Faced with multiple crises and headed for a round defeat in the polls, the Venezuelan state's response is all too familiar.
The three months following the devaluation have seen everything pan out exactly as predicted. I'm now reliant on various "in the know" contacts (usually mothers of large families) who I ask which supermarket is stocking oil, butter, powdered milk, etc. When I finally do find what I want, of course, the price has risen. Still, in Caracas, we're lucky. In a recent trip to the east of the country, I met people who had stopped eating the national staple of arepas (due to the flour shortage), as well as kiosqueros (street tradesmen) with empty Thermoses (sugar's another scarce product, and unsweetened coffee doesn't sell during the morning rush hour).
Meanwhile, the dual water and electricity shortages have been picked up by the international media. They tsk tsk at the bad luck of Chávez - the great survivor - who has ridden out prison and coup attempts, only to face his most serious threat yet in a drought caused by the weather, a phemonemon for which his administration can not be implicated. Irony - much like binaries - works well in news media. Never mind the poor management of existing water transportation and pipes and the ongoing rows between the various bodies - public and private - charged with giving us water. Ignore the government's failure to open even one new, fully functioning HEP plant. That said, after 11 years, it is encouraging to finally see the international media reporting on the actual consequences of events in Venezuelan politics, beyond the soundbites of Chávez.
Discontent with the accelerating national decline in quality of life will probably be expressed most strongly in the upcoming parliamentary elections (mooted for September this year). A recent survey suggests that 28% of the electorate will vote for chavista candidates, 26% will vote for the various shades of opposition (which now incorporate self-styled 'social democrats', as well as right wing tycoons), while around 34% will go for independents. Bear in mind that the opposition boycotted the last parliamentary elections in 2005, leaving the Asamblea Nacional with 100% chavista representation. Chávez is about to lose his carte blanche.
The oppositional factions are keenly aware of this fact, and have started ploughing their millions into postering their overly-styled mugs all over lampposts in upmarket parts of Caracas. Their allegiance is often unclear (usually because some piece of backroom horsetrading has yet to be finalised), so I tend to use the colour of the poster and the candidate's style as a rough guide (unbuttoned shirt and gelled, cropped hair with red background is probably left-of-centre, overdone woman with intense, into-camera stare looks pretty free marketeer, etc). A friend once commented to me that in Venezuela, the biggest celebrities are their politicians (in the absence of the glut of world famous sports and cultural icons that we have in Britain), and this is the angle that the candidates' PR agencies appear to be advocating.
The external, national crisis is being mirrored by the PSUV (the disorientated pink elephant that is Chávez' party), which is embroiled in its own set of internal crises. The deteriorating situation has brought about a number of prominent opportunists jumping ship, and some interesting word games being played by the remaining affiliates to el proceso. Your contemporary grassroots chavista now has to consider whether s/he is in favour of "Chávez sin chavismo" ("because, Senor Presidente, your advisors are deceiving you!") or "chavismo sin Chávez" (as evidenced in the recent, audacious attempt by a state governor to steal the remaining "franelas rojas" for himself).
As for El Presidente himself, the rhetoric emanating from Miraflores (the Presidential palace) has suddenly seemed a little dampened of late. It's very rare that Chávez appears stumped, but while attempting logical cartwheels following the revelation that a large proportion of Venezuelan electricity is actually bought from Colombia, a country against whom the Venezuelan public is supposedly "preparing for war" (Chávez apparently sees "no problem" with this), he almost looked sheepish. Even the "imperio Yanqui" has been cut a break, with Chávez calling for "better relations" between the two nations.
Morever, the involvement of the IMF in national finances has underlined chavismo's reliance on international capital. Off the top of my head and only going back a month or two, I can remember Shell, McDonalds and Chevron all reassuring the Venezuelan state of their continued commitment to investing in the republic (the last being especially keen, despite the ongoing movement against their presence in indigenous areas of the Ecuadorean Amazon).
Of course, just like anywhere else in the world, foreign investors don't want messy, unpleasant things like social movements blocking their profit incentives, and the powers-that-be are acutely conscious of this fact. The recent episode in Maracay, Aragua state - where a peaceful, prior-approved, union demonstration was surrounded at its gathering point by twice as many riot police as demonstrators, before firing rounds of tear gas - is only the latest in a long line of state attacks on popular movements. Some 2,200 Venezuelans are currently being subjected to some form of judicial reprisal for their involvement in struggles for better conditions, be they at work or in their homes. As El Libertario notes, strikes and demonstrations are rising year on year, with many groups and individuals breaking from the state's stranglehold and coalescing into some sort of 'post-chavista left'.
Looking towards the longterm - with Venezuelan society as a whole somewhat cautiously emerging from the chavista-antichavista binary and the current administration finding opponents coming from various directions - the state is arming itself and its supporters at a somewhat ominous rate. In 2009, some US$733m were spent on arms from Russia alone - more than any other Latin American country - leading to fears of an "arms race" in the region. As previously noted on this blog, in times of chronic economic crisis with wholesale budgetary cuts, the state's spending on defense has actually increased. Moreover, with his own civilian paramilitary of allegedly 150,000 members, plus an unofficially recognised - but plain to the eye - 15,000-strong armed motorbike patrol on the streets of central Caracas, Chávez is preparing for something.
Many commentators entered 2010 placing all their betting money on a military coup in Venezuela this year. Then the devaluation happened, swiftly followed by the intensification of the energy crisis. We mustn’t be fooled by Chávez’ reconciliatory tone; the chavista administration is anticipating social conflict. The state’s pre-emptive aggressions don't bode well for Venezuelan citizens - by whom, I refer to not just the political activists and union militants, but also the overwhelming majority who merely desire to survive from one day to the next. The electoral circus has already started, and will surely reach fever pitch in the coming months. Let us hope that it doesn't serve as a cover for a state-orchestrated attack on the expressions of the Venezuelan people.