Thursday was inauguration day in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez — who has dominated Venezuelan politics one way or another for 14 years — was again sworn in as President. Only this time, the authoritarian populist could not take the oath in person. He departed for cancer surgery in Cuba on Dec. 10, 2012, and has not been seen in public since. This latest surgery is his fourth round of treatment in Cuba. Few expect Chavez to serve out this next six-year presidential term.
The indispensable Caracas Chronicles blog described the day:
“The owner of the circus may not have been there, but there were clowns galore. There were chants of people pledging to give their life to Chavez — which may well happen, given Venezuela’s alarming homicide rates. There were TV stars and beauty queens … Military planes flew over, while no one — absolutely no one — mentioned the 11 people that died in a bus accident while being hauled to Caracas for the rally.”
One way to understand the homicide rate mentioned in the blog: Venezuela, with fewer people than Canada, suffers more murders than the United States. I visited Venezuela in early 2010. My tour began with a briefing by a security officer at the U.S. embassy. “You’ve been to Afghanistan? Iraq? Well congratulations, this is now the most dangerous place you’ve ever been.”
After a lecture at the university in Maracaibo, the head of one of the faculty departments drove me to lunch with a loaded pistol in his lap. To enter the restaurant, we passed a metal detector. On the bench outside waited the bodyguards of local business leaders, guns holstered to their shoulders.
The violence in Venezuela isn’t political, exactly. It is more a reflection of the general breakdown of law in a society where every institution of state has been corrupted and degraded.
The police had long since given up patrolling the poor neighborhoods on the hills surrounding central Caracas. Now they had ceased patrolling the high-rent districts, too — that is, when they were not actively in cahoots with the criminals who committed “express kidnappings”: jumping out at a motorist as he punched the keypad to the locked garage beneath his apartment building, putting a gun to his head, and abducting him for two hours. The ransoms were typically relatively small, a few thousand dollars. The kidnappers made
their money on volume.
My host’s parents had abandoned their jewelry store after repeated robberies. But Venezuela’s biggest robberies are carried out by Chavez and his supporters, under the color of law. In 2008, the Venezuelan legislature opened investigations into claims that two of Chavez’s brothers acquired at least 17 ranches at knock-down prices, using front men and concealed names. The investigation was soon abandoned, however: The 2010 elections were boycotted by opposition parties to protest new rigged rules, and Chavez’s own party gained a super-majority that put an end to all awkward questioning.
Yet people around Chavez continued to amass fortunes from confiscated lands and enterprises — and from the opportunities for fees and other benefits in the state-controlled oil sector that sustains Venezuela’s otherwise dilapidated economy. It is this enriched inner circle that will attempt to sustain Chavez-style rule after Chavez’s demise.
For all the talk about Chavez’s “socialist revolution,” his regime rests, caudillo-style, on the backing of corrupt, drug-dealing generals. Henry Silva Rangel, appointed minister of defense in January 2012, was one of four senior Chavez associates named by the U.S. government in 2008 as Foreign Narcotics Kingpins (yes, that’s the actual title). In a 2010 interview, Rangel warned that the army would not allow the Chavez “revolution” to be voted out of office. Rangel maintains a tight working relationship with another Chavez brother, Adnan, who succeeded Chavez’s father as governor of the family’s home state of Barinas.
Despite vast oil wealth, the Venezuelan economy has tumbled into terrible straits. Inflation roars at 25%, unemployment exceeds 8%, the non-oil economy stagnates, electricity flickers on and off irregularly, and basic commodities such as rice and beans have become scarce in the marketplaces and must be obtained as rations from government-controlled stores.
Yet there remains enough cash on hand for the government to open the spending spigots in election years such as 2012, building showcase housing developments amid the slums, and distributing keys to its most proven supporters.
So long as oil remains in the $100 range, the regime can probably stumble forward, despite declining output from its mismanaged oilfields. It’s when the price drops that the regime will fall, leaving nothing but ruin behind for Chavez’s country and what remains of his reputation.