On April 14, Venezuela will elect the successor to Hugo Chávez, who died on March 5. Whoever wins – be it the regime’s candidate Nicolas Maduro or the opposition leader Henrique Capriles – will be faced with a range of problems.
During his 14 years as ruler of Venezuela and its 28 million inhabitants, Chávez continually emphasised that his Bolivarian project had brought about major change, particularly compared with the regimes of his predecessors on both the right and the left.
But what strikes one most when looking at the history of Venezuela over the past 50 years is the permanence of certain failures, which continue to exert a heavy financial toll on the country’s future.
The first is the country’s extreme dependency on oil – something that became even more pronounced under Chávez. The economy and the government’s actions are essentially based on the income from oil and fluctuations in the price of a barrel of black gold.
Maria Alejandra Alvarez, a critic of the Bolivarian regime who lives in Switzerland, says social policies have fluctuated with the price of oil since the installation of democracy in 1958.
Alvarez, a former Venezuelan diplomat at the United Nations in Geneva, served during the first two years of Chávez’s regime.
“Contrary to the regime’s propaganda, there have always been social programmes in Venezuela. In the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the price of a barrel of oil fell to less than $30 (CHF28),” she said.
“This led the Social Democratic president of the time, Carlos Andrés Pérez, to institute a neoliberal austerity programme [as part of a deal with the International Monetary Fund], resulting in budget cuts and price increases.”
Riots and looting
These measures hit above all the poor – in other words, most of the population – provoking demonstrations, riots and looting in the capital Caracas in 1989, followed by a bloody repression which caused between 300 and 3,000 deaths, depending on the source.
This quickened the fall of the bipartite system and opened the way to the military putschist and later president Hugo Chávez.
“Today, we find ourselves in a similar situation, with an interim president [Maduro] who has announced, as in 1989, economic measures and a currency devaluation,” Alvarez said.
“In 1989, the rioters looted the food shops because they knew the price was going to go up. But today, there isn’t even anything to steal because the shelves are bare.”
Venezuelans in Switzerland
Between 2,000 and 3,000 Venezuelans live in Switzerland, estimates the Venezuela Society Switzerland. A large number have dual nationality.
While in Venezuela the population is polarised between Chávists and anti- Chávists, the Venezuela Society Switzerland claims to respect a strict neutrality, allowing both sides to come together and support humanitarian actions for their country.
Most Venezuelans who can vote at the embassy in Bern support the opposition leader Henrique Capriles. But the diaspora in Switzerland also includes those who support the party in power and – like their opponents – have mobilised as many of their compatriots as possible to vote on April 14.
Elizul Mota, a socio-cultural educator and event organiser who has lived in Switzerland since 1998, couldn’t disagree more.
Having grown up in Petare, the largest shanty town in Caracas, she has personal experience of the demonstrations and riots of 1989.
“In our quarter, we felt excluded. We were the country’s invisible majority. Many of us felt ashamed in front of a lawyer, doctor or politician. We didn’t feel we had a voice in our destiny,” she said.
“When Chávez led his [unsuccessful] coup in 1992, he embodied all my hopes, by assuming total responsibility for his actions, unlike other politicians.”
Asked what really changed under Chávez, Mota says the former leader was a great pedagogue.
“He taught us that we had to take our destiny into our own hands. Previously, the projects which were meant for us came from above. With Chávez’s arrival to power, we learnt to organise ourselves and make our points of views and expectations count.”
She points to the programme to eliminate illiteracy, Mission Robinson, which was launched in 2003. “My father-in-law learnt to read as a result. The population saw concrete results from these missions.”
France-based Venezuelan sociologist Pedro Jose Garcia Sanchez admits that one of Chávism’s greatest achievements was putting the issue of poverty on the table – something few governments had done before.
“But to turn that into a panacea – I don’t agree with that,” said Garcia Sánchez, who grew up in the neighbourhood of San José de Cotiza, another Caracas shanty town.
“In a barrio [neighbourhood], the people who benefit from a mission are those who accept the game of political vote-grabbing. From the moment when you agree to vote for the Chávists, to take part in demonstrations, to dress in red and to keep quiet about injustices, you continue to benefit from missions. If not, you’re excluded from them.”
According to the Swiss Foreign Ministry, bilateral relations between Switzerland and Venezuela are “good, but not particularly well-developed”.
Switzerland opened an honorary consulate in the capital Caracas in 1909. In 1939, it opened a diplomatic representation (first a legation and from 1961 an embassy). A Swiss-Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce was set up in 1979.
Switzerland and Venezuela have concluded bilateral agreements on investment protection, double taxation and aviation.
In 2011, Switzerland imported goods – primarily agricultural products and metals – worth CHF6.3 million. The value of Swiss exports – primarily pharmaceuticals, machinery and precision instruments – totalled CHF374.3 million.
At the beginning of 2012, there were 1,780 Swiss nationals living in Venezuela.
(Source: Swiss Foreign Ministry)
Culture of impunity
Without being a constant factor in Venezuelan history, the violence which has worried Venezuelans more than ever during the current election campaign was already an acute problem during the 1980s and 1990s. But it got worse during Chávez’s presidency.
In the past 15 years, there have been 150,000-200,000 violent deaths – more than in some wars. More than 2,600 people have died in the first three months of 2013.
Among the many causes of this explosion of criminality, Garcia Sánchez points to a culture of impunity which he says hasn’t stopped developing since 1989.
“As one Venezuelan writer said during the riots of 1989, struck by the sheer indescribable joy of one of the looters: finally everyone has impunity,” he said.
“With Chávez, this extension of the domain of impunity gained credibility. By betting on a form of government based on loyalty, Chávez made Venezuelans understand that by never contradicting the wishes of the caudillo [a populist military leader], they could give themselves everything and benefit from the corruption without anything happening to them. This feeling exists in all social strata in Venezuela.”
For Elizul Mota, however, Chávez was a liberator rather than a caudillo. “Public canteens are free for people over 60, music schools are free for everyone, professional training is free, public transport works very well and is free for senior citizens. The national telephone company, nationalised in 2006, offers tariffs which everyone can afford,” she said.
“The list of benefits of Chávez’s administration is enormous – as is the affection of humble people towards him.”