Hugo Chávez’s Dream Is Dead but His Fanatics Refuse to Fade Away

A flailing opposition and broken markets are nothing new here, and this time is no different.

Chávez supporters on the anniversary of his death in Barrio 23 de Enero, Caracas, Venezuela.

The judge is shaking. Never mind that she’s sitting in her office dressed with the tasteful elegance of a jurist, a large painting of Venezuela’s national hero, Simón Bolívar, on one wall, watercolors on another. She’s just returned from an event at the Supreme Court, which should be a monument to the objective application of law. But the gathering was a political rally with singing and dancing and a fervently applauded speech about the need to emasculate the nation’s legislative body—the single institution not in the hands of the ruling socialist party.

“I don’t know how my colleagues live with themselves,” she says, her hands trembling as she removes her eyeglasses, rubs her temples, and then shuffles some papers. “Government ministers and military officers go freely up to the constitutional chamber,” she says, where high court justices hear the most important cases. The president hasn’t lost one in years. After the opposition sat three lawmakers whose election was disputed, the court declared the legislature essentially illegitimate.

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From a distance, Venezuela, with its crashing oil prices and alarming shortages, appears on the brink of political upheaval. Almost 1 million people marched in Caracas on Sept. 1 to pressure President Nicolás Maduro into allowing a referendum for his recall. The overturning of leftist populism—sweeping across commodity-dependent South America from Argentina to Brazil to Peru—seems on its way here, the country where the movement had its most elaborate flowering.

But the infuriated judge illustrates something that’s been insufficiently appreciated: The levers of power—the judiciary, the military, the oil, the election commission that must decide on the recall referendum—are firmly in the hands of the president. Among analysts and Maduro’s opponents, there is a tendency to overstate how near to collapse things are, out of understandable frustration and wishful thinking. Can a government, no matter how much oil it has underground, ignore the laws of markets, make a mockery of its institutions, spin half-truths, and pay no price? A reckoning must be due, these opponents insist.

Even as the suffering increases for the country’s 30 million inhabitants, the government appears—for now—secure. Barring a successful recall before the end of this year, the president won’t face a vote until 2018. Maduro has factions to balance and appearances to maintain. He faces open criticism. This isn’t a dictatorship like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But the boundaries of candor remain purposefully vague, and those who have profited from the revolution are holding on firmly while the opposition flails, unable to grab hold of a way to restore the ruling status many of its members enjoyed before they lost power at the end of the 20th century.

None of this negates the country’s harsh reality. Hunger is gnawing away at this nation, which, with the world’s largest proven petroleum reserves, was one of the 20 richest in the 1970s. Inflation is in the high triple digits—its largest bill is worth a dime, requiring brick-thick packets for simple transactions. Residents line up all day to buy corn flour. Kidnappers are thriving; wealthier Venezuelans leave jewelry at home and ride behind tinted car windows. Yet the opposition, despite an overwhelming legislative victory last December, hasn’t gotten a single significant law past challenges in the courts. As pale follow-up demonstrations to the Sept. 1 march revealed, it remains splintered and disorganized. Life gets harder, but there’s little reason to expect a change soon.

Venezuela is a land of natural bounty. Oil fills its depths. Mango and avocado trees grow along the side of the road. The Caribbean whispers offshore. Venezuelans often say this abundance has led to a charming if chaotic passivity. For two decades after the late 1970s, an oil bust led to exceptional suffering for the poor. Then, Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez, with his Robin Hood promises, blew the doors off elite control of the nation with a victory in the 1998 elections. Psychiatrist Cecilia Carvajal recalled that she and the other doctors in her large private Caracas clinic openly expressed alarm. Then she noticed the happy faces of her department’s secretaries. “That was when I realized we had no idea of the resentment,” she says.

Chávez did. He expropriated land and industries and replaced judges, officers, and oil executives. He called it the Bolivarian revolution and declared it would relieve suffering and inequality. Chávez died in 2013 after picking as his successor Maduro, a man with far less charisma who has had to contend with plunging oil prices and a radically shifting regional outlook. His popularity is barely 20 percent. In some ways, he’s the equivalent of Raúl Castro to Fidel, but, unlike Raúl, he shows few signs of economic pragmatism. He seems inclined to tighten state controls, not loosen them, and to attack the U.S., not seek détente with it. No senior official in the Venezuelan government agreed to speak for this article.

Henri Falcón was once part of the revolution. As a military officer in the early 1990s, he became a Chávez supporter and then a popular mayor of Barquisimeto, about 350km (200 miles) to the southwest of Caracas. In 2008 he announced his intention to run for governor. Chávez heard about it.

“He called me the next day,” Falcón recalls, sitting on the patio of his official residence in a plaid shirt and baseball cap. “He said, ‘Henri, what is this I hear?’ I said, ‘Yes, Mr. President. I plan to run.’ He said, ‘Henri, listen carefully. What you say and what you do is based on what I say and what I do.’ ” The next year, after winning the election for governor, Falcón grew tired of parroting the official line. He has since joined the opposition. “Chavismo is a fantasy,” he says. “What is socialism with hunger? But we must realize that many people still identify with that fantasy.”

President Maduro
President Maduro takes part in a ceremony at the Chávez mausoleum on the anniversary of his death.
Photographer: Pietro Paolini/TerraProject/Contrasto/Redux

Alejandro Riera used to. He was one of Chávez’s biggest benefactors in the colonel’s 1998 bid for the presidency. Riera served as Chávez’s first minister of agriculture, quitting after he saw where things were headed. Standing in his 11th-floor apartment outside Barquisimeto, Riera points to fallow fields where sugar cane grew for generations. “The government ruined it,” he says. Riera owns farms. A dozen years ago, 30 armed soldiers came to one of them, 500 hectares (1,236 acres), and claimed it for the state. He protested. A message came back: “This is your contribution to the revolution.” The land was never put to use, however. When he last saw it a year ago, overgrown and fallow, he says tears came to his eyes.

Ignoring reality is getting harder for everyone. The emergency room in Barquisimeto’s government hospital, built for 25 patients, now has 70. Supplies are dwindling, so a man with a broken leg is fitted with a cardboard splint. Zuli Molleja is visiting her 18-year-old son, who broke his hip and burned his face in a workplace accident. Family members helped her pay for the surgical gowns, the bandages, the cotton, and sterile solutions. Patients, even poor ones, are now responsible for their own medical supplies.

Ruy Medina, chief medical officer, says he got only 3 percent of his budget request from the government this year. There used to be eight functioning sonogram machines; now there are four. And 28 ventilators are down to 16. Patients with cancer are dying for lack of chemotherapy drugs. “In my 51 years at this hospital,” the 76-year-old doctor says, “this is the worst I have ever seen it.”

As the economy crumbles, the Maduro government is using most of its resources to pay overseas debts. While all institutions have had to cut back, the military gets the most leeway. The government depends on it for crucial support as discontent increases. The armed forces have always played a key role in Venezuelan politics, but Chávez pulled the poor, the rural, and the dark-skinned into their ranks and promoted trusted fellow officers. A third of today’s governors are from the military, as are almost half of the ministers. Companies have been created for officers, one way that Maduro, a nonmilitary man, has tightened his alliance with the Chavista base.

“Chávez created a new identity for the military, a new doctrine,” says Rocío San Miguel, president of Control Ciudadano, a citizen watchdog. She says he gave it a new motto, a new ideology, and increased pathways to career success. Today there are 1,200 generals, she says, compared with 300 when Chávez took over.

Dissidents in the military are few. One, a retired officer, communicates with us over an encrypted messaging app and asks to meet outside a shopping mall. From there, he drives his pickup to a dingy cafe on a secluded road. “I know the owner,” he says. Formerly a colonel in the National Guard with almost three decades of service, he wants to talk about the way in which Chavismo has usurped the military.

Central University in Caracas
Clashes between antigovernment student protesters and the National Guard near the Central University in Caracas.
Photographer: Pietro Paolini/TerraProject/Contrasto/Redux

He tells of being obliged to sit through daily lectures on anti-imperialism rather than defense strategies. He was asked to meet with Colombian rebels across the border and noticed something he wasn’t supposed to: truckloads of cocaine. He reported it, but nothing happened. And when a corporal moved in two doors down from him, he couldn’t understand how his new neighbor could afford his lifestyle. He found out the corporal was trafficking in illicit goods at the airport and providing a cut to the right people. Leave it alone, the colonel was told. (The U.S. Department of the Treasury has identified a number of what it calls Venezuelan drug kingpins, including senior members of the military. One of them, Néstor Reverol, was recently named justice minister. Maduro has said the charge is a “U.S. conspiracy.”)

National guardsmen, the colonel notes, were once told their job was to keep competing political groups from clashing on the street. Now, he says, they’re instructed to side with the Chavistas. A force whose motto used to be “Honor is our currency” now declares, when its members salute, “Fatherland, socialism, or death. We will prevail!” The military is studying crowd control. Much of its new equipment consists of water cannons and small Chinese-made armored vehicles, says Ciudadano’s San Miguel.

Although some in the opposition hope officers will join an antigovernment movement, San Miguel doesn’t believe it will happen: “Military commanders today are Chavistas and are compromised by their collusion with the government,” she says. “The military will not move one centimeter without the prospect of an alternative power structure.” The opposition has little grasp of Venezuela’s military culture.

The revolution’s absorption of the judiciary and military is echoed by its approach to the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA. After an attempted military coup in 2002, Chávez fired about half of PDVSA’s employees, replacing them with neophyte loyalists. One senior analyst who remained for a dozen years more says he witnessed PDVSA slowly losing independence, turning into a political branch of Chavismo and spending its income on campaigns for officials at all levels, even mayor.

Venezuela National Guard
National Guard members wait for a student demonstration.
Photographer: Pietro Paolini/TerraProject/Contrasto/Redux

The analyst watched as executives were instructed to don shirts of Chavista red and join street demonstrations. He was once asked to prove that a production study of his “favored the revolution.” At a meeting at the central bank he spoke of fiscal stability, and his boss told him to “stop that IMF talk.” He has, leaving his position a couple of years ago for a think tank.

The challenge for the opposition lies not only with the judiciary and military—finally—but also with the shantytown of Antímano. On a recent Saturday morning, long lines of hundreds of people form outside food markets and drugstores here. Up a hill in western Caracas, Antímano has running water only three days a week. Roads are steep and cracked; steps, uneven; pipes, exposed; electric wires, jumbled around makeshift poles. Gang violence plagues daily life. This is where, one imagines, the opposition could build a following.

Nestor Alvarado, a 48-year-old truck driver, is shirtless in his doorway. Inside is his wife, Yajaira, their six children, and eight grandchildren. She remembers when there was plenty. Now, she says, “you have to kill yourself for a kilo of rice or a couple bags of pasta.” Is she angry at the government? At Maduro, yes, but she honors the memory of Chávez and expresses mistrust for the opposition. For 15 years she cleaned the house of a woman who spoke derisively of the poor right in front of her. Returning such people to power will not improve her situation, she says: “They are only interested in governing for themselves.”

Maduro’s approval rating is so low, there’s no way he would win an election, even if he retains some of Chávez’s support among the poor. The opposition proved that by taking the legislature. But as it has learned, it will be difficult to dislodge Maduro until the next election in 2018, as long as he maintains tight control over all other state institutions.

—With Noris Soto and Fabiola Zerpa