Many of the young students protesting in the streets of Venezuela have no memory of any government other than that of President Hugo Chávez. But now that he has been gone for nearly a year, they know they don’t want to grow old under the same type of regime.
In 2007, students marched in the streets after the Chávez government shut down RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest independent television network. Toward the end of the same year, they were the driving force behind the eventual rejection of Mr. Chávez’s plan to form a federation between Venezuela and Cuba.
Now, large numbers of their younger brothers and sisters have returned to the streets to demonstrate against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. They aren’t calling for the government to cease helping the poor; they’re protesting the government’s economic ineptitude and the ever-tighter limits on free speech in the national media.
Politically active students number in the tens of thousands in Venezuela. The vast majority of them sympathize with opposition to Chavismo, the populist social movement inspired by Mr. Chávez, and they rightly accuse the Maduro government of being hugely corrupt.
The students are well aware of how Mr. Chávez effectively took control of the country’s legislative, fiscal, judicial and electoral processes. During his more than 14 years in office, under the cover of florid rhetoric, Mr. Chávez made unregulated and wasteful use of tens of billions of dollars earned each year by the state-owned oil company PDVSA.
The students also know that inflation in Venezuela is the highest in Latin America and that the public debt has become unmanageable. There is a scarcity of basic foods, electricity, cement and medicines — largely as a result of government mismanagement, expropriations of private businesses and a dearth of private investment. And they know that their country has the worst crime rate in Latin America.
Today’s protesters are especially resentful of the near-total suppression of information on the true condition of the country. While Mr. Chávez would trumpet his achievements (some real, most imaginary) for hours on television and radio talk shows, Mr. Maduro has chosen to repress dissenting voices, leaving only a single, official version of the truth. To consolidate its control of the media, the government took over Globovisión, the nation’s last independent television station. Likewise, independent radio is also almost dead, and the government has restricted the sale of newsprint to the point that freedom of the press could soon be doomed.
Clearly, Venezuela is sliding toward dictatorship. Repression of dissent is spreading across the country. More than a dozen people have died in the protests, many of them students, as the government deploys the police and the army to crack down; many others have been wounded in these confrontations or placed under arrest.
The students have the support of many of their parents and teachers, and of at least the nearly half of the population that voted against Mr. Maduro in the 2013 election. But a number of media outlets elsewhere in Latin America seem nevertheless to have turned against them, with various newspapers as well as a surprising number of young Twitter users voicing support for the Maduro government’s repression and condemning the students as “reactionaries” and “fascists.”
To YouTube images of students being beaten and killed in the streets, Mr. Maduro responded with claims that his country is in the grips of a “cybernetic war.” (Many people agree with him.)
And when the president decided that some CNN reporters’ coverage of the demonstrations was too favorable to the protesters, he threatened to suspend their broadcasts and expel the network’s principal anchor.
In Venezuela, the power of ideology is easily understood: The vast spell cast by Mr. Chávez endures, and millions of people remain convinced that Chavismo in fact did good works. There is a practical side to that loyalty as well, since many people depend directly on financial and material aid from the government while private enterprise and investment continue to languish.
Outside of Venezuela, Latin American support for Chavismo springs from two sources: the enduring prestige of the Cuban Revolution, and the cold economic calculations of various countries that are carefully positioning themselves for the coming post-Castro years.
Political backwardness in Latin America is explained mainly by loyalty to what is largely a myth: that social revolution, not democracy, is the preferred route. Our political idols have not been democrats, but rather redeemers, like Fidel Castro. In fact, Cuba continues to be the nerve center of progressive ideology in Latin America. As a testament to its weight, almost every Latin American president attended the summit late last month in Havana of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, at which Fidel Castro was hailed as the “political and moral guide.”
But the material interests of Venezuela’s Latin American brethren are also quite important. Brazil, for example, sees economic opportunities opening up in Cuba after the Castro brothers leave the scene and doesn’t want anything to get in the way. Hence Brazil’s support for stability in Cuba but also for safeguarding ties between Havana and Caracas (Venezuela supplies Cuba with oil). Thus we have the odd situation of President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, who was tortured as a student by the Brazilian military, defending, or at least tolerating, the armed repression of students in Venezuela.
But the young people risking their lives to demonstrate against their government aren’t especially interested in geopolitics. What they know is that democratic progress needs more than just elections to move it forward; it requires full freedom of speech in the media. Just how long this particular contest will last between the brute power of government and those who would push democracy further along is anyone’s guess. In any case, it will be played out on the streets of Venezuela.
ENRIQUE KRAUZE ― NEW YORK TIMES
Enrique Krauze is a historian, the editor of the literary magazine Letras Libres and the author of “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America.” This article was translated by Hank Heifetz from the Spanish.