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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Michael Rowan: What Went Wrong with Democracy in Venezuela? How Can It Be Set Right?
"Venezuela is a 63-year story of civilization’s slow erosion, failure, and collapse. Of government. Of economy. Of culture. And of the spirit. Of all these, the most crippling loss has been the last," writes Venezuela expert and political strategist Michael Rowan. "The soul of Venezuela’s politics has been lost. Its capacity to delude itself is deep and lasting while its capacity to redeem itself is missing." But there is a way out.

By Michael Rowan

Democracy’s birth in Venezuela in 1958 came at a surprising price for the population. The pact excluding smaller parties from any chance at governance stifled the barrio population from self-representation. Two political parties – AD and COPEI – thereby monopolized an imperial presidency which passed out Venezuela’s oil riches to elites, worsening inequality and poverty. As the country got richer the lower-class population got poorer.

When oil was nationalized in 1976, monopoly, corruption and secrecy in government were institutionalized. Thereafter, political cronies got conspicuously rich, while millions of mostly brown-skinned people in the barrios got conspicuously and permanently poor.

Under the monopoly of power and money, corruption flourished as it must. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as has been said. Political elites became millionaires as the population fell further into poverty. In the late 1980s, after oil prices fell while food and gasoline prices increased beyond the ability of the poor to pay for necessities, protesters in 1989 were met with military violence and many were killed for expressing their democratic rights. That may have been the day democracy contracted a deadly disease that would eventually fell Venezuela.

Inequality, poverty and corruption are no recipe for democracy. Something had to give, and it was the democracy that gave, while inequality, poverty and corruption flourished. Denial of problems, ignorance of solutions, and dysfunction of government became political tactics. Rich elites tried to bull their way through inflation which threatened the survival of over half the population. It obviously didn’t work. It destroyed the country.


In 1992, a military paratrooper, Hugo Chavez, launched a failed coup, was imprisoned, became a popular hero, was freed from prison, and then elected president in 1998. While AD and COPEI fell through the cracks, the corrupt cronies did not.

Chavez, a neophyte with no experience at governance, promised he’d give oil money to his supporters, who were living desperate lives in the barrios. They are the brown-skinned poor who comprise over 60% of the population. Chavez never delivered. Instead, he became the permanent imperial president of Venezuela, waging a propaganda war against the U.S., capitalism, globalization, knowledge, trade, business and law, while living like a king. Under his rule, thousands of Chavez cronies got extremely rich – including Chavez’s family -- while poverty ultimately rose to 90% of a starving population.

Today, over five million Venezuelans have voted with their feet, fleeing the country to anyplace that would take them. Venezuela’s elections are so obviously fixed that two years ago, 58 nations refused to recognize Nicolas Maduro as president. However, the opposition never set up a counter-government. As U.S. sanctions, inflation and Covid-19 plagued the lives of millions, especially children, Maduro’s henchmen got fat looting Venezuela of its remaining treasures, and suppressing domestic dissent.

Today the private sector, independent media and civil institutions essential to a democracy have all but disappeared. Chavez died in 2013 but his successor carries on the same corruption and suppression as his mentor, but without the charisma and personality of Chavez.

This short story of Venezuela is a sad tale for civilization, indeed. After 40 years of AD and COPEI “democracy”, and 23 years of Chavez and Maduro “revolution”, the trend has been continuous: more inequality, poverty, corruption and suppression, along with disappearing democracy and freedom. It’s an outrageous story that didn’t have to happen but it did and there’s nothing on the horizon to replace it.

Ironically, Venezuela made history by being the first Latin American country to transition from military rule to democracy and then the first to transition from democracy to military rule. Venezuela transitioned from the richest nation in Latin America to probably the poorest, and called it a grand success – like Cuba. In the twisted minds of its mafioso leaders, Venezuela is a utopian paradise, a grand success, and the best democracy in the world. For a time, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua followed Venezuela’s delusional path right to the cliff edge before backing off.

The truth is – and in various degrees of responsibility, this goes for AD, COPEI and the Chavez Revolution -- Venezuela is a 63-year story of civilization’s slow erosion, failure, and collapse. Of government. Of economy. Of culture. And of the spirit. Of all these, the most crippling loss has been the last. The soul of Venezuela’s politics has been lost. Its capacity to delude itself is deep and lasting while its capacity to redeem itself is missing.

Venezuela’s politics is totally polarized around increasingly radicalized sides looking for revenge against the other. There are struggles for power inside the Revolution’s camp and the opposition camps as well. No camp wants to live with the other, or to govern with the other, or to serve or even recognize the others as citizens. Venezuela is similar to Syria, where government effectively does not exist – you’re alone, on your own.

But the people of Venezuela have a big heart for family, inclusion, cooperation and love. Why is this strength not being tapped to redeem the country from politics?

To set all this right, Venezuelans know that only they can unify the country. No external force can do it. The USA, Europe, the U.N., the OAS, can do nothing. No external military, economic or diplomatic solution to Venezuela has worked or can succeed. And there is no internal solution to today’s suppression.

But Venezuelans are not without a digital solution. To set all this right, Venezuelans can unify a polarized population around a credible, practical and effective mitigation of inequality, poverty and suppression of Venezuela. Virtually no one on the scene today is advocating such a message or taking action to support it. But such a message has great power because it sidelines the politicians and cronies on all sides as part of the problem, and it stirs the heartfelt longing for civilization, survival and dignity.

What unifies millions of Venezuelans from all sides of politics, is this: no job, no lights, no security, no business, no relief, no hospital, no medicine, no car, no subway, no school, no income, no credit card, no dollars, and no end to the unnecessary death and suffering of even the children. People are unified over the tragic loss of livelihoods and careers and hopes and dreams and respect and even dignity in death.

Venezuelans are now experiencing the last few moments of an ignominious life. They are all in a rapidly sinking boat together no matter where they are, or how safe or sick they may be. Spiritually, they are in this together and they know it.

And here’s another thing they have in common: a cell phone, which is a message machine that rapidly assembles members who share a common message, goal, friendship and action in real time.

If the nation has collapsed, why not give birth to it virtually? What if a website preaching and implementing the common good of all reached millions of Venezuelans in 2021, providing trustworthy access for currency exchanges, food, water, tele-medicine, vaccines, education, online jobs, solar power, and ways to survive in a collapsed country? That website could get billions of dollars directly to Venezuelans in need with no politics, cronies, or criminals taking their cut. That’s the beauty of virtual service economies. They can operate anywhere and avoid political corruption if they want.

Virtual Venezuela could associate with Google, Amazon, Facebook and WhatsApp as a massive message help-desk and delivery service. A Virtual Venezuela website can take the responsibility to deliver civilization to people of all ages, colors and beliefs, and start delivering the goods. That would attract a lot of support in Venezuela and the world, which could feed people and save lives, right now. It would be a story going viral worldwide.

Everything has collapsed in Venezuela except its people. People are Venezuela’s only remaining asset. People know that survival is a cooperative relationship involving engagement, inter-dependence and trusting other people. Politicians can’t answer this call. But people can. And if they do, a Venezuelan Spring for democracy will shine once again in the land of Bolivar.


Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America and the just released How to Prevent Trump from Doing to America What Chavez Did to Venezuela, published by Amazon Books.


 

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