Over the last few weeks both Venezuela and Ukraine have erupted in political turmoil and violence that should surprise no one. Both countries have been ruled by elected regimes that degraded their democracies so as to extend their power while enshrining corruption and incompetence as their mode of governing.
But at some point–especially in the digital age–the people attempt to throw off their oppressors. Ukraine’s president fled even before the newly ascendant parliament voted conclusively Saturday to remove him; and Venezuela’s president is showing his weakness by demanding the opposition meet with him this week for talks. It is impossible to say that Ukraine is now set for peace and rebuilding under a new democratic and pro-Western government because Putin is unlikely to accept this humiliating repudiation and geostrategic setback. Most likely he will try either to claw back all of Ukraine and impose a new puppet, or he’ll carve off the eastern portion and make mischief that way, aided by Ukrainians who benefit from Russian suzerainty.
As to Venezuela, we are at the beginning of what could be the end of Chavismo… but that depends on what the democratic opposition and the United States do next.
How did Venezuela get to this point?
Since 1999 when the now-deceased Hugo Chavez won his first election and began to build a personalized socialist dictatorship, many observers, including this author, feared that Venezuela was headed for years of economic, social and political degradation before it could hope to resume its place as one of the hemisphere’s most promising states. That is, it would become a failed state and have to rebuild itself.
As a professional staff member of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee in the late 1990s, I had read enough and heard enough about Chavez to know that he had no intention of presiding over a republic based on the rule of law and honest government, much less a free market one. As he campaigned for office against admittedly corrupt and elitist established parties, he pledged to “boil [his opponents’] heads in oil” and announced a program of statism and socialism. How any American diplomat or foreign government could have seen his election as anything but the disaster it became is beyond me. Members of Congress and Hill staffers were not in the least fooled by our meeting with the newly-elected leader when he visited the Capitol for a sit-down with the committee; all his bear-hugging and glad-handing was seen for the smoke and mirrors that it was.
During congressional delegations and meetings with the Clinton administration we warned the State Department that Venezuela was in trouble and that now was the time to make it clear to Chavez that we would not blithely accept a Venezuela that threatens the peace of the region. But the State Department’s penchant for preserving cordial relations at all costs won the day and Chavez was undisturbed and unperturbed as he built his Bolivarian Socialist Republic–and he was never again cordial after that visit to the Hill. He only got worse, ruined his country and blamed others for his faults, most notably the US as the ringleader of the “fascists” trying to bring him down.
The last fourteen years of Chavismo–for the program outlives the founder in the form of his incompetent successor Nicolas Maduro who took over at Chavez’s death last year–truly have been a disaster for Venezuelans and the people of many other countries in Latin America where similar political and economic travesties were inspired to power with Chavez’s aid. In true socialist form, some of the poor initially received more attention from the state in the form of subsidies and social goods. But the price has been high because of the corruption and incompetence endemic to all socialist regimes.
A new elite has been installed who are stealing when they are not misgoverning. Chavismo nationalized everything in sight so now nothing in the economy works, not even the formerly rich oil sector. To keep power, they have controlled the media, made the secret ballot a joke, and used access to state largesse as both a punishment and a reward. In some cases they kill and maim by means of the intelligence services and the mobs they nurture to do their dirtiest work. At this point, a dozen people are dead, scores are wounded and many are being tortured in detention.
We have seen this before in many dictatorships where socialism, cronyism and corruption have to be propped up with oppression and are sporadically challenged by citizen protest and sometimes revolution. Sometimes these dictatorships survive the backlash as Chavez did in 2002 when he was briefly ousted in a coup attempt; sometimes they don’t as in today’s Ukraine. But now we might be at a crossroads for this country because Venezuela’s dictatorial regime has no powerful and determined friend like Russia is to the Ukrainian reactionaries who will not easily stomach losing power. Venezuela has only Cuba which can cause turmoil for the democratic opposition and threaten the people but is totally dependent on steadily declining Venezuelan largesse to survive. In short, Cuba is not the asset to Venezuela that Russia is to the pro-Russian Ukrainians.
Venezuela has another advantage that Ukraine does not: an opposition that can unite and have a chance at bringing most of the country with them. While Chavismo temporarily benefited the poor that for centuries had been ignored by successive Venezuelan regimes democratic or otherwise, it has now totally failed them. No country has more crime and lawlessness, shortages of basic goods like toilet paper and foodstuffs, and few have a higher inflation rate. Chavismo is failing the very people who first empowered it and everyone knows it. The only thing that keeps the poor supportive of Maduro is that they fear being ignored again if the opposition comes to power. But Venezuela has new opposition leaders, younger, more enlightened and more concerned for the entire population. They are effectively center-left and their leading figure, Henrique Capriles, was barely beaten by Maduro in last year’s presidential election (maybe he wasn’t beaten?) when Maduro held all the cards in a pseudo-democracy.
Given time, Capriles and the now-imprisoned opposition leader and former mayor, Leopoldo Lopez, can bring together a coalition that carries on Capriles’ inspiring campaign to govern for all Venezuelans and extend the promise of capitalism and a non-politicized welfare state to the country.
What role for the United States?
The US role is what it always should have been whether the Obama Administration appreciates it or not: support people and parties that are democratic and who seek greater freedom from oppression, and punish those who found and operate dictatorships. The Bush Administration tried to do this, though some of us felt we could have done more; the Obama Administration has done little to nothing. Aid has been cut and we have spent five years attempting to prove that if we are nice enough and turn the other cheek enough, Chavismo will moderate and the regime will stop supporting the enemies of democracy in other Latin American countries.
There is so much more we can do, such as give voice and aid to the democratic opposition, demand guarantees for the safety of its leaders, punish members of the regime with well-crafted sanctions and lead a hemispheric coalition against the oppression of Venezuelans at the Organization for American States.
Venezuela is not Ukraine not only because the democratic opposition has not toppled the regime yet, but also because it has more advantages internally and externally. It has resources and the potential to be an important trading country; it has a moderate democratic opposition; and it has no outside power willing and able to risk its own survival to keep dictators in power. This is the stuff that US foreign policy can work with. I hope we will.