In Which Republic Were We Better Off?

VA columnist Jessica Dos Santos argues that claims that the country's situation was better before Chávez are not accurate.

In my last column I argued that ten years ago social inequality was not such an issue, and it was surely less visible, because under the Chávez governments the living standards were vastly improved for the majority.

This statement takes us to a reality we have to face: there have been two periods in the past 20+ years. Hugo Chávez held the reins from 1999 until he died in 2013. In this time, though some pretend otherwise, Venezuela had the best social indicators in its history by far.

After Chávez passed away, and following his instructions, Nicolás Maduro took the mantle.

This transition is a fact, but some ignore it and act like Maduro is just a clone. By doing this, they can just judge “the last 20 years” in one fell swoop. Others take advantage in finding an “elegant” excuse to jump ship from the Left or from Chavismo. “You know, Maduro is not Chávez.”

Truth be told, I think we should evaluate political projects beyond their respective leaders, their hallmarks and characteristics. But if someone wants to say “I’m sorry, I was happier with how the previous guy ran things,” that’s fair enough.

Regardless of this, I find it incredibly absurd to gloss over the tremendous differences between the two periods, just as it is disingenuous to ignore context. In fact, it might be even dangerous to do so.

Let me explain. During the Chávez years I had roast pork in December, traveled abroad for the first time and bought a car.

Meanwhile, in recent years, I’ve witnessed people angrily protesting because the government-promised pork shanks did not arrive, I’ve barely been able to leave Caracas and my car has been turned into a taxi. Well, only when it’s in decent conditions and there is fuel, which is not always the case.

If we wanted to be shallow, we would decree that Chávez was better than Maduro. End of story. But of course, there are plenty more layers to it: the oil price slump in global markets (as well as the fall in Venezuelan output), US imperialist attacks, sabotage from business guilds, etc, etc.

Beyond that, Maduro has a different personality from Chávez and has reacted differently in the face of adversities. Or at least that is what some of us speculate based on the memory of someone who is no longer alive. There’s no way of telling how he would have acted in current circumstances.

It’s one of the bad habits we human beings have: being sure enough to state how dead people would act if they were still alive. I usually refrain from it, but you always wonder. For example, in tough moments, I ask myself “what would my grandmother do?” or if I’m reporting on a complicated issue, “how would person X write about it?” In the end those are tricks our brain plays on us.

In fairness, I don’t know who was dealt a tougher hand, Chávez or Maduro. That’s not the point of this article. My point is that lots and lots of people have tales like mine, finding themselves in a precarious situation now after enjoying much higher standards under Chávez. But these millions, more often than not, will not talk about “Maduro” and “Chávez,” different contexts and different policies. Instead they claim that “in the Fourth Republic (before Chávez) we were better off.”

They do so even if during the Fourth Republic (1) they were way worse, or are not even old enough to remember it. Events like the “Caracazo” social explosion don’t exactly suggest everything was better back then. In my case, I recall a very complicated childhood, where for example getting all the recommended “school supplies” was a true nightmare. I wore tight shoes because we couldn’t afford new ones, my pants were so short I looked like a part-time fisherwoman.

My parents would eat bread so their kids could have protein. December was probably the toughest time for them and other people who struggled to buy something, anything, for their kids’ Christmases. The famed “Saudi Venezuela,” the oil boom, was just for a select few.

But it’s less common to hear people say “see? Everything was better under Chávez” or “in the earlier part of the Fifth Republic things were great,” at least in public. Doing so is a sin because Maduro is just following Chávez’s path, according to zealous opinion-makers on both sides. So praising Chávez would mean endorsing everything that happened afterward, never mind all the differences we’ve gone over.

Maduro and fellow Chavista leaders should not be off the hook either. Under a permanent imperialist siege, the government has had a very low tolerance towards criticism, flinging the “traitor” label way too easily.

To sum up, I hope one day we are able to judge the Fourth and Fifth Republics honestly. Until then, the struggle continues.

(1) Formally, the Fourth Republic in Venezuela is the period from 1830 to 1999, though colloquially people use this expression to refer to the period between 1958 (after the Marcos Pérez Jiménez dictatorship ended) and 1999. Chávez’s arrival in power with his Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), quickly followed by a new Constitution, marked the beginning of the Fifth Republic.

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.