For the past eight weeks Venezuelans have been flocking to the streets to protest against the government of President Maduro and to demand for fresh elections. Eight weeks that have resulted in thousands of arrests, over 1000 injured and the death of more than 50 protesters, mostly teenagers and young university students. Caracas, the country’s largest city and its capital, has witnessed the most heavily attended demonstrations, but the battle has truly raged elsewhere, in Maracaibo, Valencia and Maracay, the country’s three most important cities apart from Caracas, as well as in provincial outposts in the Andean states of Táchira and Trujillo, in the eastern state of Anzoátegui, in the southern plains of Barinas, Hugo Chávez’s homeland. It’s almost impossible to watch what’s going on in Venezuela, what has been going on for weeks, and not wonder, with a mix of confusion and pity, what in the world have this people done to deserve this?
What Venezuela has done, not to deserve but at least to get to this juncture, cannot be reduced to a few lines of even a few years. Explaining the degradation of Venezuela’s society to the breaking point in which it presently finds itself requires more than a brief relation of the key dates that have shaped the country’s contemporary history, because this debacle did not start with Chávez’s death in 2013, or even with his rise to power in 1998; this began long before: before the banking crisis of 1994, before the two failed coups of 1992, before, even, the popular unrest that gripped Caracas and spread around the country for a full week in 1989, the so-called Caracazo.
The collapse of Venezuela’s state needs to be traced further back, before the calamitous Black Friday of February 1983, because even if that day signaled the beginning of the precipitous devaluation of Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar, against the US dollar, the root of the problem lay at the feet of the society that witnessed such irreversible economic downslide, a society built on deeply flawed and tremendously fragile foundations, which eventually would give way to chaos.
Foundations, by the bye, that for some years—not too many either, but through Rafael Caldera’s first term as president in the late 1960s and especially through the whirlwind of nationalization and bonanza that for Venezuela was the 1970s, a boom that seduced the whole world, Venezuelans included—seemed to herald a future full of progress and development. Alas, it all turned out to be no more than a mirage in the haze of so many oil rigs, a mirage that dissolved without trace, and that in vanishing revealed the true traits of modern Venezuelan society, the one spawned precisely from the people’s dissatisfaction and repudiation of the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in the 1950s, which eventually led to a period of civil unrest that forced his deposition.
Pérez Jiménez ingrained in the Venezuelan people a series of values, such as order, discipline and security, which in his conception of the world would enable the country to become a tropical franchise of development. This ingraining—this indoctrination—was forced upon the people, of course, through the use of less than subtle methods which curtailed all kinds of liberties—freedom of speech, an independent press, even the right to political dissent—and which in turn generated resentment, repudiation and subversion, though, it must be said, peaceful subversion, in a good portion of Venezuelan society, most notably students, who then as now became the biggest thorn in the government’s side.
Between 1953, the year of Pérez Jiménez fraudulent rise to power, and the popular revolt of January 1958 Venezuela lived through a period of institutional violence (embodied in the shape of the security services led by the gruesome Pedro Estrada) and collective gagging (already by 1954 there were 1500 political prisoners in the country) that resulted in a whole generation’s trauma against the established order. Nevertheless, it’s not implausible to suggest that rather than Pérez Jiménez’s values, the main source of indignation for Venezuelans at the time was the brutal repression exerted by the state to uphold such values.
Therefore, Pérez Jiménez’s overthrow in 1958 triggered a social paradox that would ultimately set the course of Venezuela’s history for at least the following half century: on the one hand there was the people’s (post) traumatic rejection of anything even loosely connected to the deposed dictator; on the other, the sense of identity of most Venezuelans was intimately linked to the imagery of order and progress which Pérez Jiménez had so successfully projected, and which Rómulo Betancourt, his successor, would inherit, albeit in a democratic guise. The situation was further complicated by the exclusion of the far left from the political agreement that, later in 1958, set the foundations of the new republic, which at the end of the day resulted in a prolongation of the period of political instability in the country and made simple the Communist Party’s decision to take up arms.
Hence, Venezuela’s left-wing guerrilla cleverly manipulated the circumstances to give a semblance of continuity to the resistance against “oppression”, exploiting the admiration inspired by the figure of the rebel in everyman through the years of struggle against Pérez Jiménez’s regime. In other words, from the beginning of its armed struggle, the guerrilla was able to position itself in such a way that its campaign against the established constitutional order was seen by the people in a favorable light.
Though short-lived, Venezuelans were truly fascinated by the figure of the guerrilla fighter. And yet, that wasn’t so important, what really was important is rather that from the beginning of the so-called democratic period in Venezuela (1958–1999) its leaders failed to generate that sort of sympathy in the people. In fact, if anything they progressively fed the fire of mistrust that burned in the average Venezuelan, making the political system and the entire democratic model—which still evoked the sense of order championed by Pérez Jiménez—lose credibility and prestige. Consequently, the Venezuelan people distanced themselves from the official discourse, leaning more and more towards the opposite corner, in other words towards dis-order.
During the years of economic bonanza the government’s lack of moral credit was patched with a torrent of resources that temporarily silenced any critics, but as soon as the country came back to reality, with inflation, insecurity and unemployment again rearing their ugly heads, the antagonist side of Venezuelans also rose from the ashes, no longer through oblique sympathy for a subversive group but in a perfectly palpable call for radical change.
Seen from this perspective Hugo Chávez’s rise to power could be considered the final stage of the distancing from the values championed by Pérez Jiménez that Venezuelan society underwent over approximately forty years. In their search for freedom, rights, perhaps even justice, Venezuelans supported a candidate who adopted a fresh rather than methodical approach, who favored rejuvenation even if he had no plan to carry it out, a candidate who, above all, promised to be something different, something altogether defiant. Venezuela, already in total disarray, descended into decadence. Between the general strike of 2002 and the current situation fifteen troublesome years have gone by, fifteen years of outright confrontations and temporary truces, fifteen traumatic years that, whether you like it or not, will play a key role in the future of Venezuela.
The similarities, more formal than specific, between the situation lived in 1957 and that of 2017 should by now be perfectly evident: in both cases we are talking of eminently oppressive governments, of extensive periods of discontent, of massive demonstrations against the authority. The suffering, hunger, poverty, insecurity Venezuelans have been subjected to in the past decade makes it all but certain that this generation—like the one born circa 1950—will have to deal with a trauma. But the future of Venezuela, which is what is at stake here, depends on two key variables: first of all, the current government, which presently clings to power thanks only to the support of the army, must succumb—this week, this month, this year—to the pressure exerted by the protests, must be replaced by an interim government, and the individuals responsible of the crimes committed, not only over the past eight weeks, must be brought to justice.
The second variable concerns the way in which this trauma will be channeled in the medium- and long-term future. Because if Venezuela is desperately in need of an economic, infrastructural, judicial and institutional reconstruction, it also needs to undergo a process of moral regeneration. And yet, the task might be simpler than it seems, for the indignation the vast majority of Venezuelans feel for the sort of fraudulent behavior—the dis-organized crime—that over the past 15, 30 and perhaps also 45 years has run the country to the ground should make them reject those practices instinctively, absolutely, and in unison.
If they do so, and they do so consistently, Venezuelans might be able to erect over the ruins of their horrific past a more moderate, more transparent society, a society which will undoubtedly have its defects, but different ones, other defects to those of chavismo, to those of the democratic era, to those of Pérez Jiménez’s time, a less deficient society which might be able to steer the country in the right direction for the next 50 years. Perhaps then, at some point, it could be argued that all this was worth it.
Published in the WEEKednder supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday May 27, 2017.