When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez died of cancer earlier this year, the fate of the Western hemisphere’s most brazen political experiment looked grim. For the better part of a generation, this country of 29 million had known no other leader and clung to El Comandante’s vision even as law and order crumbled and the oil-rich economy spun into disarray.
It hardly helped that a cardboard stand-in took over. Despite the leader’s dying words that “the revolution does not depend on one person alone,” Nicolas Maduro was not Chavez. No sooner had the former bus driver with an overstuffed mustache moved into the Palacio Miraflores in April than the pundits began to wax catastrophic. Runaway crime, spiking prices, rolling blackouts and empty supermarkets were the new normal in post-Chavez Venezuela.
The smart money in Latin America was not over whether the fallen leader’s self-styled Bolivarian revolution for 21st-century socialism would collapse, but when—and with what consequences for Venezuela and beyond.
So imagine the commotion when Venezuelans recently heard a recording of the Comandante himself, seemingly back from the grave. In the mysterious tape (here in Spanish), a man claiming to be the fallen leader declares he is “recovering" but “more alive than ever,” despite being held hostage by political enemies. The audio is patchy and marred by static but the deep baritone voice is eerily similar to Chavez’s.
The tape was immediately denounced as a “fake” by President Maduro, who blamed his unscrupulous political opponents and slammed them for having “no respect for the memory and the love that the Venezuelan people have for Hugo Chavez.”
Over the weekend, Maduro posted a video on his Twitter account that further refuted the audio hoax, which he attributed to “psychological warfare by the [political] right.” Recording technician Guillermo Vizcaya, of the loyalist Revolutionary Artistic Front for Homeland or Death, dedicated the 52-second video to “those who would deceive the people and shatter the hopes of creating a just and peace loving socialist society.”
Yet for millions of Venezuelans, hearing the exhilarating timbre of the Comandante’s voice—fake or not—was a blunt reminder of how the Bolivarian bequest has gone sour.
Though Maduro was Chavez’s chosen successor, he inherited all the problems but none of the charms, much less the political skill set, of the bombastic caudillo, who played his country like a private orchestra. Worse, Maduro had won the election in April by less than a two percent margin, in a contest tainted with irregularities, only to preside over a government where palace rivals were still conniving for power.
Since then, the economy has unraveled at a remarkable pace. As the government has all but halted investment in infrastructure, the power failures that occasionally darkened industries and streets have become routine and nationwide. At one point last month, two-thirds of the country went dark. All the better for Caracas’s busy bandits, who have turned the Venezuelan capital into the most dangerous metropolis in the Americas.
Credit-starved and with few takers for Venezuela’s “junk” rated bonds, Maduro has looked to China for help. He returned from a recent trip with no cash, only a promise by the Chinese to bankroll Venezuelan infrastructure projects in oil and mining in which Beijing would play a supervisory role. “In this sense it is almost a watershed since the government is against the ropes,” says Venezuelan oil analyst, Gustavo Coronel.
Today, prices are rising at more than 45 percent a month, the worst in Latin America. Hoarding is now a cottage industry, as shoppers try to get a jump on price gougers by snapping up staple goods by the trunk-load. Eggs, milk and butter are the new luxury items. Maduro’s handlers have sought to spin scarcity into evidence of the booming consumer economy. Toilet paper is in short supply because Venezuelans are eating better than ever, said the head of the national office of statistics, Elias Eljuri.
But just in case, last month Caracas ordered government intervention into a toilet paper factory, while Venezuelans have turned finding bathroom supplies into a logistical sporting event. In late September, Maduro also issued an emergency decree to import 3.5 million tons of food for $4.7 billion, to keep retailers from shutting their doors. And when word of that economic debacle spread, the government said it would ration imports of newsprint.
Whenever the news got this bad in Venezuela under Chavez, the default strategy was to point a finger at foreign powers—usually Washington—and their rightwing fellow travelers at home. Chavez had expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008.
True to script, his disciple Maduro late last month alleged a gringo conspiracy and ordered three other senior U.S. diplomats to vacate Caracas in 48 hours. His claims—that the White House had allegedly barred his plane from crossing American airspace and was plotting to cripple his government—sounded as shopworn as his adios. “Yankee, go home!” he barked on a nationwide broadcast.
With few Yankees left to vilify, Venezuela continues its slow motion spin into disrepair. That’s something not even a voice from the grave can fix.