Hugo Chávez in Porto Alegre, Brazil. 26/01/2003. (Image Credit: Victor Soares - ABr | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 3.0 BR DEED)

Patria, Socialismo o Muerte” (Motherland, Socialism or Death) was the slogan used by the popular president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez Frias in its massive public meetings. Chavez sought support from the people through rallies to legitimize his actions, meanwhile, some participants were enthusiastic and supported Chávez’s ideas, while others were public employees who were ordered by their superiors to attend the meetings. These gatherings became a regular feature throughout his years in office. I was born and raised in the neighbouring country, Colombia, and it was always an enigma what he meant by that phrase. I remember vividly how as a child the slogan sounded comical to me. Now, as an adult, I can say that I understand what he was trying to say. Unfortunately for Mr. Chavez, the phrase should be changed to “Motherland, Socialism, and Death”.

Chavez was a Venezuelan military man who initiated a coup d´etat in 1992. He failed and was jailed for several years. Then, he was pardoned and he became a popular politician very quickly. Chavez campaigned for the presidency, making charismatic pledges to eradicate corruption, alleviate poverty, and overhaul Venezuela’s established and polarized political structure, which had shared power between two dominant parties. The country, having faced five recessions in the 1990s, grappled with widespread discontent due to escalating inequality. The Venezuelan media predominantly supported Chavez’s electoral bid. He became president of Venezuela on February 2, 1999. He began the political process called the Bolivarian Revolution named after Simón Bolívar, an early 19th-century Venezuelan revolutionary.  Bolívar was prominent during the Spanish-American wars of independence for liberating most of northern South America from Spanish rule. Mr. Chavez’s proclamation of the Bolivarian Revolution made it clear that he wanted to reform Venezuela’s institutions. He began with the country’s constitution and spent much of his time attempting to abolish existing checks and balances in Venezuela’s democracy.

In 1999, just a few months after he became president, he organized a referendum to reform the constitution. He had to campaign for president once again in 2000 after the newly established constitution. Going into the elections, Chávez had control of all three branches of government. Also running for president, Chávez’s closest challenger, was his former friend and co-conspirator in the 1992 coup, Francisco Arias Cárdenas, who began to denounce Chávez’s autocratic path. During his time as president, Mr. Chavez would go on to win three more presidential elections. There was significant support for Chávez amongst the Venezuelan lower class. The man possessed charisma and portrayed his narrative to the global audience as a melodramatic tale, depicting himself as an underdog battling against the forces of evil. He framed his actions as rectifying the injustices perpetrated by an evil, corrupt, racist, and imperialistic empire. He hailed from a humble background, which resonated with the lower classes and symbolized opposition to the oligarchy that had governed Venezuela for decades.

At the start of the 21st century, Venezuela was the world’s fifth-largest exporter of crude oil—to this day the country maintains the biggest proven oil reserves. Oil dominates the country’s economy. Before Chávez came to power in 1999, the state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) ran autonomously, making decisions based on guidance to increase profits. Like most companies, PDVSA took decisions based on market guidance but once Chávez came to power, he started directing PDVSA—he was able as president to choose the board of directors—and turned it into a direct government arm whose profits would be injected into social spending. This resulted in oil-funded social programs targeting poverty, literacy, hunger, and more. Chávez sought to make PDVSA his main source of funds for political projects and replaced oil experts with political allies to support his initiatives. In April 2002, Chávez appointed his allies to head the PDVSA and replaced the company’s board of directors with loyalists who had “little or no experience in the oil industry”, mocking former PDVSA executives on television as he fired them. Public outrage over Chávez’s decisions led to civil unrest, which culminated in an attempted coup on 11 April 2002. The Chávez government’s response was to fire about 19,000 striking employees at PDVSA and replace them with retired workers, foreign contractors, and the military. This decision by Chávez would forever damage Venezuela’s oil industry as it lost most of its expertise.

The former president of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) together with former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez (Image Credit: Karel Fuentes | Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)

Chávez’s populist imagination led to the launch of his own Sunday morning radio show, Aló Presidente (Hello, President) in May 2000. The program is the epitome of Mr. Chávez’s radicalization and depiction of private property and division of powers. On his show, he warned businessmen that failure to cooperate with the government would result in the expropriation of their enterprises. Additionally, he verbally attacked the opposition, portraying them as traitors. President Chávez several times on national television made his speech on “¡Expropiesé!” (expropriated!) to banks or local businesses. During his TV show, he simply uttered “expropriated”, to indicate that the government will seize control of the property. Whether it was banks, small businesses, or shops, he showed no concern for any of them. The important thing for him was to prove his power and that the government works for the people and not for the rich ones. In January 2005, Chávez openly began proclaiming the ideology of a “socialism of the 21st century“. By 2007, President Chávez further increased his autocratic rule as he obstructed opposition broadcasts to renew their licenses, thereby forcing the channels to cease operations. Hugo Chavez died of cancer on March 5, 2013, having been president of Venezuela for 14 years. During his years in power, he faced numerous elections, losing only one which looked to increase his powers. He respected the people’s decision when he lost and did not overthrow the result. All the elections were legitimated by the OAS (Organization of the American States) and other well-respected international institutions. President Chavez used the immense wealth of PDVSA to attract and maintain his political base. Despite the clear autocratic decisions he took, Hugo Chavez cannot be called a dictator. Throughout Hugo Chávez’s presidency, his legitimacy was consistently affirmed through popular votes, as he never found it necessary to rely systematically on state apparatus forces to maintain his grip on power. However, the dictator title can be given to his successor Nicolás Maduro. He was appointed by Chavez himself as his successor when he learned that his cancer had reached a terminal stage.

During Chavez’s years, Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy managed to remain stable. When oil prices plummeted in 2014, so did the Venezuelan economy. On top of that, years of mismanagement at PDVSA led to decreased oil production, making recovery impossible. Investigations undergone since 2004 have proven that much of the oil profits were not used to help the masses but stayed in the pockets of the Venezuelan political elite. The Venezuelan economy has been crimped by 88% from 2014 to 2020 making the cumulative inflation 5,000,000%. Civil dissatisfaction with the government renewed in 2014 as the economy deteriorated quickly.

Venezuelan Refugees in Bogotá Selling Crafts Made of Worthless Venezuelan Cash (Image Credit: Reg Natarajan | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Maduro’s administration was relentless in eradicating any hint of dissent against his government. He backed violent measures such as sponsoring paramilitary groups to suppress every opposing voice to the “21st-century socialism” he inherited from Chavez. At the height of the protests against him, Maduro and his regime had to act with force. Authorities such as the police, military, and intelligence services have been implicated in a range of crimes—from kidnapping, torture, and violations, to forced disappearances and killings. Maduro’s regime’s crimes against humanity, especially against any opposition, are well documented; Maduro’s regime’s terror against the Venezuelan opposition lacks all boundaries.  For example, there exist well-documented cases of kidnapping and killing of Venezuelan dissidents and deserters in Chile and Colombia.

With a plummeting economy and a regime that does not allow political discontent, Venezuelans have escaped in millions. Before the Chavista era, the population stood at 30 million. Now the UNHCR counts the number of Venezuelans that have fled the country between  2013 and 2023 at 7,7 million. In 2017 alone, the average Venezuelan person lost 11 kilograms of weight due to the severe economic crisis and ensuing hunger crisis. I remember the Venezuelan refugees arriving in my hometown and telling me that when they crossed the border to Colombia, it was the first time they could eat meat in two years.

Hopefully, one day the nightmare will come to an end for the Venezuelan people. The dictator will be ousted, and democracy will be restored. The Chavista regime must be held accountable for its atrocities. Unfortunately, hope is fading as the regime has used its power to suppress any opposition in the upcoming elections of this year—elections merely on paper—with some Latin American countries being passive observers. This means that some Latin American nations have assumed a passive stance—merely observing and accepting Maduro’s regime, despite its lack of legitimacy, without voicing opposition to the atrocities committed by the dictatorship. I cannot miss the opportunity to dedicate a line to Carlos Andres Perez and Jaime Lusinchi, former presidents of Venezuela in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, who personified the corruption in Venezuela and laid the groundwork for Hugo Chavez’s rise to power. To them, ¡Ni perdon! ¡Ni olvido!—there should be no forgiveness, and their actions should not be forgotten. Socialism has once again shown that it only brings hunger, suffering, and death to the people.

By Ernesto Santiago

May 11, 2024

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