Venezuela continues to follow the path toward 21st century socialism, where the human condition is reestablished, inequalities are gone, and true citizenship is a reality rather than an unfulfilled promise. In the process, its government made two very interesting announcements last week. One corresponded to the creation of the Supreme Organ of the Economy, created to address what President Nicolás Maduro calls “economic sabotage” through artificially created food scarcities and private producers blame on excessively restrictive currency controls. Although the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations acknowledged Venezuela last June for meeting its “Zero Hunger” challenge and halving the total number of malnourished people since 1996, Venezuela will also import from Colombia as much as 40,000 tons of powdered milk and almost 1.7 million chickens, among other foodstuffs. (On top of that, on the week of Maduro’s announcement, the largest food producer in Venezuela, Empresas Polar, announced that it was intensifying its production of cornmeal, the main ingredient in the national staple, arepas)
The second announcement from the Bolivarian government relates to the media: the mandatory broadcast twice a day (and at peak viewing hours) of a newly created news program, Noticiero de la Verdad (roughly translated to “The Truth Newscast”), in all private radio and TV stations nationwide. The purpose – both ostensibly and actual – is to address an “information blackout” from private media, on the crosshairs of the Bolivarian Revolution since the April 2002 coup that briefly ousted the late Hugo Chávez as president. Having said that, broadcasts are subject to the availability of any material the government considers newsworthy, so chances are that private media will not always have to preempt the daily soap opera – the novela – to give way to extensive coverage of the official conmemoration of Hugo Chávez’s birthday.
Considering the climate of political acrimony in Venezuela, which has been on a steady increase since Chávez’s first election in 1998, these announcements come as no surprise: The Bolivarian government basically announced that it will continue to stick it to its opposition — those escuálidos (“squalid ones”), as Chávez always called them, who dominated the political system prior to the arrival of the Revolution. There is another reason they do not come as a surprise: They represent Venezuelan populism at its best. Writing in 2012, before Chávez’s passing, Margarita López Maya and Dinolis Alexandra Panzarelli argue that Venezuelan populism à la Chávez employs a rabid and alienating discourse pitting “the people” against “the oligarchy” (a classic element in Latin American populism); is founded upon a rentier state; and is sustained by the image of a permanent electoral campaign, the idea of a “communicator state” (i.e. the extensive use of the media to cement the relationship between the charismatic leader and his followers, also typical of Latin American populism), and the existence of politically pliant grassroot networks to count on for mobilization. The creation of the Supreme Organ of the Economy and Noticiero de la Verdad are not far removed from some of these characteristics; indeed, the newscast is the latest example of the “communicator state” (albeit something that Chávez never considered) and both are sustained by the same barrage of dispersions that characterized Chávez in life. As a matter of fact, any doubts about Maduro’s capacity to keep the Bolivarian Revolution going after Chávez’s passing are now completely dispelled, because he is clearly utilizing good old chavista rhetoric to keep the fervor going (while supermarket shelves remain empty). On top of that, the Venezuelan rentier state, under which oil profits flow directly to government coffers, continues to provide incentives for that government to impose its populist vision, insofar as oil profits make the Venezuelan state less dependent on taxation and, hence, less pressured by taxpayers to compromise.
In all, as López Maya and Panzarelli also conclude, this branding of populism started in 1998 as an attempt to democratize the political system after years of unheeded demands. Although elements of the opposition are also to blame for the last 15 years of polarization, it is also a fact that Chávez took advantage of it to his political gain, and now it is Maduro who is doing so. The result has been a political regime that is more inclined toward authoritarianism than to its prior democratizing promise. That is the tragedy of 21st century socialism.