Valor in Venezuela

The presidency of Nicolas Maduro has undoubtedly been an absolute failure. To even call Mr. Maduro’s tenure as the leader of Venezuela a ‘presidency’ is to misunderstand the word. A presidency is an honor bestowed upon a leader with great vision, sensible policy recommendations and the trust of the electorate. Mr. Maduro’s vision, at most, extends to the next ideological bus stop that is to transition from Chavez’s authoritarianism towards the creation of a totalitarian state. Due to Mr. Maduro’s firmly held and greatly misguided core beliefs, it should really come as no surprise that 2014 was an absolute disaster for Venezuela in policy terms. By not having a vision or any effective policies to tackle Venezuela’s economic woes, Mr. Maduro has completely betrayed the trust of the electorate that supposedly elected him in 2013.

Image Courtesy of A.Davey © 2012 some rights reserved

Image Courtesy of A.Davey © 2012 some rights reserved

However, the terrible year Venezuela had in 2014 could not have happened without the horrendous preview of coming attractions that was 2013 for the OPEC member state. Throughout 2013 the Maduro regime struggled to keep the economy on track. From the moment that Mr. Maduro became the ruler of Venezuela, he was unable to capture the imagination of his people in the same manner that his mentor and predecessor had successfully done before him. As hard as he has tried, Mr. Maduro cannot fill his predecessor’s shoes and this is perhaps because they were never meant to fit properly in the first place. When looking back on the reign of Mr. Chavez (another individual not worthy of the title ‘President’), analysts, historians and pundits of all political stripes refer to both the governance model and ideology of Venezuela’s government at the time as Chavismo. The very fact that Mr. Chavez’s reign isn’t referred to as the rise of Socialismo is inherently problematic for Mr. Maduro.

Looking even further back at the history of Venezuela, it is always impossible to escape the looming shadow that is the legacy of Simon Bolivar. Mr. Chavez sought and now Mr. Maduro seeks to embody the ideals of Mr. Bolivar. In 2014, a descendant of Mr. Bolivar made clear that not only did Bolivar’s blood run through his veins but that he too agreed with his ancestor’s belief in individual liberty. While Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski of Miranda made a splash in 2012 and 2013 as the candidate of the opposition, the media focused on Leopoldo Lopez, the great-great-grandson of Simon Bolivar. Mr. Lopez is also the head of Voluntad Popular, one of the country’s largest and most popular opposition parties.

As the tyranny of Venezuela became intolerable in February 2014, Mr. Lopez led various rallies in Caracas opposing: rising inflation, the shortage of basic goods and services as well as high unemployment. The brave and peaceful opposition of Mr. Lopez was met with the heavy hand of the Chavista state. 18 February 2014 will forever live in infamy, as it is the day that Mr. Lopez, out of concern for the safety of his followers, surrendered his freedom to the Maduro administration. At the time of his arrest, Mr. Lopez left behind a five year old daughter and a one year old son as well as his wife of seven years. Now, over a year later, Mr. Lopez remains behind bars.

Before handing himself over to an uncertain fate, Mr. Lopez stood up on the famed statue of Jose Marti in Caracas and addressed throngs of supporters who begged him to continue the fight for freedom. Mr. Marti is one of the greatest Latin American writers. Mr. Marti, much like Mr. Lopez, dedicated his life to the fight for the freedom of the individual.

When addressing the crowd before him – a crowd that went on for as far as the eye could see – he spoke of the values of Venezuela and how they are historically antithetical to those of the current regime. According to Mr. Lopez, the values of the Maduro regime are by no means Venezuelan. In fact he called them foreign. Yet when Mr. Lopez spoke, he did not use the term ‘foreign’ in the diminutive or xenophobic, he simply was making a point about the origins of Venezuelan values. From its founding as a country despite periods of authoritarian rule, Venezuela is a country that was built on the principles of the rule of law and the liberty of the individual.

Perhaps the most moving moment in Mr. Lopez’s address to the crowd beneath him was when he thanked his wife for her love and support. As he helped her up to the statue he stood on, they spoke and kissed one another. Once she was safely up on the statue, Lilian Tintori fought back tears as she waved to the crowd with genuine sincerity and resilience in her eyes. Lilian went on to take off a simple necklace she was wearing which had The Cross on it. Before he stepped down from the statue of Jose Marti, Leopoldo lowered his head so that Lilian could put her necklace on him. The manner in which these two individuals shared the most private of possibly final moments in the most public and difficult of circumstances is truly astounding.

The love of Leopoldo Lopez and Lilian Tintori is something the Maduro regime and its thugs will neither comprehend nor ever be able to break. For the most dedicated of patriots, love of family and love of country are equal in measure. However, for the moment unfortunately it seems unlikely that Mr. Lopez in spite of his love of both family and country that he will be leaving prison any time soon. While Mr. Lopez is undoubtedly one of the most intelligent politicians in the history of Venezuela, he overestimated the abilities of leaderless protesters and underestimated the ruthlessness of Mr. Maduro.

Once Mr. Lopez was incarcerated, it was rather easy for Mr. Maduro to demonize peaceful demonstrators and depict them as an unruly mob. Since very few political leaders other than Marina Corina Machado and Henrique Capriles could effectively mount an anti-government demonstration campaign, it was incumbent upon the Venezuelan press to tell the truth about the Maduro regime.

The aforementioned is easier said than done considering how dangerous the work of a journalist is in today’s Venezuela. While Chavez reigned, three journalists have been killed (that the public knows of).  According to the U.S. NGO, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the three journalists were killed in 2002, 2006 and 2009.  Of the three slain journalists, two of them are suspected of having been killed by government or military forces.  Orel Sambrano (killed in 2009), primarily covered issues of criminal behavior and corruption while Jorge Ibraín Tortoza Cruz (killed in 2002) focused his reporting on human rights.

While it is harder to confirm the deaths of freelance and bloggers, no journalists we know of have been killed while Maduro has been “President”. However, things have gotten far worse for those on the frontlines of the war on free speech. According to Reporters Without Borders (a French NGO), in their 2015 (based on data for the year 2014) World Press Freedom Index, Venezuela is ranked 137th out of 180 countries. That means, it is one of the least free presses in the world today. The ranking of 137th is a sizeable drop for Venezuela, which in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index had a ranking of 116th in the world out of 180. The farthest back that the organization’s ranking dates back to is 2002 when Venezuela was ranked 77th out of 134 countries. Were it not for the totalitarian regime of the Castro brothers in Cuba, Venezuela is the most poorly ranked country in all of Latin America on the Index.

The media is continually being silenced in the country not only through the incarceration of journalists or threats of violence but by direct government involvement in the media. At the moment one of the industries suffering most from the various shortages of goods afflicting the Venezuelan economy is the news industry. Since 2012, various newspapers have had trouble getting paper in a timely fashion since the government no longer deemed the import of such paper a national priority. In the past two years in particular, the government has been manipulating its currency both to mask the country’s sky-high inflation but also to make the import of newsprint (from the US and Canada) far more difficult for those that criticize it. Now one of the most storied news publications in all of Venezuela, the daily El Universal is under the stewardship of a Spanish investment firm as of July. The exact owners of the firm are not known to the public and since the takeover of the paper, many of the publication’s most esteemed writers have left the publication due to its increasingly pro-Maduro stance. This is akin to if the New York Times or The Guardian were purchased tomorrow by shadowy investors known to have ties to one of the largest political parties in either the US or the UK.

What is happening in Venezuela is unacceptable. For the status quo to change, brave people must stand up for their dignity and fight with all they have got. This is very easy to say from the safety of St. Andrews, however it is my hope in writing this that many in the West who used to (and in some cases still do) sympathize with the Chavez-Maduro regime realize that it is completely and utterly indefensible. Thuggish governance must be condemned even if it speaks in the soothing tones of equality and brotherhood as Chavez used to and Maduro would if he had a fraction of his predecessor’s detestable eloquence.

It is also my hope that either Mr. Capriles or Ms. Corina Machado picks up where Mr. Lopez left off. Mr. Lopez and Ms. Tintori were in an impossible situation, being forced to pick between the safety of their family and the freedom of their country. Their choice is to be respected and never condemned, it is heroic and noble. That being said, for the rest of Latin America and the world for that matter to be embarrassed into calling dictatorship by its name, a martyr must rise. Who that will be, I do not know. However, they should hopefully do so sooner rather than later since the longer Maduro is in power, the more “normal” his unacceptable governance will seem to the Venezuelan people.