Chávez died just under one year ago, but began grooming Maduro as his crown prince a few months prior. No one was as obedient as Maduro, a former bus driver that Chávez made into a government minister. It was a terrible decision for the country: What Maduro lacks in charisma, he makes up for in radicalism. Now Maduro's leadership is being questioned by the population.
When Maduro's term began, hopes had been high that he would be able to reconcile his divided country. He sought out contact with the US and gave the impression that he was willing to open a dialogue with opposition politicians. But last week, he expelled three American diplomats, claiming they had supported "the opposition fascists."
Maduro has ruined the country's economy and has often turned to Cuba, his closest ally, for guidance. And he has attempted to silence the opposition with a campaign of pure terror. Recently, though, it has begun looking as though he will have difficulty regaining the upper hand over the protests.
Students have been protesting in Caracas for days, building barricades on city streets and occupying squares. The movement began two weeks ago in San Cristóbal, in the state of Táchira near the border with Colombia. In just a few days, it spread across the entire country.
The students are protesting against inflation, shortages and corruption. Mostly, though, they are taking to the streets in opposition to the violence meted out by the country's paramilitary shock troops. "Colectivos" is the name given to the brutal militias that even late President Hugo Chávez supported.
Now, the government of his successor, Nicolás Maduro, is sending the thugs after opposition activists, with masked men on motorcycles speeding through the streets, firing on demonstrators and, sometimes, following students all the way back to their universities. At least 13 people have died in the unrest, with 150 having been injured.
Recently, Nicolás Maduro has encroached on freedom of expression to a greater degree than even Chávez did. He arranged the purchase of the last remaining television station in Venezuela that was critical of the government and has unleashed his supporters on the "fascist broadcaster" CNN and on other foreign journalists. A "deputy minister for social networks" has been charged with monitoring what Venezuelans post on Twitter and elsewhere, while the two largest government-critical newspapers have had trouble publishing due to a paper shortage.
Oil production is responsible for roughly a third of the country's economic output and over 70 percent of consumer goods are imported. But the yield from Venezuela's oil wells has been dropping for years and gasoline and foodstuffs are heavily subsidized. And now, the government is running out of hard cash. The official exchange rate is around 6.3 bolívars to the dollar, but on the black market, one can get up to 84 bolívars for a US dollar.
Many shops are empty, with even corn flour, milk and toilet paper subject to shortages. Lines like those seen in Cuba have become common and people are desperately trying to get their hands on dollars.
The government has been having difficulties supplying even the basics in the slums of Caracas. In the vast quarter of "23 de enero," people stand in long lines in front of the state-run supermarket; they are issued numbers on strips of cardboard. Chavistas control entry to the store and glorify Maduro and the revolution to shoppers. Most of those waiting remain silent. Every three days, they mumble quietly when the guards aren't paying attention, their food coupons will get them chicken from Brazil and two kilograms of flour, but nothing more.
The president is a stubborn ideologue hiding behind a jovial façade. He has launched a new wave of expropriations and increased government control in slums, with neighborhood organizations modeled after Cuba's "committees for the defense of the revolution" monitoring residents.
Cuba's invisible hand
Maduro travels frequently to Havana for consultations with the Castro brothers; he was also their preference to succeed Chávez. Cubans also monitor Venezuela's security apparatus, to the point that they even issue personal IDs. But in recent weeks, a potentially dangerous opponent to Maduro has emerged.
The problem does not stop at Venezuela’s borders, though. It is contagious throughout Latin America. Since Chávez launched the leftist fantasy called “Socialism of the 21st Century,” Venezuela has poured billions of dollars into subsidizing oil supplies for Cuba, the mecca of the movement, and financed adepts of the so-called Bolivarian Alliance throughout the region from Argentina to Bolivia to Nicaragua.
For ideological reasons, most of the Latin American “left” now provides unconditional support for Maduro with arguments that present Venezuela as a country where the state benefits the poor and rejects free market capitalism while aligning with the likes of Iran and Syrian in taking a stand against “American imperialism.”
Fortunately there’s also another set of countries on the other side of Latin America’s political divide who reject this socialist line as outdated and detrimental to genuine economic development. This group, made up of Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico, has formed a free trade region called Alliance of the Pacific, with Costa Rica soon to be a member. This South American trade and investment alliance is in close contact with Nafta.
The turmoil in Venezuela puts regional relations to a severe test, and also puts the role of the aging and authoritarian Castro regime in stark relief. President Maduro has hotly rejected advice from President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia that his government open a political dialogue with the opposition. Instead, he has unleashed thugs from the country’s security apparatus, including teams of gunmen on motorcycles, to violently repress the student demonstrators.
There is little doubt that the repression and the police tactics are backed by Cuban military advisers who are embedded in Venezuela’s security forces. For its part, Cuba has a vital interest in the survival of a friendly government in Venezuela to ensure the flow of cheap oil into the island country.
By Guylain Gustave Moke