If there’s such a thing as a ‘nation non grata’, Venezuela in its current political configuration would be near the top of the list on both sides of the North Atlantic. From the moment when Hugo Chávez first won the presidency in 1998 – he was twice re-elected and died in office in 2013 – Western governments and the media viewed him with a combination of alarm and contempt. Charismatic, leftwing, deeply hostile to neoliberalism, Chávez made clear that his aim was to transform Venezuela’s social, economic and political landscape.
At the core of his domestic programme lay a determination to provide the two-thirds of the population then living below the UN official poverty line with access to health care, education and the prospect of a dignified life. Revenues from oil during a period of high world prices furnished the necessary funds and, as UN Human Development Reports show, the programme achieved some, at least, of its initial objectives.
Internationally, Chávez aimed to reduce, if not eliminate, what he felt to be the economic and the political domination of his country by the United States. He collaborated with other like-minded governments in Latin America to achieve the same at continental level. He called his political programme the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ and even changed the country’s formal name to the ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’ in honour of Simón Bolívar, the great 19th century leader of South America’s independence from Spain. Romantic certainly, but a permanent reminder that independence – the right of a nation to choose its own destiny lay, and continues to lie – at the heart of the chavista project.
For some within the country, the Bolivarian Revolution has always been an anathema. An attempt to unseat Chávez by force in 2002 nearly succeeded. It was foiled by the army, which has remained a stout defender of the country’s democracy. Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s successor, has met with a different kind of resistance: street violence and calls from opponents for the United States to help topple Maduro and his ‘regime’.
Maduro is a substantial figure, with an impressive command of the stage, but he came to power during an economic downturn brought on by a dramatic fall in the price of oil. He won the 2013 election – with a very narrow majority – to cries of fraud from the supporters of his rightwing opponent, Henrique Capriles. Without the oil revenues that had financed Chávez’s social policies, Venezuela’s ill-balanced economy, with its heavy dependence on oil, became evident. Imports of food, medicines and consumer goods fell away, creating shortages that severely affected the less well-off.
Devaluation of the national currency, the Bolívar, began then and has continued at an increasingly rapid pace. At the time of writing, the unofficial exchange rate is one million Bolívares to one US dollar, down from 250 thousand Bolívares a month ago. Tomorrow there may be a further fall. Long queues form daily outside supermarkets and banks, evidence of the acute shortage of both goods and currency. Distribution of food and household products is largely controlled by the private sector and there is evidence of hoarding and reluctance to supply poorer neighbourhoods.
A US embargo on trade and financial transactions with Venezuela has made it difficult to import essential goods and has probably done more to impoverish the less well-off than to damage the Maduro government. Compounding the economic distress is the permanent insecurity caused by casual gun crime, robberies in the street at gunpoint, and ‘express kidnaps’ in which victims are invited to empty their bank accounts in exchange for their lives. Such was the societal context of the 20 May elections.
Equally disquieting has been the attitude of the so-called West. Canada, the United States and the European Union have dismissed the elections as invalid, despite having called for them. Urged on by the Trump administration, 11 Latin American countries followed suit. For these international accusers, Nicolás Maduro is a ruthless, corrupt dictator, with the elections a breach of Venezuela’s constitution and the results de facto fraudulent.
Unsurprisingly, Maduro’s domestic political opponents do not approve either of him or of chavismo, while claiming to be alarmed at the state of the country. But as the election campaign drew to a close, none – even under close questioning – repeated the accusations against him made by the United States and the EU. All expressed confidence in an electoral system that former US President Jimmy Carter has described as the best in the world, though that didn’t prevent Henri Falcón, Maduro’s closest rival, from crying foul moments after learning of his defeat.
Entirely digital, but with an automated manual verification back-up, the electoral system is designed with multiple safeguards against fraud. As an international observer, I had the opportunity not only to watch the system in action but to explore its workings. It is impressively efficient, with results available within a few hours of the closure of the polls. Among our observer group were officials responsible for electoral processes in their own country. They could find no fault in Venezuela’s system.
Maduro’s electoral victory with just over two-thirds of the vote was more than comfortable, although the turnout at 46 per cent was dangerously low by Venezuelan standards and has given further impetus to charges both within and beyond the country that the election lacked legitimacy. An abstention campaign by the rightwing Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition (MUD) undoubtedly had some negative effect on turnout, but general disaffection with politics and politicians in the face of increasing economic hardship also played a role in discouraging participation, not least because none of the candidates took the trouble to explain how they proposed to pull the country out of its current mess.
Meanwhile, foreign media have been making hay with defamatory rhetoric – much of it consisting of outright fabrications. On 20 May, Venezuela’s election day, we international observers, who had spent a week investigating Venezuela’s electoral procedures and meeting with campaign managers of all four candidates, learned from the Guardian website that we had been barred from the country and were not really there. ‘Venezuela has fallen to a dictator’ screamed a Guardian headline two days later, assuring readers that the elections were fraudulent, and that among the methods employed by the regime to remain in power was ‘violent censorship of the press’, an assertion especially remarkable because most of the Venezuelan newspapers are openly hostile to Maduro. Perhaps the Guardian doesn’t read them.
Milder, though no less free of prejudice, was the Telegraph’s headline on 21 May: ‘Nicolás Maduro filmed victoriously waving to an empty plaza after a ‘sham’ election’, the editor having apparently forgotten that on the previous day his newspaper had described Maduro speaking to a crowd of cheering supporters after his election victory. Similarly threadbare complaints against Venezuela are available on-line courtesy of The Economist, the New Statesman, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and many others.
Most of the media venom directed at the Venezuelan government is evidence-free and based on little more than rote copying from press releases issued by the United States, the European Union and other hostile governments. All decline to acknowledge that despite the intense international pressure on the country and its disquieting economic situation, Venezuelans have spoken and have demonstrated that they do not wish to be told what to think and do by foreign governments and media.
The freshly-elected government’s immediate task, a huge one, will be to rebuild Venezuela’s shattered economy. Whether Maduro and his team are able to accomplish this while maintaining peace within the country remains to be seen. Some would undoubtedly prefer to see them fail. What they and the people of Venezuela need and deserve from the rest of the world, however, is not hostility but respect, support and recognition of their right as a sovereign people to decide their future for themselves.
Jeremy Fox is a British journalist, author and founder of Democracia Abierta. He was recently in Venezuela accompanying the presidential elections of May 20.