Sunday, 5 Feb 2023

Opinion | The Chavista Revolution Has Come Full Circle

CARACAS, Venezuela — On Wednesday morning, Juan Guaidó, 35, stood before tens of thousands of disillusioned Venezuelans and held the country’s Constitution while swearing himself in as interim president.

Mr. Guaidó is the polar opposite of President Nicolás Maduro: A young leader — he heads the democratically elected National Assembly — whose reputation is not marred by corruption.

His promise to lead a transitional government until the country holds free elections has revived hope. Perhaps Venezuela is finally at the end of a political cycle that, despite some years of social gains, ultimately impoverished what was once the richest nation in the region.

Minutes after being sworn in, Mr. Guaidó, virtually unheard of until two weeks ago, was formally recognized as Venezuela’s leader by the United States, Canada, Paraguay, Brazil, Colombia and seven other countries.

On a nearby avenue, a rival march by government supporters, clad in their signature red T-shirts, barely filled a block. After more than two decades of socialism, the Chavista revolution has come full circle, undone by the very things that gave rise to it: social injustice, inequality, and a corrupt political elite that failed to deliver.

The Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro governments wasted their opportunity to rebuild this resource-rich nation. They squandered the country’s oil wealth, leaving the economy in tatters. They proved to be more violent and brutal than the people they had once rightly shamed and accused of repression. Mr. Maduro and his cronies became what they had vowed to change.

Yet it is too early to tell if Mr. Guaidó will last more than a few days as interim leader. In the past, bigger street demonstrations and longer protest movements have been quashed by a government that controls the courts and the police and has had the full support of the army.

A monthlong protest in 2014 ended with more than 40 people from both camps dead, and resulted in the jailing of the opposition leader Leopoldo López. In 2017, after the National Assembly was arbitrarily stripped of its right to legislate by the government-controlled Supreme Court, the highest in the country, street protests rocked the nation once more. More than 120 people died, thousands were injured and several hundred jailed. After three months, the opposition was disbanded and demoralized. The Maduro government, with the firm support of the military, had secured its grip on power.

This time could prove different. The opposition now has the support of the United States and other countries in the region like Argentina, Colombia and Brazil, which have swung to the right in the last couple of years with the election of Mauricio Macri, Iván Duque and Jair Bolsonaro.

After being handpicked to be his successor by Mr. Chávez, before his death in 2013, the left-leaning Mr. Maduro narrowly won a snap election. Two years later, the opposition won a so-called super majority in Congress. Instead of heeding the growing social discontent and working with the new National Assembly to pass corrective economic policies, Mr. Maduro moved to dissolve the legislative body, ultimately creating the Constituent National Assembly in 2017, a legislature packed with Maduro loyalists. As tensions intensified, both groups sought a negotiated transition. At every step, efforts to find a peaceful solution failed — from talks brokered by the Vatican in 2016 to meetings held in the Dominican Republic in late 2017 and early 2018.

Venezuelans have been disillusioned and angry with the Maduro government for almost as long as he has been in power — and the situation has become desperate. Any support Mr. Maduro enjoyed is eroding as Venezuelans are increasingly unable to feed their families. Food and medicine shortages are widespread. Hundreds have died from malnutrition and illnesses that are easily curable with the appropriate treatment. Power outages last for days, water is scarce and the decaying infrastructure is reminiscent of a war zone.

At a protest on Tuesday, people chanted anti-Maduro slogans and carried placards demanding change. But the most telling sign of the tragedy gripping the country was the hundreds of Venezuelan bolívares — the country’s currency — scattered on the pavement. Some people laughed at the sight, others trampled on them, but nobody bothered to pick them up. The International Monetary Fund estimates that hyperinflation will reach over 10 million percent this year.

This painful reality affects all Venezuelans, but particularly the poor, Mr. Maduro’s traditional base of support. As a result, they have largely abandoned him or express that they want him out. Many have simply opted to leave the country. According to the United Nations, three million people have already left the country and five million more could leave this year.

On Jan. 10, Mr. Maduro was sworn in to his second term in office. Throughout the ceremony he referred to himself as the constitutional president, but the elections he claims to have won in May were widely regarded as a sham, both domestically and abroad. The vote was overseen by an electoral body that is loyal to Mr. Maduro, and several key opposition leaders were excluded because they are imprisoned or were barred from running. He has progressively lost all legitimacy. This too is different from the past. Mr. Chávez was a lousy manager, but he had charisma and won elections more or less democratically.

It is impossible to know how long Mr. Guaidó will stand as interim president, but even if the Maduro government manages to cling to power, it is hard to imagine Mr. Maduro will succeed in recovering the economy, legitimacy and, most critical to the Chavista revolution: popular support.

Virginia Lopez-Glass has covered Venezuela and Latin America extensively for international media. She was senior correspondent for Al Jazeera English.

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