“The devil came here yesterday, and it smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of.” So said the notorious Hugo Chavez, late president of Venezuela, at a United Nations speech in 2006, alluding to George W. Bush’s presence at the United Nations Convention the day before.
Venezuela sits nestled between Colombia and Guyana on the Caribbean coast of the South American continent. It is perhaps best known for its eccentric former president, Hugo Chavez. Chavez’s vitriolic anti-American rhetoric and foreign policy caprice made him an incredibly controversial figure on the global political stage, despised by the United States and its allies but hailed as a savior among many of his own people. Idiosyncrasy aside, the Chavez administration lies at the crux of Venezuela’s devolution from semi-functioning democracy to a now quasi-failed state.
Chavez began his political career as an infantry commander, catapulted into the limelight after an attempted coup against the Carlos Perez administration in 1992. Though he failed to unseat Perez, the coup gave him the exposure he needed to formally enter politics at the head of his nascent populist party, the Movimiento Quinto Revolucionario (Fifth Republic Movement, or MVR).
In 1998, Chavez ran for president and won by a solid margin, beginning a lengthy and tumultuous fourteen-year term that began and ended with little more than bombast. His election augured in a new and ambitious constitution, which, reflective of Chavez’s idolatry of socialist leader Simon Bolivar, changed the name of the country to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela as well as enshrining the extended rights of health, education, and employment. The 1999 constitution increased the power of the executive office, lengthening the presidential term time by one year and creating the possibility for consecutive re-election. A decade later, three years after a successful 2006 presidential campaign, Chavez put forth a referendum to abolish term limits, which passed with 54%[i] of the vote and in a sense formalized Chavez’s evident dictatorship. A year after obtaining a green light to become a lifelong president, Chavez gained the power to rule by decree for eighteen months from a rubber-stamp National Assembly. Shrewdly, Chavez had gone from legitimate political candidate to undisputed autocrat in a mere dozen years.
Throughout all of his campaigns, Chavez was consistently plagued with accusations of election fraud from his opposition. However, no concrete evidence as to malpractice was ever revealed, and Chavez has garnered enough supporters to legitimise his role as head of state. Chavez’s domestic policy decisions were ostensibly beneficial: he nationalised the oil industry in 2001 with decree no. 1501, or the Hydrocarbons Organic Law, and used the revenues to fund social welfare programs that provided free and accessible healthcare and education to many Venezuelans[ii]. In fact, a 2011 report by the Organization of American States in conjunction with the United Nations Development Program called “Nuestra Democracia” (Our Democracy) noted that poverty in Venezuela decreased by over 20%, with extreme poverty mitigated by almost 10%. Chavez’s welfare initiatives garnered him considerable and enduring popularity, which manifested itself in the election of October 2012, in which Chavez won with almost 55%[iii] of the vote, a landslide victory against the liberal-reformist candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski.
Though Chavez’s welfare policies are lauded by both international organizations and his own citizens for their success in relieving poverty, his administration’s impotence in maintaining a functioning civic infrastructure and controlling the crime rate has led Venezuela to the brink of failed-statehood.
Failed states have multiple distinguishing factors. According to leading political theorist Robert Rotberg, “Nation-states fail because they are convulsed by internal violence and can no longer deliver positive political goods to their inhabitants.”[iv] ‘Political goods’ encompass the duties that a government owes its people, namely the assurance and enforcement of basic liberties, such as those of life, speech, belief, and protest. First and foremost, a state must be able to ensure the security of its citizenry, for civil society can only burgeon when founded on the promise of preservation of life. Throughout Chavez’s 12-year presidency, Venezuela’s homicide rate skyrocketed, until by 2012 it had become the most violent country in South America. The lack of security and widespread lawlessness in Venezuela thus primes it for deterioration into failed statehood.
Crime in Venezuela is further exacerbated by infrastructural inadequacy. By 2009, massive power outages and staple food shortages were plaguing the nation. The government began rationing necessities such as clean water, bread, and milk. Chavez’s administration had ostracised both American and international corporations to the extent that the few remaining multinationals were oil companies, and even those were beginning to distance themselves from the disastrous Venezuelan situation. A state-controlled exchange rate prevented the government from using monetary policy to fight inflation, leading to unsettling price fluctuations that, coupled with the scarcity of basic goods, left millions in the country destitute. Due to these factors, by the end of his third and last term as president, Chavez was facing a strong and angry liberal opposition that espoused the long-neglected ideals of democratic reform, civic accountability, and government transparency.
On March 5th, 2013, Hugo Chavez died, leaving a divided, restless, and slowly imploding country. A follow-up election was, in strict accordance with the 1999 constitution, planned for the following month. Unsurprisingly, Chavez’s hand-picked successor, vice-president Nicolas Maduro, won the election and has since perpetuated the Chavista tradition of antagonism toward the United States, intolerance of dissent, and neglect of a rapidly disintegrating social fabric. Maduro even apes Chavista rhetoric, flinging almost farcical insults at the US head of state – Chavez labeled Obama “a poor ignoramus”[v], while Maduro chose to re-introduce the fire-and-brimstone allusion in calling the American President “the boss of the devils.”[vi]
Try as he may, Maduro has not been able to capture the heart and minds of Chavez’s constituency. While Chavez defeated opposition leader Capriles in October by nearly 10% of the vote, the latter lost the April election against Maduro by a negligible amount, little more than 1%. Maduro fails to reaffirm Chavez’s charismatic legitimacy, fragmenting his political base and allowing the opposition to grow and consolidate against him. Failed states, fittingly enough, are characterized by the absence of trust in the political system and myriad insurgencies or warring factions that struggle to seize control of the nation. Though Venezuela has not devolved into such a condition, it is only a matter of time before a coup d’etat is attempted.
Already, Maduro has led Venezuela further away from international oversight in his withdrawal from the American Convention of Human Rights, stereotypically lambasting it as an extension of United States’ authority. Domestically, the country is suffering from aggravated shortages and lengthening power outages, which the government has done little to address, citing sabotage as the cause of all woe. Protests are ravaging the capital city of Caracas, with schools and universities operating intermittently due to both perpetual unrest and continued indignation over the inadequacy of the Chavez-Maduro regime.
Barring the occurrence of a miraculous rapprochement between Maduro and the opposition party, his inability to sustain popular support combined with an increasingly isolationist foreign policy will inevitably catalyse a stand-off between government forces and those who wish to pull Venezuela out of the darkness – literally.
Strictly speaking, Venezuela is not as of yet a “failed state.” But it is pretty damn close.
[iv] Rotberg, Robert. State Failure and Weakness in a Time of Terror.