Venezuela is not my country. I have no blood ties to it; I only began traveling there less than a decade ago. Yet, I have found myself emotionally entangled in its freedom struggle. It’s not just that current images of students at the barricades and soldiers suppressing them remind me of 1968—that year we took to the streets of Mexico City and felt such exhilaration followed by such brutally crushing despair. But I have come to consider Venezuela the pivotal country in Latin America, where events are freighted with extra meaning for the rest of us.
My initial interest in Venezuela was spurred by Mexican events. In 2006, Mexico completed a fiercely contested election. The charismatic candidate of the left, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, had been defeated by a thin margin. But it was a result that he refused to accept, and the discord provoked by that election began to plague Mexico, and, in fact, it persists to this day.
I had been very critical of López Obrador. His program, I felt, was marred by statism and ultra-nationalism. And so, the year after his defeat, I wanted to see and experience, with my own eyes, a country governed by a populist leader who shared some of hisstyle. I paid my first of many visits to Caracas.
Hugo Chávez had been in power for nine years. His government was waging an ideological war. It officially viewed the populace as divided between the socialists of the Bolivarian Revolution and its opponents: “lackeys of the Empire,” “small-time Yankees,” traitors to the nation. Venezuela has one of the most atrocious histories of violence on the continent, and it seemed to me a miracle that the country had not plunged into civil war.
Of course, Chávez had gained power through free elections and he continued to win elections. But he also co-opted or bullied every political institution that should have served as a counterweight to the presidency. He had direct control of the resources of PDVSA, the national petroleum company, enabling him to use its immense wealth at his own discretion. The growing nationalization of private industry foreshadowed a state that would eventually seek to emulate and even perfect the Cuban model.
Opposition to this direction not only included businessmen (villains by definition according to official rhetoric) but also the Church (less influential in Venezuela than elsewhere on the continent), the majority of students (even in the public universities), intellectuals, journalists, artists, and a number of labor leaders (Chávez had seriously restricted the right to strike). And, to my surprise, it included some of the most respected leaders of the left, like the former guerrillas Teodoro Petkoff and Américo Martin, who had participated in a doomed Cuban-sponsored invasion of Venezuela in the ’60s. Petkoff and Martin had been disillusioned by the Cuban experience and came to fully support the democratic process. I felt envious of this anti-authoritarian left. In my country, most of the left is still drawn to ideological dogma and avoids any critical evaluation of the Cuban Revolution.
I visited with the only prophets in whom I truly believe: historians. Many of them were implicitly arguing with a formidable adversary—President Chávez himself, an exhaustive reader and interpreter of Simón Bolívar (the Venezuelan liberator of half of the continent) to whose memory he applied (dogmatically and without even realizing it) the authoritarian and hero-worshipping ideas of Thomas Carlyle.
From these historians, I learned that Chávez was no accident. He was the natural culmination of almost two centuries of a tragic narrative that had mostly oscillated between episodes of unspeakable racial and social violence and long periods of dictatorship. While its neighbor Colombia (also a violent country) has an almost uninterrupted history of holding national elections since 1830, Venezuela only conducted its very first democratic vote in 1947, rapidly followed by another military coup that brought yet another dictator.
But the history contained more than a shard of optimism. In 1958, the once and future president Rómulo Betancourt negotiated a pact between leftist and rightist leaders and installed democracy in a form that would endure for three decades. My friends stressed the profundity of that experience. In contrast to Mexico, which was governed by an authoritarian and corrupt patronage system until 1997, Venezuela learned to live democratically, enjoying remarkable and stable economic growth, attracting immigrants from Europe (especially Spain), and offering shelter to refugees from Latin American dictatorships. The media was free, culture flourished, and every four years there were orderly and clean elections. Even during the darkest stretches of the Chávez regime, I held out hope that Venezuela might not lose its memory of the democratic process; that its anti-authoritarian left might emerge to provide an example to the continent.
Unfortunately, there was a flip side to the democratic experience: growing corruption and neglect of the poor, especially after the post-1973 surge in the price of oil. In 1989, a huge government-sanctioned rise in bus-ticket prices precipitated riots and confrontations with the police. The government responded by massacring hundreds of protesters. It was the suicide of the democratic order. And it eventually gave birth to the resurgence of a caudillo figure, a passionately enlightened soldier named Hugo Chávez.
Death cost Chávez the chance to become a twenty-first century Fidel Castro. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, lacks his charm, skills, and legitimacy. (Maduro won the presidency by a narrow margin despite his near total control of the electoral process and media.) Where Chávez never resorted to killing his people, Maduro’s forces have killed more than 15 in the recent disturbances.
In Caracas, at least, Maduro has faced a rebellion of largely middle-and upper-class protesters. But there may be a far greater threat to Maduro’s power, what the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz once called “the rising of the tiger,” by which he meant the poor. Many of them have benefited from Chavismo in the past. But clearly, for years, the poor have suffered from acute scarcities of food, medicine, and other necessities—which is especially demoralizing given the country’s immense oil wealth.
The protesters are making relatively modest demands of the regime. They want the government to initiate a dialogue with the opposition, to punish those guilty of repressing them, to free its political prisoners, to end goods shortages, and to respect the right to protest. But many factions in Maduro’s government favor a harder line, in the Cuban manner, rather than compromise. And the Organization of American States has remained on the sidelines, unresponsive to the violations of human rights, only honoring the principle of non-interference. For all practical purposes, the protesting Venezuelans are on their own.
Nevertheless a positive outcome is easily imaginable—a result that would draw upon Venezuela’s not-so-distant history of democracy. The country’s economic deterioration will continue. It cannot be reversed, except by abandoning the dream of twenty-first century socialism. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2015 and may favor the opposition despite the government’s efforts to influence the results.
It is not hyperbolic to argue that the future of democracy in Latin America is at stake in the streets of Venezuela. A rebirth of political liberties in Caracas would reverberate in Cuba, which would lose its nearly free supply of oil and watch its ideological prestige quickly diminish. Without its cheap energy, Cuba could well move toward a gradual political opening. And then, perhaps, for the first time in 200 years of independence, we would have an entirely democratic continent, with right-leaning and left-leaning governments but free from our endemic plague of authoritarian caudillos, who have so often confused the history of a country with their own desires.
Enrique Krauze is a contributing editor at The New Republic. Translated by Hank Heifetz.