Q: A student leader addressing protesters in Caracas described the movement as “the people’s struggle against the inefficient government.” Is the problem merely an inefficient execution of the government as currently structured–or is the validity of the socialist form of government itself being challenged in Venezuela?
A: In my view protests in Venezuela have their origins in a more deeply rooted malaise. Venezuela is a divided society primarily because there has been little investment in the institutions of government–and the government tax take from income taxes is minimal. Government has never been held accountable on grounds of economic competence because that was not thought to be its main purpose. Instead, government has been a source of patronage and wealth and that is how it secures support. The society has never developed a consensus way of distributing the oil revenue which accounts for over 90% of export earnings. Second the country’s wealth attracted many large immigrant groups–from the rest of Latin America, the Caribbean, and also from countries like Italy, Lebanon and Hungary. Many of these groups have not become fully ‘Venezuelan’. So again the fabric that holds together society is weak.
In 1998 Chavez appealed to voters that had never voted before and constructed a majority because the old parties, though having some outstanding individuals and promoting a sort of competitive democracy, had not addressed vigorously social problems like poverty, inequality and corruption. Chavez had no experience in government but as a military officer he was struck by the injustices of society. However he failed again to use government to demonstrate competence and, after the failed coup against him 2002, came to rely on Cuban political and strategic advice. He increasingly used a rhetoric and methods that have been anti-private sector, anti-opposition, and anti-US. These have helped consolidate his base but also radicalized the country against balanced solutions. Since Chavez’s death, President Maduro has promoted an even cruder approach which paints all who disagree with him as enemies of the state and agents of the US. And of course one of Chavez’s legacies was to give considerable amounts of Venezuela’s oil production to Cuba or provide subsidized oil to other countries. A masterstroke by Cuba perhaps, but such a dependence is not a feasible long-term policy for either country when Venezuela has accelerating economic difficulties. In short, elections seem the only way of resetting Venezuela’s course and that avenue still appears to be open. If the opposition is going to tilt the balance in its favor it will need to demonstrate a strong commitment to national Venezuelan social programs as well as reassuring the private sector and the middle classes. That will require extraordinarily firm and patient leadership but nothing is impossible in a country with as much natural wealth as Venezuela.
—Paul Webster Hare was the British Ambassador to Cuba from 2001-04 and served as Deputy Head of Mission in Venezuela. He teaches International Relations at Boston University and is a Fellow of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and a member of the Brookings Institution Core Group on Cuba.