Venezuela, Little Venice

Posted on May 25, 2019


Little Venice

That’s the origins of Venezuela’s name, “Little Venice.” And here’s your quick quiz of the week, right up front. Who is the most famous man in Venezuela or her history? A. Nicolas Maduro, B. Hugo Chávez, C. Simón Bolívar, D. Fidel Castro.

Venezuela is in the news this week. Actually Venezuela has been in the news for a few years now since Hugo Chávez came to power in the late 1990s with a nationalist, socialist agenda. After giving away much of Venezuela’s wealth in an explosion of populist socialism whose legacy is a nearly bankrupt nation today, a long simmering opposition over the past several years has exploded into a revolution this week to replace Chavez’s successor as president, his chauffer Nicolas Maduro, who came to power in 2013 when his old chief died.

Venezuela is one of the world’s major oil exporters and an old ally of U. S. during the Cold War.  The president of the National Assembly, the 35-year old Juan Guaidó has declared himself President, the incumbent Maduro said, basically, “nuts to him, he’s just flunky for old American imperialism, and I’m still president,” and we’re off to the races. President Trump has recognized the Guaidó government and so have all the major Latin American republics with a few exceptions like Bolivia and Mexico. Russia and China support the socialist Maduro. Diplomats have been expelled and the macho leaders in both the U. S. and Venezuela are slinging insults and threats at each other.

So, what’s in it for the U. S.? At stake is basically the political organization and future of the American states, or all the countries in the Western Hemisphere. We support democracy and republics, free and independent institutions, the power of the vote, free enterprise, and a government that truly encompasses all of the needs of all of the people. Plus, add in individual rights, marketplace competition, freedom of speech, the rule of law, and include a Constitution guaranteeing most of the above, especially the rights of individuals, kind of like a bill of rights. And there you have it. That’s what we support. Not a socialist dictatorship like the one presided over today by Maduro.

Venezuelans have much admired the U. S. over the years. Venezuela declared its independence from Spain on July 5 1811. They recognized the one passed on July 4, 1776 by the American colonists of North America as an historic document promoting the autonomy and freedom of the Western Hemisphere, and they wished to emulate it as much of it as possible, including the date but they missed it by a day. They fought a long and hard war against the Spanish who had governed the land and people for almost 300 years and emerged as a republic, just as had the American colonists to the north.

The similarities between the two countries include two leaders of immense stature and vision: George Washington in the north, and Simón Bolívar in the south. Bolívar who not only commanded the armies that freed his fellow Venezuelans from Spanish dominion but also led Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia to independence. I’m not sure if we haven’t junked Washington these days as a sexist, racist, misogynist, slave-holding hypocrite, but in Venezuela they still revere Bolívar.

My first trip to Venezuela was in the late 1970s when the country was riding an oil boom. I was invited to a week-long historical conference and read a dull paper on something like the Spanish maritime empire of the colonial period. But the high point of my visit proved to be a party given by the powerful Mendoza family.’

“You going to Venezuela, eh?” my father chatted as we talked over the phone about the trip. “Well, call up the Mendozas when you get there. We built a paper mill together and have some other joint projects. They’ll remember the old man.”

So I called one of the Mendozas when I got to Caracas and sure enough, “Harold Clayton’s son? Wonderful. We’re having a party Friday. Come on!”

I arrived at the party, an immense and splendid home in one of the upscale suburbs of the capital and was welcomed like a son. My dad had worked for W. R. Grace & Co. his whole life and had built paper mills all over the world using bagasse as the raw material, and the Mendozas and Grace had jointly built one in the country.

Well, it was fun fraternizing with the rich and powerful and I remember their warmth and candor.

Venezuela had a relatively small but powerful and rich elite, a growing middle class sharing in the expanding economy, but, as most of Latin America, probably a third or more of the nation still living poorly.

I had seen where one of their political slogans was “sembrar el petroleeo” or “seed the petroleum” to modernize the country and spread the wealth and opportunities for all people more equitably. It seemed to me that the slogan was just that, and nothing more. Oil revenues were still driving the economy and while some increased industrialization and development was occurring (like paper mills), I did not sense a massive, for example, import substitution development going on, like building cars in Venezuela instead of importing them with easy oil incomes.

“Yes, I know what you are saying,” one of the Mendozas I chatted with admitted. “It is easier to hop a plane and go to Miami to buy what we want in your markets, or just order new televisions and computers built in Japan or the United States or Europe than to build them here. And they’re usually a lot better built in the U. S. or Japan than here!” he chuckled.

I left it at that and enjoyed my stay in Caracas. The Venezuelans have a long political history of social and Christian democratic party rule, interrupted by some dictators who have not served the people well.

Todays violence and discontent is reflective of the latest round of dictators—this time the Chávez-Maduro axis—who have imposed their personality and power at the expense of republican and democratic values. At stake is not simply Venezuela, but the competition between the U. S. and our old Communist/Cold War opponents, Russia, China, and Cuba. Cuba has been especially active in supplying security and military advice and assistance—numbering in the thousands of Cubans—to support socialism/communism in Venezuela. Plus, Cuba has become very dependent on cheap Venezuelan oil. It is not just a question of ideologies and politics, but of bare economics and power.

The traditional military in Venezuela say they support the Madero government, and they have the guns at the moment. That could all turn around very soon, and very violently. About 1/3 of Venezuelans support the Chávez-Madero regime. Another 1/3 are totally in opposition. Who gains the middle will win this struggle. Strange to say, but it resembles, in a fashion, politics in this country today.

Published as “Politics in Venezuela is similar to our own” Sunday Jan. 28, 2019 in The Tuscaloosa News.