I first went to Venezuela in about 1977. It was then politically quiet, economically well off, and possessed a working democracy. There were kinks and chinks in the armor of such a nice picture but I enjoyed my week there at a conference on the history of the Americas. The government was riding a high in income from increasing petroleum exports.
Today Venezuela is in political, social, and economic turmoil, to put it mildly. Just a few days ago, Juan Caguaripano, an officer of the Bolivarian National Guard, speaking in a video from the headquarters of the 41st Armored Brigade of Valencia, the home of the Venezuelan army’s armored division, called for the reestablishment of legitimate political order and the removal of President Nicholas Maduro and his illegally elected Constituent Assembly. That mini-uprising failed, but there will be more.
Presently there are about 15,000 Cuban soldiers, advisers, doctors, teachers, and others supporting the Leftist regime of the dictator Maduro with Cuban-style socialism. The Secretary General of the Organization of American States Luis Almagro called it an “occupation” army in testimony before the U. S. Senate on July 19. In exchange, Venezuelan oil flows freely and cheaply to help the old Cuban regime of Raúl Castro continue in power.
Protests in the streets across the country have cost over 120 lives in just the past few months while more than a thousand have been jailed in political protests according to the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights. Pharmaceuticals and food are scarce, and even fuel must be imported to cover shortages in one of the founding members of OPEC.
One of the most distinguished Latin American journalists writing today in Peru’s El Comercio, Andres Oppenheimer, wrote that President Maduro needs to be called what he is, a leftist dictator.
What is happening here? An immensely popular ex-Army officer, Hugo Chavez, rose to power in the late twentieth century and governed until his death from cancer in 2013. He delivered a leftist regime that kept the poor and large portions of the middle class in his camp, but, in doing so, alienated tens of thousands of Venezuelans who fled the country or turned against him and his successor, Maduro, for their dictatorial rule and increasing embrace of socialism.
That socialist agenda of the Chavez’s followers spread the wealth but ceased to create it.
The Venezuelan ruling classes must bear some of the blame. They have lived a high life and Chavez tapped into the discontent of many who had not shared in the lifestyles of the Venezuelan rich, who thought nothing of sending a maid or major domo on a jet to Miami to shop for them in the flush times of high oil prices and profits.
While in Caracas that week in 1977 I was invited to the home of one of the richest families in the country, largely through the friendship of my father who had collaborated with them in building a paper mill back in the 1950s when my dad worked for W. R. Grace & Co. The Mendoza family welcomed me warmly as the son of don Harold Clayton, and while chatting, I asked them about the slogan “sembrar el petroleo” which I had read about.
It means roughly, “sowing oil,” which was explained to me as taking huge profits generated by petroleum exports and plowing them into import-substitution national industries to make Venezuela more self-sufficient.
Had it worked I asked? One of the Mendozas was pretty frank.
“No, not really,” I seem to remember the thoughtful answer. “People don’t want a television set manufactured—usually badly—here in Venezuela when they can get one out of the box from the U.S.”
Corrupt politicians of the traditional parties had also stripped the government of immense revenue. The very large role that the Cubans and the drug trade play in modern Venezuela in sustaining Maduro is producing a deeply nationalistic reaction.
Venezuelans will remove Maduro and the Cubans when they embrace the principle, absolutely, that this is their country, and not one kowtowing to Cuba, or to international socialism.
Chavez and Maduro style themselves as “Bolivarian” leaders, but it is easy to wrap yourself in the flag of ultranationalism. Neither resembles in behavior or political wisdom Venezuela’s great liberator, Simón Bolívar who led five countries—Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia—to independence in the early nineteenth century.
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” noted Samuel Johnson in 1775. It is as appropriate today as it was two centuries ago.
Published as “Nationalism Taking Root in Venezuela” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday August 13, 2017