People are angry these days in Venezuela, and its hard not to sympathize with them. It’s been only 10 months since former bus driver and union chief, Nicolas Maduro, narrowly defeated opposition leader Henrique Capriles in a special presidential election held after the death of Hugo Chavez. And it’s probably fair to say that Maduro, the comandante’s hand-picked successor, has made a mess of things.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that, for many Venezuelans, Hugo Chavez was the second coming of Jesus Christ. After a brief hiccup in 2002 when he was nearly toppled in an army-led coup, Chavez had enjoyed a Robin Hood image of taking from the rich to give to the poor. With government control of the world’s largest oil reserves, Chavez was revered for his generous social programs. He even rewarded the country’s most downtrodden folks with cars and plots of land.
Chavez was also known for financially supporting leftest regimes in Central and South America, and had a habit of “skimming off the top.” It’s hard to explain how an ex-army paratrooper died worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But it’s easy to explain how Venezuela’s economy plunged into the toilet as far back as 2005. When the situation worsened and dollars became scarce, Chavez attempted to sell CITGO, the often troubled oil giant owned by Petroelos de Venezuela, in 2010. The asking price was $10 billion and the phone never rang. It wasn’t long after that when Chavez disclosed he was battling pelvic cancer. He would endure four surgeries in Cuba before the illness was determined to be terminal. Except for a final visit home to die, Chavez spent his final months in a Cuban hospital bed, pledging economical support to Fidel and Raul Castro. This apparently included an opportunity in Venezuela for thousands of skilled Cuban workers who could not find jobs on the communist island.
Needless to say, Nicolas Maduro had a tough task ahead when he officially became Venezuela’s president on April 19th, 2013. But this burly enforcer with a grade school diploma would have never beaten Capriles had Chavez not given him a ringing endorsement. It was like Luca Brisi, the tough guy who aided Vito Corleone in “The Godfather,” suddenly becoming head of the family. Even after gaining sweeping powers from the National Assembly, Maduro has proven to be little more than a poor imitation of Chavez, sporting patriotic clothing and using words like “bourgeois” in describing “Imperialist America.”
Meanwhile the economic bleeding in Venezuela continues. Inflation has risen to 56% and climbing. Government subsidized supermarkets still suffer from basic foods and products due to a lack of hard currency. In typical fashion, Maduro has bullied private businesses, forcing them to cut their prices in half or face closure.
In Caracas, Venezuela’s bustling capital, murder and kidnappings have become almost a daily statistic. Emotions came to a head recently when Monica Spear, a former beauty queen and television personality, was shot and killed along with her husband on a local highway. That tragedy would, in part, become a rally cry for outspoken opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has hit the streets with thousands of supporters in past weeks. Lopez would soon turn himself in after a warrant was issued for his arrest.
I don’t deny the belief that the time has come for Nicolas Maduro to go, or as Lopez puts it, “make an exit.” The bus driver has been in office for about a year now, just like Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi was before he was lifted from power. The problem in Venezuela is that after the initial coup attempt, the military would become an ace in the hole for Hugo Chavez. And Maduro has enjoyed the same support, even though he has miserably failed. Leopoldo Lopez knows this, so why would he make himself the sacrificial lamb?
Here’s how it stands at the moment. Venezuela is a country clearly split down the middle. At least 50% of the folks say enough is enough, while the other half remain loyal to the legacy of Chavez. The opposition, however, is divided with different philosophies. Lopez wears his emotions on his sleeve, and prefers to “duke it out” with the government. Capriles, who is still a state governor, looks at this crisis like a game of chess, pondering every move. Somehow, these two camps must huddle up and decide on a compromise plan and get on the same page. Provided that happens, the next opposition move would be to recruit young army officers who are willing to break away from the old guard. If that can be accomplished, intellect will eventually win over blunt force.
There’s little doubt that youthful leaders like Lopez, 42, and Capriles, 41, both trained economists, can offer Venezuela a much brighter future. After all, the country still has unlimited natural resources. It’s just that under Chavez and now Maduro, not all Venezuelans were the recipients of that wealth.