the Constitution. In their place, it set up a “Transition Government” with power concentrated in the executive branch. To anybody but the group that was involved in this, it looked like an amateurish power grab. This situation, plus the lack of international support and the backlash from Chavez’s supporters convinced the Military to reinstate Chavez.
Incredibly, The opposition had been caught off guard by the events. They had been protesting for months, trying to pressure Chavez to resign. Yet, they had nothing prepared to replace his government. This lack of preparation was the first major mistake made by the opposition.
Chavez on other hand learned his lesson well. He realized that to consolidate power, he needed the military’s absolute obedience. So, he started to purge members of the Armed Forces that would not support his agenda. For years there have been rumors that Cuban Intelligence keeps a close watch on the top brass and even the middle ranks of our military. After 2016, when the economic situation became dire, Chavez also put senior military officers in charge of several state-owned companies. At the same time, he noticed that he needed more control over the media. So by December 2004, the National Assembly approved a law that would allow him to do so.
The opposition persisted in calling for public demonstrations and labor strikes. In December 2002, it called for a general strike and this time it even managed to include Oil Industry workers. The strike lasted for about three months and failed miserably. Most of the economic actors joined the strike. However, again, the opposition didn’t seem to have a plan beyond removing Chavez. This lack of
preparation became evident in the weeks after the start of the strike.
The government, on the other hand, took advantage of the subsequent economic chaos to impose strict foreign exchange controls. This allowed them to further tighten their grip on the economy. Also, thousands of oil workers were fired and replaced with loyalists in the state-owned oil company (PDVSA).
The next mistake of the opposition was during a drive to a Recall Referendum held in 2004. Chavez won that referendum with 60% of the vote. The opposition claimed without proof that there had been massive election fraud. These allegations were refuted by international observers, including the Carter Center. The fact that they couldn’t provide any actual proof of fraud beyond some hand waving regarding statistical analysis, made the opposition lose most of its already low credibility.
The worst error, and also the one that was the last nail on the opposition’s coffin came during the National Assembly elections of 2005. These elections were also monitored by international observers. This time from the EU and the OAS. The opposition threatened to withdraw from the election because they were against the National Electoral Board’s use of fingerprint readers to identify voters before
they went to the booth. The Board agreed not to use the readers. Yet, four days before the elections, the most important opposition parties withdrew from it.
The gravity of this error cannot be overstated. By withdrawing from the election, the opposition not only gave complete control of the Assembly to the government, but it lost all of its credibility with the public and international observers. This election had one of the lowest turnouts in the history of Venezuela. Yet, there was no proof of fraud or any need for it. The opposition shot themselves in the foot. As Napoleon said: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
After this, Chavez and his group had gained complete control of the country. That allowed him to accelerate his agenda beyond their wildest dreams. In 2007 Chavez attempted to change the constitution. Among a lot of changes, he also pushed for removing presidential term limits. This attempt failed and marked the first election or referendum lost by Chavez. Of course, the government took advantage of this. Claiming that it showed that the electoral process was free of fraud.
By now, the opposition had lost all credibility, so Chavez had no further need for foreign election observers. Despite that, several of the elections afterward were informally observed by members of the European Parliament and the OAS. It was also during this time that Chavez started an international “Charm Offensive” aided by Communist sympathizers, mostly from First World countries. Despite that these days, Chavez’s so-called “Nice Revolution” has lost all its appeal, foreign Chavista sympathizers still try to whitewash the regime’s ugly reality.
The Great Recession of 2008 didn’t seem to affect the Venezuelan economy too hard at face value. However, the loss of oil revenue due to the recession meant that the level of public spending was unsustainable. However, Chavez’s popularity was based on said spending so, the government kept the course. This allowed him to set up and win a referendum in 2009 that removed term limits not only for the presidency but also for most elected public officials.
Chavez and his group had full control of all the levers of power in the country and he managed to do it without cheating on a single election. The economy continued to deteriorate, yet, Chavez remained popular. He managed to win the 2012 presidential election despite that he was dying from cancer. He died in March 2013.
Details of Chavez’s illness were never disclosed. Chavez himself claimed in July 2012 to be completely cured. This has led to rumors that he had died in December 2012 and that the government hid this fact until March. In any case, the gravity of his disease was hidden from the public. The government tried to spread the notion that Chavez had been somehow infected with Cancer by a foreign government.
After Chavez’s death, his Vice President: Nicolas Maduro took over. Before he died, Chavez stated that he’d like Maduro to take over. In April 2013 there was yet another election which Maduro barely won. The opposition didn’t really try to contest it. As it still had very little credibility.
As the economy further deteriorated, the government started to lose popular support. The level of public spending had become untenable. Chavez’s former minister of Economic Planning admitted in those days that a sizable amount of Venezuela’s foreign currency reserves were spent in Chavez’s last presidential campaign.
In 2014 there were massive student demonstrations that lasted several weeks until the government crushed them with the help of the police and the national guard. This led to international condemnation and the first U.S. sanctions slapped at individual members of Maduro’s regime.
In 2015, the economic situation of the country had become bad enough for the opposition to decisively win the National Assembly elections. These elections are considered to be the last elections free of fraud ever held in Venezuela. This win would mean that the opposition could demand a recall referendum on Maduro and reverse or even block most of his economic policies. Faced with this and not having anywhere the level of popularity Chavez enjoyed, the outgoing Assembly replaced most of the judges of the Supreme Court. This allowed Maduro to block most of the incoming Assembly’s laws and also block the recall referendum.
The turn to authoritarianism became much more evident after that. There were no elections held until 2017 and those held afterward have been considered fraudulent. The rest of the story is well known by now. After the highly criticized 2018 elections, Maduro clung to power and the first wide-ranging sanctions were placed against Venezuela.
In conclusion, while Chavez and his group had a long term agenda to turn the country Communist, on their own they could not have been so successful. They were helped greatly by the fact that Venezuela is a left leaning country, that the culture of my country has great tolerance for authoritarian figures, by favorable economic circumstances and by the incompetence of the opposition. The so-called “Commodities Boom” of the early 2000s also helped Chavez’s popularity considerably. And circumstances continue to help the Maduro regime.
The current Pandemic allows him to control dissidence without resorting to the heavy-handed tactics that he used both in 2014 and 2017. At the risk of being repetitive, I can’t stress enough how important it is to note that he was also greatly helped by the opposition’s inexcusable blunders. Considering the warm relationship Chavistas have with the Castro Regime in Cuba, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that the former received considerable advice how to deal with opposition both foreign and domestic from the latter.
Chavez and his group managed to actually present themselves as a lawful, representative government for decades while the opposition behaved like spoiled brats. Every time the opposition shot itself in the foot, the Chavistas were able to pick up the pieces and take advantage of the situation. Even now, that Venezuela is an international pariah, and that it has mostly become a liability for Russia and, particularly for China, Maduro can still gather foreign support from the regimes that rule Turkey and Iran.
Claiming that Chavez’s successful power grab was based on election fraud is not only false. It’s also a losing proposition. Just ask the Venezuelan opposition. To once again quote Napoleon: “The greatest general is he who makes the fewest mistakes.”
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on June 22, 2021.
© 2023 The Havok Journal