In early April, just days before Venezuela’s emotional election, the first after Hugo Chavez’s death, one of its most famous satirists was kidnapped in Caracas by two armed men. As he waited for the ransom to be paid, Laureano Marquez decided to horse around a little with his hosts, thinking that might reduce his kidnappers’ levels of stress. But as the conversation progressed, Marquez found both his captors equally mournful about life in Venezuela, even though they were on opposite sides of the political spectrum – one for beefy, unglamorous Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor; the other for his wiry, rather better-looking challenger Henrique Capriles.
“Both of them had guns,” Marquez later recounted, “and I said, wow, what happened? Each never killed the other. If they can do that, all society can do the same.”
It might not seem particularly searing satire and not funny at all to see Venezuela’s future through the prism of two desperadoes. But in many ways, the story captures Venezuela’s situation perfectly. Like Marquez’s captors, the election result revealed a country fairly evenly split into two ideological camps (Maduro received just 270,000 votes more than his opponent). And the divide within merely reflects the deep ructions over Venezuela abroad.
There is a decidedly schizophrenic worldview of its fallen “elected autocrat”, Chavez, the caudillo with the booming voice, bizarre exhibitionism and big handouts. There is dispute over Venezuela’s “poor” economic prospects despite its immense store of oil reserves. There is doubt about whether it can ever be a force for good with its habitually “bad, mad and dangerous” friends like the Castros of Cuba and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
These are not really three issues, just one. And they add up to one question. What comes next? Can post-Chavez Venezuela’s generously funded 21st-century socialism, which he called the Bolivarian Revolution, survive now that its charismatic founder is dead? How long can it afford its idiosyncratic gifts of oil worth billions of dollars to Cuba and 17 other Latin American and Caribbean countries? Can there ever be a friendship between Caracas and Washington considering that Chavez tried so hard to light a leftist, anti-American fire throughout Latin America?
The answers seem to depend on whom you ask. Eric D Langer, director of Georgetown University’s Centre for Latin American Studies, says the revolution Chavez grandly named after Venezuela’s liberator Simon Bolivar is unsustainable. Even so, “he has been the hope of old-style leftists throughout the world” with his global anti-imperialism front and domestic welfarist policies to build houses for the poor, provide subsidised food at government supermarkets and free health care in the hinterland.
But then there’s Rosa Castrillo, a homemaker and mother in the poor South San Agustin neighbourhood of central Caracas. “We have to continue with the revolution. Before Chavez, we didn’t count,” she says. She is referring to the missions, Chavez’s welfare programmes, which have posthumously made for his political beatification as “Saint Hugo”, the hero of the poor.
Langer says the improved daily reality of the poor and lower middle-class in Venezuela shows that Chavez enforced a certain amount of “redistributive justice, yes, but he made everyone dependent on the petro-rentier state”. He means the overwhelming reliance on petrol exports and revenues for everything that happened – and didn’t – in the 14-year Chavez era. This includes regional resource diplomacy as well as vast social welfare programmes at home and abroad (not least in the South Bronx, one of the poorest congressional districts in the US). “Do you teach people how to fish or give them fish?” Langer asks with acid emphasis.
Whatever you can afford, replies Keane Bhatt, a Washington activist with the non-profit North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). Bhatt routinely fights – and sometimes wins – battles on points with American media outlets such as The New Yorker for inaccurately describing Venezuela as “leading Latin America in homicides” (it doesn’t, that’s Honduras).
He says Venezuela after Chavez can afford to do as it pleases. “Roughly 500 billion barrels of oil, relatively low debt levels, and it can borrow at a fairly low cost [because] interest rates on the central government’s external debt are 3.4 per cent of export earnings. So, its macroeconomic foundations are sufficiently sound to allow the government to pursue the strategies it wishes.”
The energy analyst Anthony Bryan disputes this. “Its economic situation is tough,” he says, quoting predictions by the Venezuelan consultancy Ecoanalitica that growth will be a “sluggish 0.9 per cent in 2013; inflation is high at 25 per cent; fiscal accounts are in disarray, dollar and goods scarcity remain problems; oil production is stagnant; demands on [state oil company] Petroleos de Venezuela’s cash flow will remain high in order to fulfil social programmes”.
The prophets of doom are bolstered by new economic projections from the World Bank and the United Nations that Venezuela will be Latin America’s worst-performing economy this year, growing by only 0.1 per cent.
But Tim Anderson of the University of Sydney, who specialises in economic integration in Latin America, challenges the “many half-truths and daily lies”. He says too many, too often, rashly and inaccurately forecast Venezuela’s collapse in the Chavez period.
In fact, it is doing just fine, he insists. It’s not “more dependent on imported food, spending on food imports rose from 2.0 to 2.2 of GDP, between 2000 and 2009 [but] local food production also increased”.
Anderson quotes a 2012 Food and Agricultural Organisation report that says that Venezuela’s “caloric self-sufficiency rose from 58 per cent to 62 per cent in that same period … the proportion of undernourished Venezuelans more than halved … by 2009 the rate of underweight children was down to four per cent”.
He concludes by comparing this with worsening food insecurity in the US “from 10 per cent of families in 2000 to 15 per cent in 2011. The irony, he says, is that “[supposedly] mismanaged Venezuela was overcoming hunger while the much wealthier USA was going backwards”.
Five people. Five very different opinions. A blizzard of figures. Does anything ever add up about Venezuela?
PetroCaribe certainly doesn’t. The subsidised oil programme amounts to billions in lost revenue per year. There are additional unquantifiable costs of the oil-enabled populism instituted by “El Commandante” as a gesture of regional solidarity.
He called it “energy unity”, the creation of a “new economic space” based on solidarity and generosity, a blow well struck for a “pluripolar world”. Langer says it might be better described as the slow unpicking of the state oil and gas company Petroleos de Venezuela. “There are problems because they’re giving oil away, and putting too little into infrastructure and development.”
Whatever the theology of Venezuela’s petro-politics, it is interesting that the Bolivarian Revolution stopped well short of the oil sector, the country’s only real asset. Manuel Larrabure, who is Venezuelan by birth and is pursuing a doctorate on Chavez’s 21st-century socialism at Toronto’s York University, sees this as a key sign of weakness. “The oil industry has survived attempts to democratise it,” he points out. “You don’t see workers controlling it. This is proof that the government didn’t want to do too much, was afraid to do too much because Venezuela is just as dependent on oil production as it was 12 years ago.”
So is everyone else in the region now because PetroCaribe literally keeps the lights on in the Dominican Republic, provides more than half of all that Cuba needs every year and supplies a host of other cash-strapped Caribbean countries with enough to get by at the low interest rate of one per cent over a 17- to 25-year period. What’s more, Chavez never asked for an itemised bill of how the savings were used. It made governments in the region “akin to college kids with their parents’ credit card”, according to Robert Maguire, director of George Washington University’s Latin America and hemispheric studies programme.
Yet Chavez remained evangelical about it all. In 2007, he told an Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries summit in Saudi Arabia to follow his example and institute “solidarity-based proposals to alleviate the hardship of millions of people that inhabit the world’s 50 poorest countries”. They gave no sign of having heard.
However poor the economics, PetroCaribe does at least make for good politics. It made Chavez the regional emperor of the grand gesture. It seemed to marginalise the US in its own backyard by turning it into a cross between a tight-fisted Uncle Scrooge and the vile and insincere Fagin. (Chavez’s gift of oil to heat the homes of the poorest in the US was a public relations spectacular).
As one western diplomat said, it changed the way the world thought of Venezuela. “Once upon a time it was known for two things, oil and beautiful women. Now it is known for just one – Hugo Chavez.”
PetroCaribe ensured that news of his passing was heard across the Caribbean as a signal of unwelcome change beckoning over the horizon. In Haiti, for instance, the poorest country in the Americas and recipient of an estimated US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) every year, walls across the chaotic capital Port au Prince quickly sprouted this teary, fearful message: “Adios Hugo Chavez, pep Ayisien pap jamm blye’w,” it read. Good bye Hugo Chavez, the Haitian people will never forget you.
Everyone agrees that the memory will linger at least for the time Chavez’s successor continues to be open-handed. But few believe Maduro need never get out the shears, to prune what he can.
So what might be in prospect? Langer says the subsidies to Cuba will continue because “the Venezuelan socialist experiment is predicated upon Cuba”. By all accounts, Chavez chose his successor with Havana firmly in mind. Maduro, the former bus driver and trade unionist, is seen to be closer to Cuba than his main rival for the job.
On April 26, a week after his inauguration as president, Maduro redeemed the pledge to Chavez, not wholly but symbolically, with a quick pilgrimage to see the Castros.
Bryan, who combines energy analysis with a senior fellowship at the University of West Indies’ Institute of International Relations, says aid to Cuba is a “priority”. It’s not just about keeping the faith with Chavez, it is a way for Maduro “to justify his revolutionary credentials in the post-Chávez era”, he says.
That’s fine in the short term, but regional analysts believe Maduro’s wafer-thin election victory will force accelerated reform in Cuba. Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank, says the Cubans are bound to be feverishly parsing the clause in Venezuela’s constitution that allows for a possible referendum to revoke a president half-way through his six-year term.
Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba and now professor of international relations at the University of Boston, agrees that “the Cubans will now conclude that their time for depending on the largesse of Chavismo is limited”. He adds that President Raul Castro’s designated successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, will be under pressure to find new, more dependable ways to replace the $6 billion from Caracas. Remember, this is its biggest source of cash, well ahead of money sent home by expatriate Cubans ($2.5bn), tourism ($2bn) or exports of nickel, tobacco and drugs (less than $2bn).
He may have a point. If Maduro stumbles, it is Cuba that will fall. During the election campaign, Capriles repeatedly attacked the “gifts” sent from Venezuela to Cuba, calling Maduro “Cuba’s candidate” and demanding that Caracas cut off oil supplies to Havana.
There are signs that this reality has already begun to glimmer faintly in the skies above Cuba’s long-ago red dawn. Just two days after Venezuela’s April 14 election, Granma, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, gravely commented on the Cuban economic reforms process. “The tasks facing us are among the most complex and important. They will have the biggest impact on reform of the Cuban economic model,” it said.
But what of the Caribbean poor, the other countries dependent on Venezuelan oil largesse? Each has one vote in the United Nations and the Organization of American States. As Langer says, “it’s a relatively inexpensive way to maintain influence.”
Caracas can, however, afford to cut back on subsidies to Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador because they don’t really need them so desperately and the relationship is strong enough to survive on goodwill alone.
So too the opportunistic alliance with Iran. Tehran’s largest embassy worldwide is in Caracas, Chavez used the relationship to cock a snook at the US. Venezuela is said to be building up practical knowledge of internet security issues by learning first-hand from Iran. But Capriles and many others question the relationship between secular Venezuela and Iran’s theocratic government. “What affinity do we have with Iran?” he has repeatedly asked.
Or vice versa.
Bryan says Venezuela and Iran have more in common than oil reserves (the world’s first and fourth largest respectively) and a dislike of US dominance. He explains Tehran’s friendship with Caracas and its decade-long outreach to Latin America as a concerted plan to “gain international legitimacy particularly for its nuclear programme”.
This suits Caracas too, right now, so long as it remains hysterically opposed to the US, accusing the CIA and State Department of a multitude of dark “plots”, infiltration and conspiracies, including “inoculating” Chavez with cancer.
But might that change now that Chavez is on the scene only as a precious memory, a poster wearing a red beret and a pithy slogan? It is significant that as the designated heir Maduro initiated backdoor negotiations with the US some months ago. Significant too that he renewed the overture the weekend before the election.
But nothing came of it and for now, Maduro gains more from crude anti-Americanism a la Chavez than anything else. But the labyrinth of geopolitics is full of blind alleys and the practicality that knitted together satirist Laureano Marquez’s kidnappers may also be glimpsed in the US-Venezuela trading relationship. It has always triumphed over the testy rhetoric, with Venezuela selling 40 per cent of its oil to the US.
One day, say the energy gurus, Venezuela will invite US energy companies to partner in oil exploration, particularly the Feria del Orinoco, one of the largest reserves in the world.
If that happened, the Chavez chapter would be history. Or legend?
No one knows.
Rashmee Roshan Lall, the former editor of The Sunday Times of India, is now a freelance writer based in Haiti.