How the Pink Tide Turned Red in Venezuela

JUAN BARRETO / GETTY IMAGES
A demonstrator throws stones at riot policemen during an anti-government protest challenging Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's authoritarian government in eastern Caracas.

Recently in Venezuela, thousands of citizens have taken to the streets to protest the fraudulent referendum, as declared by the international community, which rewrites the country’s constitution, giving President Nicolás Maduro's controlled constituent assembly the power to dissolve the National Assembly, which is dominated by opposition politicians. During these protests, hundreds of people have been killed or seriously injured, and many others arrested. Maduro has also arrested his main opposition leaders in a secret midnight raid. The United States has responded to these authoritarian actions by placing sanctions on the country and issuing a ban on Venezuelan government employees and their families from traveling to the United States. 

Since the late 1980s, Venezuela has been a country defined by political unrest, economic distress, and corruption. It is tough to consider given its current state that Venezuela was once politically stable, and the richest country in South America. The root of Venezuela’s current crisis is generally thought of as having started with the rise and reign of Hugo Chávez. 

In 1975, Hugo Chávez became an active member of the Venezuelan army. Similar to other South American armies at the time, Venezuela’s generally recruited from the lower middle class. As a result, officers like Chávez were exposed and more open to left-wing ideas that led Peruvian and Panamanian armed forces to seize power through military coups. At the time, Venezuela consisted of a Puntofijismo, a cooperative system established in 1958, in which Venezuela’s three main political parties (the Democratic Action Party (AD), the Social Christian Party (copei) and the Democratic Republic Union (UDR) had joint power in the government. Puntofijismo was praised by political scientists at the time for being the epitome of a healthy democracy, particularly in comparison to neighboring countries’ military dictatorships. However, Chávez along with his military supporters sought to highlight the corruption and social exclusion that existed. For instance, welfare benefits were generally concentrated among those affiliated with the AD, such as the Trabajadores de Venezuela, a group of urban workers; all the while excluding rural migrants arriving in large cities during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. In the mid-70s, after Venezuela’s nationalization of its oil industry, its economic fragility became apparent. While the nationalization initially led to exponential growth in Venezuela’s GDP, it also proved how heavily dependent Venezuela’s economy was on this single resource. By the end of the oil crisis in 1989, Venezuelan inflation had soared from 7.2% in 1978 to 81%, squandering Venezuelans’ purchasing power and further deepening political tensions between the Venezuelan middle class and the government. In 1989, proposed cuts on subsidies for domestic petrol prices led to rioting and several dozen deaths in Caracas. This event is known today as the Caracazo. By 1992, Chávez was a lieutenant colonel, a dedicated left-wing activist, and conspiring to complete a coup d’etat. He attempted to do so in February, however was unsuccessful and put in jail where he remained from 1992 to 1994. In 1994, a copei-elected leader, Raphael Caldera, released Chávez from prison. Following his release, amid a general discontent with politics, Chávez found that the population was generally receptive of his critique of Puntofijismo. In December 1998, despite a 35% turnout of the registered electorate, Chávez won the majority vote comfortably, and took power. Many political scientists viewed Chávez’s election as the beginning of a pink tide (a “rosy” version of communism) of leftists gaining power in Central and South American countries. 

In the beginning of his reign, Chávez used his power to consolidate his own political control. On the council government, Chávez’s nominees outnumbered the opposition four to one. A general strike in 2003 and a political referendum in 2004 sought to channel opposition against Chávez, but was quite unsuccessfully. During this time, however, oil prices soared, providing Chávez and Venezuela with funds not seen since the economic depression of the 80s. Chávez enacted populist domestic policies known as the “Bolivarian Missions.” These included, but were not limited to: the redistribution of wealth, land reform, and the creation of worker-owned businesses. While this heavy increase in domestic spending gained Chávez a loyal set of supporters, it also brought with it one of the highest inflation rates in the world.

Shortly after Chávez’s death in 2012, his Vice President, Nicolás Maduro, came to power, later elected by a 1.5% margin. In 2014, international oil prices experienced a massive free-fall, dropping from $115 per barrel in June 2014 to $35 a barrel by February 2016. Venezuela’s important institutions, such as banks, already weakened by the Bolivarian Missions, have been unable to respond to the economic recession. The frantic printing of money during this economic collapse has led to inflation rates upwards of 700%. Hyperinflation has led to an extreme devaluation of the currency, resulting in a national hunger crisis and rise in homicide rates. Lacking essentials such as food and healthcare, the Venezuelan people began denouncing Maduro, and his support has been falling. By reforming the constitution and jailing his opposition leaders, Maduro has only further alienated his people and isolated himself from much of the international community. Venezuela's pink tide has lost its lust.