Regrettably, the difference between the exuberant optimism with which supporters of Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles have embraced him as a leader in the upcoming Presidential election in Venezuela on Sunday October 8th, and the messianism that intoxicates the minds of Chávez’s supporters, is only a matter of degree.
What’s more, the irrationality with which each side envisions a victorious future is matched by an utterly myopic approach to situating the Chávez era in a proper historical context.
Rather than a radical break with the past, what defines the Chávez regime is an exacerbation of the inherent oligarchical tendencies of social democracy, strengthened by the biggest petrodollar windfall ever to engross the coffers of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the gigantic state-owned oil company.
But the opposition’s crass how-on-earth-did-we-come-to-this attitude denotes a stultifying incapacity to recognize the degree to which a handful of families of the old guard, by enclosing the lion’s share of the country’s oil wealth throughout the four decades of corrupt democracy since the fall of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958, bred the grudge of the impoverished masses, and the concomitant belief that the only way to remedy the situation was for one of their own rank and file to take over the booty.
On the other hand, Chavistas cling feverishly to the fantastic version tooted by the regime (and legitimized internationally by left-wing intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert) according to which El Comandante is the first president in Venezuelan history that “at least shares some of the wealth with the poor,” when in reality all Chávez did was re-installing the litany of subsidies and cash transfers that barely appeased the masses since 1958.
It was only during the oil glut of the 80’s that subsidies started to dwindle, and not until 1989 that the first IMF-backed structural adjustment package was shoved down people’s throats, causing the subsequent Caracazo, in which hundreds of rioters were machine-gunned by the army in the streets of the capital city, and Chávez’s rising as a popular hero with an attempted coup d’état to the Carlos Andrés Pérez government in 1992.
An old regime devoid of any vestige of legitimacy coupled with the blind faith in the New Leader was the perfect combination that enabled Chávez to practically eradicate whatever was left of independence among the different branches of state power, to completely bypass legislative control of budgetary issues, and create an intricate web of parastatal organizations for the systematic political co-option of any kind of popular movement.
To top it all off, most of the enormous petrodollar windfall generated during the Chávez era were dilapidated in failed, pharaonic infrastructure projects, in generous gifts to friendly regimes all over the world, and in the best style of old times past, deviated towards the pockets of a host of new billionaire “Boligarchs,” or more bizarrely, to those of many of the most prominent old-regime cronies — George W. Bush’s (AKA “El Diablo” in Chávez’s parlance) billionaire uber-ally Gustavo Cisneros most prominently among them.
Within this particular context, it’s not difficult for me to sympathize with the idea that in the case of a Capriles victory, there’s a good chance of a better outlook for the majority of my fellow Venezuelans — after all, Capriles would only need to be willing and able to implement minimally sane policies to achieve significant gains in some urgent areas, like diffusing the horrendous epidemic of violence that has engulfed the country in a blood bath in which the poorest have been hit hardest, and taming rampant inflation.
But at the same time, every successful policy that he would eventually implement, even if it manages to alleviate the symptoms of a deeply sick society, would reinforce their truly fundamental root cause: the idea, deeply entrenched in the Venezuelan psyche, that positive social change can only come from “better government.”
And while that doesn’t surprise me, I simply cannot avoid being dismayed.
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