Down from the Mountain

Hugo Chávez never wavered in his commitment to Venezuela's popular movements, argues historian Greg Grandin in his review of Ignacio Ramonet's new Chávez biography My First Life


By the end of the last century, Venezuela’s old constitutional order, which for four decades had rotated power between two ideologically indistinguishable parties, was close to collapse. The crisis had started decades earlier, in 1983, when the bottom fell out of the world oil market. Then, as now, Venezuela derived most of its state revenue from the export of petroleum. By that point, the country had become heavily urban: 16 of its 19 million people lived in cities, a significant majority below the poverty line, with many in extreme poverty. Most of these urban poor resided in shanty towns sprawling up along the mountain walls that encircle Caracas, where the better-off live. In 1989, the government tried to solve the crisis of cheap oil with IMF-brokered austerity, which drove the poor down into the city, where they rioted and looted for three days. According to some observers, the military killed more than a thousand people, though the number is disputed and there has never been an official tally. The Caracazo, as the uprising became known, marked the beginning of increasingly focused opposition throughout most of Latin America to post-1970s economic orthodoxy, which held that high interest rates, balanced budgets, low tariffs, privatised industries, weakened labour laws and reduced social spending were the keys to development. Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile and El Salvador would all eventually come to elect governments trying to find a way out of the neoliberal straitjacket.

But Venezuela was the first. In 1992 Hugo Chávez, a career army officer, had helped lead a military revolt. The revolt failed and landed him in jail even as it catapulted him to hero status. He was seen by many, especially among the growing number of impoverished Venezuelans, as an outsider who could put an end to the political classes’ bacchanal of corruption, scandal and debt. Released from prison in 1994, Chávez won the presidency in a landslide vote in 1998. He hadn’t yet publicly declared himself a socialist. But Venezuela’s traditional rulers, of both main parties, saw his embrace of Bolivarianismo – after Simón Bolívar, to signal a vague programme of domestic reform and anti-imperialism – as a threat. The country’s old elite may have lost control of the executive with Chávez’s election, but the civil service, judiciary, bureaucracy and state oil industry, along with some sectors of the military, remained intact and autonomous, serving as vectors of reaction. For the first five years of his tenure, Chávez was forced into rearguard action. In April 2002, he survived a Washington-blessed coup; he was returned to office after two days, largely thanks to the protests of thousands of his supporters. A few months later, the country’s business elite, in an effort to pre-empt Chavista efforts to use profits from oil exports to fund social programmes, called an owners’ strike, and petroleum production was shut down. GDP fell by an estimated 27 per cent and Chávez’s popularity plummeted. But by early 2003 the strike had unravelled and Chávez was able to put oil money into his ambitious health, education and housing initiatives. The opposition’s last real bid to oust Chávez was a recall vote in August 2004. Having regained his standing, Chávez won that election with 58 per cent of the vote. In the regional elections that followed, his hodgepodge coalition of leftist parties took 20 out of 22 state governorships and 270 out of 337 municipalities. Two years later, in 2006, Chávez was re-elected again, carrying every state with more than 62 per cent of the national vote. 

A handful of the 2002 coup plotters spent some time in jail. A few opted for exile. But there was no large-scale round-up of enemies of the state, even though the bid to overthrow a democratically elected president resulted in a number of deaths. Still, once his government was stabilised, Chávez worked to neutralise his adversaries’ institutional power. He stacked the Supreme Court and began to rein in the corporate media, which had cheered on the putsch and served as a rallying point for the opposition. In 2007, the government, asserting its right to regulate the national airwaves, declined to renew the broadcasting licence of Radio Caracas Televisión, forcing it off the air and prompting a strong rebuke from Human Rights Watch and the US State Department. In subsequent years, Chávez came to adopt all the attributes political scientists associate with authoritarianism. He sacrificed institutional checks and balances for political expediency, demonised his opponents both at home and in Washington with colourful bombast, was buoyed at rallies by emotional call-and-response repartee with his red-shirted supporters, and governed as if he were running an extended political campaign.

In this sense, Chávez could be placed squarely within Latin America’s long populist tradition. What made him unique, and his long rule so unusual for a populist, is that he never deviated. Throughout the 20th century, every significant Latin American politician who won office by mobilising class grievances was quick to move to the corporatist right. Getúlio Vargas, within five years of becoming Brazil’s president in 1930, eliminated the considerable left wing of his coalition, consolidating his power to create something approximating a fascist state. After his 1946 election, Juan Perón, in Argentina, acted even more quickly against the explosion of working-class demands that had powered his rise. After his ill-fated return from Spanish exile in 1973, Perón threw in his lot with the death squads, supporting a murder campaign against his own rank and file. In Peru in 1990, Alberto Fujimori used his outsider status to ride a wave of voter anger to the presidency, where he immediately proceeded to impose a punishing neoliberal austerity programme and construct a repressive surveillance state. In contrast, Chávez, over the course of his 14 years in office, until cancer ended his life in 2013, never cracked down, in any sustained way, on his rank and file. Even as Chavismo, electorally and institutionally, became increasingly heavy-handed, its relationship to social movements remained remarkably democratic.

Chávez’s base was varied and heterodox, one of what political scientists in the 1990s had celebrated as ‘new social movements’, distinct from traditional trade and peasant unions. It included urban and rural homesteaders, community media and cultural associations, peasant leagues, unions, Christian communities associated with the remnants of liberation theology, economic and environmental justice activists and workplace co-operatives. During his time in office, Chávez proposed one organisational scheme after another – Bolivarian Circles, community councils, communes etc – to try to harness and co-ordinate this diversity. But through it all, he never seriously tried to integrate these movements into the state or a single party, much less subordinate them. After his 2006 re-election, he did encourage the establishment of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), which in its ideal form might have functioned like Mexico’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional, uniting various elite and popular revolutionary factions. More than a decade after its creation, however, the PSUV is mostly a ramshackle vehicle for party bureaucrats, and the social movements that powered Chavismo remain largely outside its structure.

On his inauguration in 1999, Chávez enjoyed a significant amount of political and moral legitimacy but very little formal administrative hegemony, and he never really tried to establish it. Once he got control of oil revenues, his government chose to run its various social welfare and development initiatives through a dizzying array of new organisations called misiones, set up to bypass the existing bureaucracy. There were missions in healthcare, housing and education. Misión Vivienda granted rights and titles to public housing residents, while a different mission helped legalise squats. Childcare, land reform and indigenous rights each had its own mission. There were missions aimed at helping people return to the countryside, so as to slow down migration to the cities, and to help expedite the citizenship of Colombian immigrants. There was no social problem – neonatal health, indigenous discrimination, illiteracy – that couldn’t, it seemed, be addressed by decreeing yet another new mission. Combined, all these organisations were meant to encourage civic involvement and create a culture of participatory, or ‘protagonist’, democracy.

At every step of the way, Chávez distinguished his redistribution programmes from those of his predecessors. In My First Life, a series of interviews conducted with Ignacio Ramonet between 2008 and 2011, Chávez dismisses the oil handouts of the 1970s as amounting to little more than a ‘couple of concrete blocks, a sheet of corrugated iron, a bag of food, a couple of cents. Populism.’ Chavismo, in contrast, was an anarchic free-for-all of thousands of bottom-up rank-and-file organisations, communal councils, co-operatives, peasant unions and community media outlets.

The social gains of Chavismo at its apex, from around 2005 to Chávez’s final re-election in 2012, were spectacular: greater employment, improved nutrition, increased literacy and life expectancy, more and better housing. But the system of petroleum-funded independent missions created new sources of waste, while at the same time letting the state bureaucracy rot. Chávez attacked his opponents in his speeches, and beat them at the polls in more than a dozen elections. But he also let them get rich. Oil revenue gave him a luxury no other Latin American populist enjoyed: the ability to defer indefinitely the need to repress anybody in order to appease private investors. So, unlike Vargas or Perón, he never did. As long as oil prices stayed high, the state could satisfy all constituencies. Among the elite, hatred of Chávez was intractable. Their vision for Venezuela was that of a liberalised economy governed not by hectoring lectures on Bolivarian virtue but by the laws of free trade, with well-stocked malls, easy credit, functioning ATM machines, good restaurants, affordable domestic help and quick flights to Miami. They never accepted Chávez’s legitimacy, or the validity of the elections he and his followers kept winning. But for the most part, the bourgeoisie was left alone to accumulate more wealth – despite perceptions, the private sector expanded during the Chávez years – and bureaucrats and military officers were free to skim. All this while rank-and-file social movements believed they were building the revolution. Today Venezuela is gripped by a crisis of extraordinary proportions, as all that Chávez helped create is collapsing. To understand how Venezuela got to this point – to understand Chávez’s spectacular rise and his country’s equally spectacular breakdown – it helps to know something about where he came from. And it helps to know something about the country’s oil.


Chávez was born in 1954, in Sabaneta, a village in the llanos, a vast savannah that rises into the Andes to the south. Oil, which was first discovered in Venezuela in 1914 and has intoxicated the country’s politics ever since, is found elsewhere, around the Caribbean’s Lake Maracaibo in the north, or east along the tropical Orinoco River. In My First Life, Ramonet describes Sabaneta as Chávez’s ‘own intimate Macondo’, and the village does seem to have been as far removed from national concerns and the world’s disquiets as Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional settlement was. There are other echoes of One Hundred Years of Solitude in Ramonet’s questions and Chávez’s answers, especially when they concern Chávez’s early years. There is a lush backyard filled with tropical fruit, which Chávez would boil down into sweets and hawk on his town’s dirt streets; there is magical technology, like the cinema and street lights; there are Arab merchants, strong women and mostly absent men. And Chávez relates a lineage of Amerindian, African and Spanish descent even more baroque than the genealogy found on the frontispiece of García Márquez’s novel.

Chávez came of age in the flush 1960s. ‘Saudi Venezuela’ was ‘overflowing with oil’. As most of the rest of Latin America succumbed to Cold War radicalisation and repression, Venezuela remained an exception, held up by US political scientists as a model of stable governance and equitable development. Between 1959 and 1998, the two main parties – Copei, made up of Christian democrats, and Acción Democrática, a party of social democrats – used petroleum profits to fuel what was for a time an effective patronage system. When Chávez was about 12, his extensive family – father, mother, grandmother, uncle and many brothers – moved to Barinas, a sleepy provincial city, where they took up residence in a ‘social housing estate’, complete with ‘tarmacked streets, running water, electricity’, financed by a ‘workers’ bank’, capitalised with petroleum revenue. ‘For us this meant climbing the social ladder,’ Chávez says. ‘I started getting used to it.’ Many of the men of Barinas travelled to Lake Maracaibo to work oil rigs, sending back their income to their families. Chávez’s father, a steadfast Christian democrat, drew a state salary teaching at a rural school. His older brother, Adán, who would later influence Hugo’s politics, became a ‘hippy’ activist while at university, making contact with the various New Left organisations trying to crack the duopoly.

Chávez was shaped through and through by a welfare state made possible by oil. ‘I was a very happy child,’ he says. Class ressentiment was not the source of his fusillades against Venezuela’s oligarchy. ‘I was poor,’ Chávez says. But he was fed, clothed, housed, schooled, tended to by doctors and encouraged. He passed his youth in an idyll made possible by petroleum, ‘selling fruit, flying kites made of old newspapers, fishing in the river with my father, playing ball’. Provincial children of a similar social class in oil-importing countries which were even poorer, such as Colombia next door, or in Central America or the Caribbean, had considerably less favourable life chances. Even so, Chávez only occasionally mentions oil as he narrates his early years. The commodity chain that for more than a century has made all other commodity chains possible remains a faraway abstraction. The llanos, to use Ramonet’s allusion, was a Macondo without a plantation. Unlike Macondo’s bananas, oil, at least in Chávez’s early life, isn’t a destroyer of community. It provided the jobs and financed the social assistance that made towns that were far away from the boom, like Sabaneta and Barinas, seem timeless. The timelessness was largely a mirage, made possible because the petroleum economy channelled the excess population out of the countryside while sending back wage remittances and revenue in the form of public services. Low population density mitigated the class stratification and extreme wretchedness found elsewhere in Venezuela, especially in its overcrowded cities, allowing those llaneros who stayed behind to reproduce the rhythms of traditional life. The circus ‘came every October’, Chávez remembers. ‘I was really happy. My grandmother let me buy a ticket out of the sweets’ sales. I loved the trapeze artists.’

Chávez had to venture out of the grasslands to find a world more directly dictated by oil. At the age of 17, he enlisted in the army and travelled to Caracas to begin classes at Venezuela’s elite military academy. He was stunned when he first caught sight of the geography of the city, which was ‘literally enclosed by a gigantic belt of poverty cascading down the hillsides’. All the many manifestations of the nation’s power and wealth pulsed below, in the asphalt and cement flatlands of the city proper: the oil traders and money movers in the business district, the cadets parading at the military academy he would soon attend, planes taking off and landing at La Carlota air force base, the activity around his future home, Miraflores, the presidential palace, and the constant movement of construction workers putting up ever increasing numbers of luxury offices and residences. No matter how bad the economy, the cranes in Caracas are never still. ‘Later,’ Chávez says, ‘I understood,’ and he gives Ramonet a brief course on what is known as the ‘oil curse’: as petroleum came to dominate the national economy, surging revenues increased the value of the currency until it was cheaper to import the food and goods that had previously been made and grown at home. Farms were abandoned, cities sprawled and the welfare system created by the two-party state could hardly keep up. ‘I was shocked when I discovered the mass of poverty,’ Chávez tells Ramonet. ‘I never dreamed such unfathomable poverty could exist in Venezuela, one of the richest countries on the continent. I soon started wondering what kind of democracy this was, to so impoverish the majority and enrich a minority. It seemed to me unjust.’


It’s difficult now to imagine, at a time when the world sits on the brink of an oil-induced climate catastrophe, but Chávez came of political age at a time when many believed that petroleum might provide a progressive solution to global problems. Precocious but apolitical when he started as a cadet in 1971, Chávez graduated as a committed revolutionary four years later. During that period, the price of a barrel of Venezuelan oil had soared from $2.93 to $14.06, with state oil revenue increasing from about $1.4 billion to $9 billion. In 1975, Chávez’s final year at the academy, the country’s president, the social democrat Carlos Andrés Pérez, nationalised Exxon, Shell and Mobil’s Venezuelan holdings, creating the state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). Pérez followed up with a speech to the UN in which he argued that oil profits should be used to reform the global political economy. ‘The construction of a New International Economic Order,’ he said, ‘is required as a desideratum of peace.’ Much has been made of the idea of ‘carbon democracy’, the term coined by the political scientist Timothy Mitchell to explain his thesis that what we know as modern mass democracy was made possible by cheap, plentiful oil. But equally vital in the 1970s was ‘carbon solidarity’, the idea that weaker nations might use oil as leverage against the strong.


A year earlier, in 1974, the UN General Assembly had adopted the founding document of this would-be new order, the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States. These included the right of governments to nationalise industries and to bargain collectively in order to fix the price of basic commodities, a global tariff structure that gave preferential treatment to poor countries, and a transfer of technology and scientific knowledge from developed to less developed nations. The call for a New International Economic Order – the NIEO – was a worldwide phenomenon, thanks to postwar decolonisation and the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement. But its intellectual origins are found in Bolivarianism, the Latin American ideal according to which political sovereignty is meaningless without economic sovereignty. Venezuela was key in turning this regional understanding into an accepted part of international law and it was an influential founding member of Opec, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, in 1960. In 1969 one of its top diplomats, Manuel Pérez Guerrero, became the director of the UN’s Council on Trade and Development, which produced many of the legal justifications for the NIEO.

‘That’s cheap, give me two’ is a phrase associated with the oil boom of the 1970s and early 1980s, when well-to-do Venezuelans were spending freely on imports. But it could also apply to the luxury of being able to afford both American-style consumption and Bolivarian solidarity, both NIEO idealism and corruption. In 1974, the Venezuelan Congress extended ‘special powers’ to President Pérez, giving him complete discretion to legislate and spend. He nationalised industries, limited foreign influence in banking and commerce, and launched a massive programme of state-controlled industrialisation. Money flowed lavishly and unaccountably to projects that were often wishful, wasteful and venal. ‘Anyone who had the tiniest bit of power began stealing shamelessly,’ Chávez tells Ramonet. Pérez, he says, ‘presided over the greatest wave of corruption in living memory… The rich got even richer and amassed colossal fortunes, while the poor received mere crumbs from the oil money table.’ At the same time, however, Pérez was pledging to put Venezuela’s oil at the ‘service of Latin America, at the service of humanity’, in order to wipe out the ‘last traces of colonialism’ and turn socialism into a ‘planetary reality’. Venezuela’s foreign policy during these boom years called for debt relief, nuclear disarmament, an end to the arms race, access to the sea for landlocked Bolivia, lifting the US embargo on Cuba, and the creation of a Latin American Economic System that would function free of Washington’s interference. Pérez proposed using Opec as an ‘instrument of negotiation for the construction of the New International Economic Order’.


None of these things happened. Opec was both a product of NIEO thinking and inimical to it. For decades, developing nations had argued that political sovereignty required control over the resources within their borders. Opec understood this argument, but then undercut it, dividing the tenuous unity of the Third World into two tiers: oil exporters and oil importers. With every rise in the price of oil, oil-importing countries had to borrow more to meet their energy needs. With every petrodollar placed in New York banks, the value of the US currency increased, and with it the value of the dollar-denominated debt that poor countries owed to those banks. A central demand of NIEO reformers, then, was to socialise petrodollars, to use them to capitalise a public fund – a ‘South Bank’, perhaps administered by the IMF or Opec – that would help the vast majority of non-oil-producing nations by subsidising their energy needs; it would also act as a buffer against the price fluctuations of other commodities.

Middle Eastern oil producers balked. Saudi Arabia and pre-Revolutionary Iran paid lip service to the NIEO but refused to back it up with petroleum power. They neither allowed their prized commodity to be used as a bargaining chip to increase the price of other natural resources nor permitted the creation of an oil-capitalised public bank. Instead, Riyadh and Tehran provided a pittance to Opec’s ‘special fund’ and the IMF’s ‘oil facility’, while cutting side deals with Washington and using the bulk of their petrodollars to purchase billions of dollars in arms and depositing the rest in private banks.​* Venezuela tried to go it alone. In the early 1980s, Pérez’s successor, Luis Herrera Campíns, continued to distribute millions of petrodollars to Latin America and the Caribbean’s poorest countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. For a time, this support helped keep alive the remnants of the New Left in the region, subsidising Jamaica under its social democratic prime minister Michael Manley, and Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution in 1979. But by 1983 oil prices had collapsed and Venezuela’s two-party system had begun its long unravelling. 

Chávez, then, is best understood as an heir to the ideals of the NIEO, and its quixotic effort to use oil to broker reform. By the time of his inauguration in early 1999, petroleum prices were at a historic low and Venezuela was close to pulling out of Opec altogether. The state oil company, PDVSA, was by now in the hands of a cohort of technocratic managers who had effectively turned it into a booking agency, extending easy licences to international oil companies to work various fields, opening the company up to foreign capital and investing its revenue abroad to keep it out of the hands of the public bursar. Their ultimate goal for PDVSA was to depoliticise oil by defining it as a pure commodity governed only by the law of international supply and demand, killing, once and for all, the Bolivarian ideal.

Chávez knew that the best way to gain control over oil revenue was to restore the effectiveness of Opec. In early 2001, his first oil minister, Alí Rodríguez Araque, became Opec’s general secretary, and he managed to achieve a level of unity among oil-exporting nations not seen since the early 1970s. Opec nations not only agreed to a production cut, but agreed to give Rodríguez unprecedented authority to decide targets for future output as he deemed necessary, without having to consult the organisation as a whole. Mexico, not a member of Opec, committed to adhering to Opec quotas too. Oil prices began to rise, helping Chávez take control of PDVSA and beat back efforts to oust him.

In the years after 2006, with help from progressive governments in Brazil and Argentina, Chávez put his efforts into re-creating the 1970s ethos of Third World solidarity. Like Pérez before him, he sponsored international organisations, including the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas, the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América, Petrosur and Banco del Sur, all in the interest of furthering Latin American integration outside the influence of Washington. Venezuela’s establishment of the transnational news network Telesur in 2005, along with Chávez’s constant efforts to build up alternative ‘community’ media at the expense of corporate news outlets, closely followed recommendations issued under the auspices of Unesco in the late 1970s. As a corollary to the NIEO, the ‘new world information order’ was meant to break the monopoly that First World wire agencies had on news and that corporate networks had on culture (in the 1970s, Pérez had to give up plans to establish a national public TV and radio network as a result of a backlash by private broadcasters).

Chávez also resurrected mechanisms by which Venezuela could distribute oil to poor countries while remaining faithful to Opec’s quotas and prices. These included the creation of a credit and barter system and the extension of long-term, extremely low-interest loans to finance the purchase of oil. Within a year of its founding in mid-2005, Petrocaribe, one of the organisations set up to administer this system, had extended a billion dollars in financing, matching the loans offered by the Washington-based Inter-American Development Bank. Chávez’s repoliticisation of oil caused fury in the US: it was a relic of a world that US neoconservatives and neoliberals alike thought they had left behind with the end of the Cold War. The administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama pressured countries not to enter into deals with Petrocaribe. In 2006, for instance, the State Department lobbied Haiti not to take a 25-year line of credit, financed at 1 per cent interest, to buy Venezuelan diesel and unleaded fuel, even though, as the US embassy in Port-au-Prince acknowledged, the deal would save Haiti a hundred million dollars a year and protect its vulnerable economy from spikes in energy cost. At one point, Venezuela was even sending fuel aid to the Bronx and Boston.

My First Life ends on the threshold of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution, with his 1998 election. As an interviewer, Ramonet takes his time, returning again and again to certain topics, drawing out details about some of the best-known episodes in Chávez’s story, for example looking into the question of how he kept his movement active while he was in jail. In prison, Chávez’s wide reading included The Challenge to the South, a report issued by a commission that included many Third World economists and politicians from the 1970s, Pérez among them. Chaired by Julius Nyerere, who had been Tanzania’s president during the heyday of radical development, the commission was intended to keep the NIEO critique alive in the face of the neoliberal onslaught. The report made it clear that they didn’t hold out much hope of success. But Chávez relit the flame. ‘I always carry [the report] with me even now,’ Chávez tells Ramonet. ‘I reread it and take notes. Twenty years on, its extraordinary proposals are more valid than ever.’ Chávez says it is what inspired him to promote all those international institutions – Telesur, Banco del Sur, Petrosur, Unasur – to give power and voice to the ‘South’.

My First Life resembles a similar set of discussions Ramonet had with Fidel Castro, when Castro was in his eighties, just before illness forced him to hand over power to his brother. Published in English in 2007 as My Life, Castro’s interviews are introspective, ironic and often mournful. My First Life is more didactic. Death, it turned out, was near, though Chávez didn’t even know he was ill. He holds forth on his rise, in conversations that took place at the height of his popularity, with no hint that it might all be for nothing.

Chávez died on 5 March 2013, and oil prices, as if liberated from some obligation, collapsed. Venezuela’s economy began to spiral out of control. Just five years ago, the country was ahead of schedule to meet many of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Poverty, inequality, illiteracy, child mortality rates and malnutrition had all been impressively reduced. Now, the news is of infant deaths skyrocketing, of Venezuelans going hungry and many fleeing, either overland to Colombia or by boat to Curaçao. Diseases the country hadn’t seen in decades are back, diphtheria among them. Vaccination rates have fallen, hospitals lack gloves and syringes, cancer and HIV patients are buying their medicine on the black market, and filthy operating rooms could double as sets for horror movies. The ‘oil curse’ Chávez warned about but kept at bay has returned with a vengeance: abundant access to dollars during the boom years increased dependence on imported goods, which are now either unaffordable or unavailable. Price controls contribute to the suppression of domestic industry, as factories that recently hummed, often thanks to a government subsidy, sit idle. A fixed currency, artificially overvalued by a government committed to making payments on its high international debt, encourages a black market in US dollars that has caused spiralling inflation and depreciation.

The unity that Chávez managed to achieve within Opec is gone, largely due to competition from natural gas. Mexico’s state oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos, is currently being privatised, much in the way that PDVSA was before Chávez halted the process. Petrocaribe hobbles on, though the Dominican Republic and Jamaica have recently pulled out. After Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, Chávez announced that Venezuela would write off Haiti’s entire Petrocaribe bill, which was approaching $400 million. ‘Haiti has no debt with Venezuela. On the contrary, it is Venezuela that has a historic debt with Haiti,’ Chávez said, meaning the support Haiti gave to Simón Bolívar in his fight against Spain two centuries ago. But after Caracas sent a significant amount of free fuel to help with reconstruction, regular Petrocaribe financing started again – and debt, however low the interest and however long the terms, is still debt. Today, Haiti owes Venezuela more than a billion dollars, which Caracas has no capacity to forgive. PDVSA is indebted and practically bankrupted.


Politically, Venezuela is deadlocked. Chávez’s long-time ally, Nicolás Maduro, who comes from a working-class trade-union family, won the presidency in April 2013 by a margin of 1.5 per cent, not a hair’s breadth but close enough to allow the opposition once again to launch a campaign of destabilisation. With no evidence, the opposition cried fraud and called for demonstrations, which turned violent. Eight Chavistas were murdered. A few months later, in 2014, lethal street protests resulted in the deaths of more than forty people, the majority Chavistas or government employees. Three years of economic crisis have served to deepen ongoing inequalities. As they queue up for hours at government shops waiting for basic necessities, poor people in marginal hillside neighbourhoods can see the cranes that remain busily at work in the city’s posher districts; investors, benefiting from an overvalued currency, are driving a luxury building boom like the one Chávez described seeing when he first visited Caracas in the early 1970s. 

A new round of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations is currently underway, resulting, so far, in another sixty or so killings, of protesters on both sides. The violence in Venezuela is now self-propelling. The opposition, still led largely by the economic and political elites, is divided between ‘moderates’, many of whom have adopted the social rights language of Chavismo, and right-wing ‘ultras’, who believe they are waging an end-times struggle. Anti-government leaders can’t call off their protests, no matter how violent they become, since that would risk diluting their power. A return to calm might create a scenario where the moderates negotiate a deal that doesn’t encompass Chavismo’s total extirpation (the only acceptable outcome for the ultras). Confrontational street demonstrations have to be kept going in order to retain their force. Protesters target the repressive agents of the state, shooting bullets and hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces, hoping to provoke a violent response, which will then be covered by international news outlets. But they also focus on the state’s redistributive facilities, destroying health clinics and disrupting food redistribution centres. A month ago, a house in Barinas in which the Chávez family had once lived was set alight. The objective is clear: to cut off both the right (the repressive) and the left (the social and symbolic) hands of the state, rendering it incapable.

For his part, Maduro retains some support, on the streets, in government and within the military. His poll numbers are low, though not significantly worse than those of the presidents of Brazil and Colombia. He possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Marches and countermarches are usually a signal that history is on the move, that change, of some kind, is coming. But Venezuela is in stasis. Negotiations between the government and its opponents are announced, and then called off. The Vatican says it will mediate and the Organisation of American states says it will intervene, but nothing happens. Both sides, it seems, are waiting, tremulously, for the barrios populares, filled with working-class people, to render their verdict. Anti-government forces have called on them to join their protests, and have even encouraged them to loot and riot. These calls, for the most part, have gone unanswered. As the historian Alejandro Velasco has pointed out, Chávez acknowledged these people on a primal level, recognising them as citizens with legitimate demands and fundamental rights. In exchange, they turned out again and again on the streets and at the polls to defend the Bolivarian revolution. In contrast, anti-government forces want them as shock troops to break the deadlock. Maduro may have lost their goodwill, but social gains won in the heyday of Chavismo – schools, food distribution centres, health clinics, daycare – are still functioning, however stressed, in these neighbourhoods, and while their residents may not be actively supporting the government, they aren’t yet ready to overthrow it. Meanwhile Chávez, in death as in life, continues to transcend the polarisation. According to a recent poll, 79 per cent picked him as the best president the country has ever had. A slightly smaller but still large majority say he was Venezuela’s most democratic and efficient leader.