Written by PHIL GUNSON
Photos by OSCAR CASTILLO
Venezuela’s modern history was forever changed by the arrival in power in 1999 of Hugo Chávez, who ushered in what he called the “Bolivarian revolution”. For over twenty years, Phil Gunson has lived in Caracas and documented the way in which politics has changed the country – from the adoration of Chávez and his movement in some quarters, to the violence and the humanitarian catastrophe that shape daily life for many Venezuelans.
When I met the late Hugo Chávez, a couple of years before he was elected president, I took him for a rather marginal figure. Dressed in a traditional Venezuelan liqui-liqui – olive green and double-breasted – he seemed to have stepped out of the past. How could this disgraced army officer – a failed coup leader with an antiquated, populist discourse – possibly win an election in one of Latin America’s oldest democracies? Chávez, it turned out, knew better. If he was anachronistic it was because he was ahead of his time, not behind it.
The so-called third wave of global democratisation had not yet crested, but here was Chávez describing liberal democracy to me as a “rotten mango” that must be thrown away. He would replace it with a “civilian-military revolution”, based on “participatory democracy”. Impatient with the checks and balances of a system based on the separation of powers, the former soldier sought to commune directly with the masses.
By the late 1990s, Venezuelans were ready for an outsider pledging to dismantle a dysfunctional system. Once a byword for prosperity and stability, the country had been hit by one crisis after another. Highly dependent on volatile oil prices and with a rapidly growing population, its governments had veered from spendthrift populism to International Monetary Fund-style austerity.
Frustration at shrinking real incomes boiled over in 1989 in rioting and looting that left hundreds dead after President Carlos Andrés Pérez sent the army to restore order. Nearly toppled in Chávez’s 1992 coup attempt, Pérez was impeached the following year on dubious corruption charges. The two parties that had alternated in power since the 1958 overthrow of dictator General Marcos Pérez Jiménez – the social democrats of Acción Democrática and the Christian democrats of Copei – crumbled and fell apart. Chávez strode to power over the wreckage in 1998, with more than 56 per cent of the presidential vote.
I moved to Caracas in May 1999 as a freelance reporter, just two months after Chávez was sworn in as president. Venezuela was definitely going to be a news story. By August I had already inhaled the first of many lungsful of teargas, as members of Congress clashed with the National Guard outside parliament. Chávez had replaced the legislature elected the previous year, in which the opposition held the majority, with a Constituent Assembly in which all but six seats were held by his supporters. In some ways a new constitution that Chávez pushed through in 1999 appeared to preserve, and even extended, democratic rights with measures like the creation of an ombudsman’s office and the introduction of recall referendums for all elected officials. But it further strengthened the presidency, brought the military back into politics and retrospectively endorsed Chávez’s 1992 coup attempt by enshrining the right to rebellion.
Over the next 12 years, the new president would steadily dismantle institutional rule, eliminate the separation of powers, and win a referendum allowing indefinite re-election. In 2007 he responded with fury after narrowly failing to replace his own, new constitution with an explicitly “socialist” charter. Little by little, and in contravention of the constitution, he would proceed to introduce many of this new charter’s elements, regardless of the will of the electorate.
Perhaps even more disturbing was the increasing prevalence of both criminal and political violence, and the way in which the two were becoming intertwined. Chávez’s attitude to crime was paradoxical. On the one hand, he claimed it was all due to social inequality and would disappear as his “revolution” advanced. On the other, he turned a blind eye as his security forces applied what one Supreme Court justice – who resigned over the issue – described as an “extermination policy”.
Urban guerrillas calling themselves the Tupamaros, who when I arrived in Caracas were still detonating pipe bombs, took off their camouflage fatigues and balaclavas and turned themselves into a political party, pledging allegiance to the revolution. But as a leading Tupamaro I met on the street one day was quick to emphasise: “We are still a guerrilla group in the shadows”. A former intelligence officer, asked to set up a police death squad in a mid-western state, showed me a handwritten hit-list he said the state security chief had personally given him (the security chief later denied this).
By April 2002, Chávez had accumulated powerful enemies. Hundreds of thousands marched on Miraflores Palace, the seat of the presidency, and bullets began to fly, leaving nineteen dead and dozens injured. The military, the management of the state oil corporation, the media, even the trade union leadership were all against him. The military took Chávez into custody, but amid chaos and faction-fighting another group of senior officers restored him to power just a couple of days later.
I stood among crowds of his supporters in Miraflores in the early hours of 14 April as a triumphant, if a little dazed, comandante stepped out of the helicopter that had brought him back from captivity on an offshore island. His Sunday morning “resurrection”, redolent with Christian symbolism (he even held a crucifix as he gave his account of events) completed chavismo’s epic narrative. The struggle against domestic “fascism”, allegedly backed by Washington, would henceforth serve as the main pretext for a project that tended increasingly toward autocracy.
Not long after the 2002 coup attempt, the price of crude began to climb, and for over a decade the country swam in unprecedented rivers of oil revenue. With almost unlimited cash and a weak and faction-ridden opposition, Chávez faced few obstacles to the consolidation of his revolution. He was wildly popular.
Though much of the oil money – hundreds of billions of dollars – was pocketed by corrupt functionaries and their friends, a huge amount also went into social programs, beginning with a literacy campaign and primary health-care modules in the barrios. These “missions”, as they were dubbed, were massively expensive and inefficient. But for the poor majority they were often a boon, and proof that the “revolution” Chávez had promised was genuinely caring for the most deprived. Real incomes rose significantly and, for a while, inequality receded.
In 2011, to the dismay of his millions of followers, Chávez underwent surgery for a malignant tumour, and within less than two years he was dead. The military museum overlooking the presidential palace, from which he had directed his coup attempt in 1992, became his mausoleum and a place of pilgrimage. Not far away, a makeshift shrine was erected, where still-devoted followers they would light candles. Shortly afterwards, oil prices fell dramatically.
With two key pillars of the revolution – abundant cash and a charismatic leader – no longer standing, his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, has faced a high tide of protests and emboldened resistance at home and abroad. In early 2019 as President Donald J. Trump’s administration in the U.S. put its weight behind opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s claim to the “interim presidency”. Three years later, Washington continues to recognise Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate ruler, although the Joe Biden administration is far more supportive than his predecessor of a negotiated solution to the conflict. (Talks between government and opposition began again last year, but are currently on hold).
Maduro in turn has relied on repression and one-sided elections to maintain his grip on power. As the economy collapsed into depression and hyperinflation, critical infrastructure, from water and electricity to hospitals, fell into disrepair and millions fled abroad. Armed groups of various kinds, from Colombian guerrillas to organised crime gangs, have occupied spaces opened up by a cash-starved, contracting state. The prisons are mostly run by their inmates and “law and order” in the barrios can take the form of summary executions. This is not the revolution that was promised.