A mural of Nicolás Maduro and Hugo Chávez in Caracas. (AP)

A mural of Nicolás Maduro and Hugo Chávez in Caracas. (AP)

Deconstructing Chavismo: The Myth and the Reality

By Eric Farnsworth

After 20 years, Hugo Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro's project is exposed as less an ideology than a cold-blooded grab for lasting power and self-enrichment, writes AS/COA’s Eric Farnsworth.

On February 23, 2019, the world watched horrified as acrid smoke billowed from trailers attempting to bring medical and food aid across the Colombian border into Venezuela. The life-giving cargo was torched and left stranded by the Nicolás Maduro regime, which barricaded the bridges leading to Venezuela while daring anyone to breach them. Similar scenes played out on the Brazilian border. Rather than welcoming international aid, Maduro’s forces destroyed it. Fourteen people were reported killed and almost 300 wounded in an effort by Maduro to prevent his own countrymen from receiving desperately needed supplies to address a humanitarian crisis he himself created. 

It would be difficult to find a more perfect snapshot of the true nature of the de facto regime in Venezuela. But understanding and acknowledging the abject moral poverty of chavismo and the regime that claims its mantle is essential for anyone seeking Venezuela’s return to the democratic path.

I. The Original Chavismo Project

Twenty years after Hugo Chávez first took the presidential sash in 1999, circumstances were supposed to be different. According to Chávez, government decisions would be subject to the will of the people as determined by plebiscite. Direct democracy under the new 1999 Constitution would replace the decrepit, corrupt, deeply unfair political economy that Venezuela had previously endured. Rather than enriching a small, self-dealing elite, the nation’s vast oil wealth would be shared with the millions of underprivileged citizens in Venezuela’s highly unequal society who made do as best they could despite structural economic, political, social, and racial oppression. Rapacious foreigners, namely the United States but others too, would be expelled. People would become healthier, happier, and more prosperous. Venezuela would see a new egalitarian—even utopian—dawn, and would happily spread the benefits to others across the region and around the world. 

Chávez’s project, or chavismo, stood on several pillars: massive state spending from oil receipts, the popular mandate received from frequent elections contested on favorable terms, the unquestioned loyalty of the security forces, the incremental and intentional capture of heretofore independent institutions, and strategic and tactical advice from Havana based on Cuba’s own revolutionary best practices, including reorganizing domestic society and parrying Washington.

“People asked, if the nation was so rich, why were they and their families so poor?”

It was a deeply attractive, hopeful vision for millions who voted for Chávez en masse. Venezuela at the end of the twentieth century really was grossly unequal. Traditional elites were self-dealing and corrupt, trading the Miraflores palace among themselves and capturing the majority of economic rents for their families and confederates. They had access to better schooling, medical care, and housing than the majority of their fellow citizens. They went to work in glittering office towers in downtown Caracas, surrounded by one of the largest slums in Latin America, Petare, its shanties built one on top of the other literally clinging to the sides of the mountains surrounding the city. Racial discrimination reduced opportunities for a permanent underclass. 

As if to highlight disparities, the supersonic Concorde flew directly from Paris to Caracas, even though many Venezuelans found it difficult just to pay regularly for bus fare to get to work or school, this despite living in the nation sitting on the world’s largest proven reserves of oil. People asked, if the nation was so rich, why were they and their families so poor?

II. The Siren Song of Populist Authoritarianism

Chávez’s electoral timing was perfect. Shortly after he took office, the price of oil began to rise and rise and rise some more. Venezuela suddenly found itself with literally billions of unanticipated dollars to support lavish spending and politically motivated giveaways both at home and abroad. But it wasn’t just oil prices that fueled his popularity: China’s long march toward economic growth and development, along with its concomitant desire to lock in access to natural resources around the world, exploded at the turn of the century, mirroring Chávez’s own rise. The resulting bilateral partnership eventually brought more than an additional $60 billion to Chávez up front as loans against future oil deliveries. The country was awash in cash.

Of course, Beijing wasn’t Chávez’s only friend, or even his bestie. The late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who had long coveted Venezuela as an ally if not a tributary state, having previously sought to complicate or cremate Venezuelan democracy by repeated interventions over the years, actively courted Chávez and won over the new government. Cuban operatives were soon insinuated throughout Venezuelan society, including the military and intelligence services. Venezuela paid Cuba for this selfless act of solidarity with daily deliveries of thousands of barrels of free oil. Venezuela’s weak and discredited opposition also contributed, backhandedly, attempting a coup in 2002 that gave Chávez an excuse to purge enemies, consolidate power, and create in the minds of the Venezuelan people a permanent cast of villains to sneer at and blame.

“Washington was more concerned with unfettered access to Venezuelan crude than fettering crude Venezuelan antics.”

For its part, the United States, distracted by the events of September 11, 2001, pivoted completely to the war on terror—actual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—and then a global economic meltdown sparked by improper and dangerously unregulated practices on Wall Street. There was little appetite to enlarge a low-grade concern with Venezuela. Indeed, instability in the Middle East meant that Venezuelan oil remained strategically important, suggesting that Chávez would be given a wide berth. He took full advantage with stunning chutzpah. In a transparent effort to increase nationalist fervor and build political support, even as unabated U.S. purchases of oil at market rates underwrote his revolutionary project, Chávez brazenly accused Washington of plotting against him, claiming Venezuela was under immediate threat from “the empire.” As Washington was more concerned with unfettered access to Venezuelan crude than fettering crude Venezuelan antics, Chávez received only mild and ineffective pushback.

With immense new wealth, Chávez’s Venezuela threw itself the mother of all parties. Rather than create a sovereign wealth fund for a rainy day, invest meaningfully in its people, or diversify its unidimensional economy, current consumption substituted for longer-term structural reforms and investment. Millions of people benefitted as medical care, infrastructure, and wages initially improved, especially for those employed in Venezuela’s ballooning state sector and those at the bottom of the pyramid forming chavismo’s base. While the money flowed, popular support remained high. Chávez was able to hold—and win—repeated mandates under the favorable terms of the new Constitution with liberal distribution of state resources and under the watchful oversight of a loyal judicial and elections apparatus and even some international observers. And with each new election, and Cuban advisers lighting the way, he was able to take additional steps to solidify his hold on society. Unfortunately, little thought was given to the sustainability of such spending over time, or the structural reforms required to maintain any gains.

III. Socialism for the Twenty-First Century: Promise and Reality

Nonetheless, massive pro-cyclical spending underwrote a narrative of Chávez government success reducing poverty, creating jobs, and seeking social fairness. It was a seductive if completely artificial and misleading image: here, finally, was an oil-rich nation intentionally pursuing economic justice and personal dignity through socialism, replacing a capitalist model unmasked as a cynical scheme to enrich elites and their foreign enablers while oppressing the rest. Hollywood stars, some lavishly compensated for their solidarity, rushed to Caracas to take selfies with Chávez, produce hagiographies of this great leader, and proclaim the triumph of the revolution ushering in a vision of Socialism for the Twenty-First Century. He was cheered on by self-interested political allies, opportunistic international partners, and a global glitterati attracted to the revolutionary chic of this dramatic new personality who stood up to the existing order and proclaimed himself the natural descendent of no less than Simon Bolívar.

Over time, however, it became clear that Chávez’s ambitions included the purposeful, patient, and incremental state capture of independent institutions, and, where such was not possible, the establishment of parallel institutions led by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV, by its initials in Spanish) and designed to compete with pre-established entities. Its endgame was the complete reordering of Venezuelan society via a cult of personality. Socialism for the Twenty-First Century was not about enhanced political participation and economic justice after all. Rather, in manipulating those issues to gain public support, it was about capture of the state and its resources and implementation of an authoritarian vision by an individual with megalomaniacal tendencies and his acolytes and international supporters. Simultaneously, Chávez set his sights on reordering regional affairs and influencing international events. Ironically, he would use the legal electoral process and the allure of populism to achieve politically what he had been unable to do illegally as a failed coup leader in the early 1990s.

“Chávez took Venezuela from a vibrant if imperfect democratic ally of the West to a reliable friend of authoritarians seeking to undermine global democratic governance.”

The security and judicial apparatuses, traditionally independent, were top of mind. Through the artful use of carrots and sticks, under Cuba’s watchful eye, Chávez captured the military, paramilitary, and police forces and forced each one to bend to his wishes. Individual members were required to take a personal oath to Chávez not the nation or Constitution. Separate commands, rotations, and irregular enforcement squads and protective details shifted personal incentives and loyalties. Perhaps the most potent lure was access to unimaginable levels of corruption, which created a new class of Venezuelan elites and turned the country into a modern realization of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Likewise, judicial and electoral authorities including the Supreme Court were remade into mere organs of the party. The commanding heights of the economy were either expropriated or captured directly, such as bringing the Central Bank and the national energy company, known as PDVSA, under the control of the executive, or indirectly, by forcing companies to seek government favor to obtain foreign currency, licenses, and tax abeyance.

Individual’s eligibility for state employment, which became the primary jobs generator even as the private sector was being strangled out of existence, was conditioned on acts of loyalty. Access to food and medical care was used as leverage to bring a significant percentage of the population to heel. Education and information were brought under the direct control of the party which relentlessly promoted its preferred narratives, the regime even establishing and funding its own propaganda network, Telesur, while restricting non-state media. Social media became the one way to gather and spread information apart from the regime. Indeed, by the end of 2020, every preexisting political and economic institution had been brought under party control when the last remaining democratic body, the National Assembly, was captured by the regime during elections widely dismissed by the international community as fraudulent. Chávez had set in motion a program that intentionally used the democratic process to eliminate democratic practice in Venezuela.

“It will be the Venezuelan people who continue to suffer and die needlessly for the arrogance, inhumanity, and boundless greed of the Maduro regime.”

Likewise, Socialism for the Twenty-First Century was also conceived as an internationalist project. Chávez’s Venezuela positioned itself as a populist, “anti-imperialist” beacon for Latin America and the Caribbean generally, working to reformulate the preexisting institutions of hemispheric relations, build new populist coalitions, and counter actual and perceived U.S. influence. With seemingly limitless walking around money to solidify international alliances, support revolutionary movements across Latin America and globally, and purchase the loyalty of internationalist crusaders while buying the silence of his adversaries, Chávez was able to underwrite an entire new matrix of hemispheric organizations: ALBA, CELAC, UNASUR, the Banco del Sur, and the South American Defense Council, among others. In so doing, he worked to create a new paradigm for regional relationships that intentionally excluded the United States and Canada, championed the interests of previously ostracized Cuba, and established Caracas and Chávez personally as a new, more radical pole of regional influence.

Chávez also launched himself onto the world stage, at the UN and elsewhere, by keeping company and forging alliances with several of the world’s most odious regimes, including Iran, Russia, and Syria, while opening the door across Latin America and the Caribbean to the presence of counterproductive extra-regional actors, including Hezbollah. By the time he died in 2013, Chávez had taken Venezuela from being a vibrant if imperfect democratic ally of the United States and the West to being a reliable friend of authoritarians seeking to undermine global democratic governance while providing succor and throwing lifelines to pariah regimes worldwide. Had he lived longer, his impact would have been still greater. Unfortunately, his ambitions were not for his people but for himself.

IV. Timing Is Indeed Everything

If Chávez’s timing was perfect in coming to power, it was also perfect in departing. Maduro, his vice president and handpicked successor, served as interim president until he gained his own electoral mandate in April 2013. Observers subsequently raised questions about the election, with credible concerns of fraud and external meddling in favor of Maduro. Nonetheless, the international community including the United States brushed these concerns aside, hoping instead for a fresh beginning with Caracas after a decade and a half of Chávez and seeking to create a new path for dialogue and engagement with the next government.

Alas, it was not to be, because Maduro’s legitimacy stemmed from little more than his ability to implement the chavista vision as it existed when Chávez died. Maduro had only one reason for succeeding Chávez: Chávez, with Cuban tutelage, chose him. A former bus driver, Maduro had none of Chávez’s charisma. He did not have the same popular following, or indeed much following at all. He did not control the military or security forces. He was neither the founder of chavismo nor its great ideological champion. He was not even the consensus contender for the crown within chavismo. With the dedazo (big finger) from Chávez and direct support from Havana, Maduro nonetheless maneuvered quickly to consolidate power.

“What Maduro lacked was the flexibility to moderate or shift the approach he was bequeathed.”

Numerous observers at the time claimed that Maduro would present a softer and gentler face of chavismo, in order to curry international favor and gain domestic political support. In fact, the reverse was true, given Maduro’s need to prove his revolutionary bona fides. What Maduro lacked was the flexibility to moderate or shift the approach he was bequeathed, as would certainly be required depending on future circumstances, because only Chávez himself had the revolutionary legitimacy to define chavismo at any given moment. It could be anything Chávez declared it to be because he was its creator and had the ability to change tactics and make concessions along the path to ultimate strategic victory. Everyone else, particularly his immediate successor Maduro, would be required to follow the path that was evident at the point in time when Chávez the founding revolutionary passed away. His only option, essentially, was to double down.

Yet even as Maduro took the reins, the core element fueling chavismo’s revolution began to crack: oil. Or, more accurately, the price of oil began to fall, responding to a massive increase in global supply stemming from the energy technology revolution including hydraulic fracturing. New oil deposits were suddenly recoverable worldwide. Just as importantly, with fracking technology, in 2019 the United States moved from being a net oil importer to net exporter, changing completely the strategic importance of Venezuelan oil to the United States. No longer, likely, would the U.S. economy require Venezuelan heavy crude, and Washington now had the policy space to consider new initiatives that would begin to pressure the Maduro regime.

Just as Chávez had reaped the benefit of exploding oil prices and used the resulting windfall to underwrite his national and international populist, anti-democratic, anti-Western revolutionary project, Maduro inherited the same project, his legitimacy hinging on its full realization, but without the resources required to implement it. Nor would Washington now have to be as circumspect in taking strong actions it might deem necessary and appropriate to counter Venezuela’s increasingly authoritarian, anti-democratic bent, because keeping Venezuelan oil flowing to the United States was no longer a core strategic national interest as it had been during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

V. Shrinking Budgets, Shrinking Options

Maduro was caught between the huge structural spending requirements that he had inherited and the rapidly falling level of financial resources available to meet expectations. The delta grew rapidly, but options were limited, and Venezuela’s economy began to shrink, fast. Previously, Venezuela would simply have pumped more oil to make up the difference. But a years-long lack of investment and routine maintenance, a severe brain drain of engineers and managers, and the raw politicization of the energy sector and outright theft of its profits, operating capital, and equipment meant that Venezuela no longer had the ability to do so easily. Production fell precipitously before any international sanctions were applied or considered. Venezuela’s cash cow was dying, strangled not by market conditions or international sanctions but by ideology, incompetence, and mind-numbingly massive theft. In response, Maduro essentially begged international operators from China, India, Russia, and elsewhere to accept sweetheart deals in a desperate bid for additional production.

He also sought to identify new income streams, not through the private sector which had once been vibrant but was now moribund, but rather through illicit and untested means. Alarmingly, Maduro allowed and even encouraged his senior officials to participate, and, according to the U.S. Justice Department, participated himself, in international drug trafficking activities, joining forces with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas to move untold quantities of cocaine and other illegal narcotics to North America, Europe, and across Latin America. He also presided over the plundering of Venezuela’s rich endowment of natural resources including gold, diamonds, and other valuable commodities, in the process despoiling vast swathes of the pristine Amazon biosphere and doing incalculable environmental damage. And still the Maduro regime continued to simply gave away thousands of barrels of oil every day in tribute to Cuba.

Most tragically, with the economy now in a multiyear free fall contracting 65 percent from 2013 to 2018, producing the world’s worst hyperinflation, and trading a virtually worthless currency, the regime no longer even makes a pretense of helping the long-suffering Venezuelan people. The country went from once being Latin America’s wealthiest nation to becoming an economic basket case, and today, boasts an impressive record of purposeful wealth destruction. Each day Maduro remains in control, additional wealth is destroyed. And it is all so totally and completely unnecessary. The Venezuelan tragedy did not arise by natural disaster or through the devastation of warfare, but by the ideological delusions and self-promoting fantasies of its leaders and the imperialistic, self-interested designs of its erstwhile allies.

“Maduro’s rule is no departure from chavismo—it is the logical result of the full manifestation of the chavista vision.”

Venezuela today stands alone as the worst humanitarian disaster in the modern history of Latin America. Estimates vary, but the numbers are stark: almost 20 percent—between 5 and 6 million people, each one with a unique story to tell—of Venezuela’s entire, precrisis population, has fled the country. Many of these are refugees, without so much as fare to pay the bus driver to get them to neighboring nations, which are themselves overburdened and increasingly overwhelmed. Of those who have remained, reports indicate that the average Venezuelan has lost weight due to an inability to consume sufficient calories each day. Clean water, plentiful soap, electricity-on-demand, and other once routinely available commonalities have become luxuries for millions left behind. In the coronavirus era, this is deadly.

Sadly, none of this seems to have stirred the empathy of the Maduro regime, which increasingly uses emigration as a tool to reduce the burden to provide for its own citizens while simultaneously providing an escape valve to alleviate political pressure before it builds up beyond the regime’s ability to control. Everything the regime does at this point, in fact, is an intentional effort to strengthen its own position and guarantee its rule. The humanitarian crisis that the regime has created is not a systemic bug but rather a feature; it is an inevitable outcome of the internal contradictions of chavismo itself. It is strengthened and amplified by the most powerful glue that authoritarian regimes can employ toward their people once they have created state dependency, that is, a choice between the lifeline provided by access to state benefits or sometimes-fatal exclusion from such life-giving benefits, with social order enforced by a thoroughly politicized and corrupted security apparatus.

Maduro’s rule is no departure from chavismo—it is the logical result of the full manifestation of the chavista vision. Madurismo cannot be divorced from chavismo; it is chavismo. Its sustaining vision is authoritarian corruption, and its singular goal is self-preservation. Misreading this reality means misreading the nature of the regime itself, and possibly misconstruing the most appropriate strategies to address Venezuela’s deepening gloom.

VI. Responsibility Lies with Maduro

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis has darkened considerably as the regime opts for more guns and less butter and refugees continue to flow out of the country into neighboring nations ill-equipped to absorb or integrate them. And, for those who insist that all of this is due to external sanctions, sanctions do not prevent food or humanitarian assistance from entering the country. As the tragic events of February 2019 clearly showed, Maduro is able to do that on his own.

Since then, the coronavirus pandemic has burrowed into Venezuela. Yet even as the health crisis exploded, the regime used it as a means to increase repression and strengthen its own standing, while doing little to address the greater suffering the pandemic created. The sole responsibility—and sole ability—to address these issues lie with Maduro and company. They are the ones who can ultimately open the door to the international community for meaningful humanitarian relief and support, because only they have guns and a monopoly on the use of force. They are the ones who can reduce systemic oppression rather than cynically using the pandemic to crack down further. And only they are the ones who can forge a lasting political solution and basis for recovery by agreeing to the free and fair elections so clearly required.

Will they? Not without a fight. Negotiations can only succeed if the international community is willing to acknowledge the true nature of the brutal regime in Caracas and work in concert to shift incentives for a democratic resolution of the crisis. After 20 years, chavismo is exposed as less an ideology or governing philosophy than a cold-blooded grab for lasting power and self-enrichment, for as long as its leaders can get away with it. Until they are forced to change direction, they won’t. And it will be the Venezuelan people who will continue to suffer and die needlessly for the arrogance, inhumanity, and boundless greed of the extravagantly corrupt and self-dealing Maduro regime.