Global Politics

One year after Hugo Chavez, his successor and Venezuela are struggling

Venezuela protesters.jpg

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REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Anti-government protesters shout during a protest against Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas March 3, 2014.

Venezuela has been in the news for its anti-government protests. It is also one of the more dangerous countries in the world, with over 28,000 murders reported last year. And its economy is unraveling — inflation is above 55 percent and Venezuelans can't find essentials like cooking oil or toilet paper.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

"I expected things to worsen, but not as fast as this," said Rory Carroll, the former Latin American bureau chief for the Guardian and Observer newspapers. He said Nicolas Maduro took over after Hugo Chavez died, he inherited a very dysfunctional economy and lots of problems. Still, Maduro has been quick to make them worse.

Carroll had a front-row seat for six years to the rein of Chavez and wrote Comandante: Hugo Chávez's Venezuela. He said, under Chavez, protests were regular, but fleeting.

"You'd see students in the streets protesting, or sometimes it would be pensioners or doctors or whatever group would have a grievance... but the government had the ability to buy them off often."

"As a petrol state, [Chavez] was able to promise [the protesters] more money," he said. "Also, Chavez had good political instincts. He was a very shrewd operator, despite the bombastic persona. And he often knew when to draw back. Like he knew when to intimidate, but also not to go too far, lest he would aggravate things.

"Nicolas Maduro doesn't have those political skills," Carroll said. "And he doesn't have the same amount of money off oil revenues that Hugo Chavez had. And that's why we're seeing the government making all these missteps. They've been very heavy-handed in repressing the protests, which has only served to fuel the anger of the protesters."

By all accounts, Maduro should have had an easier time. He's a former bus driver who rose up through the ranks of the government, so he could have been the everyman, observed Carroll.

"He could be your next door neighbor, who's now the president. And yet, he doesn't have the common touch, he doesn't have the rhetorical flourishes and capacity that Hugo Chavez had to show empathy for the poor."

Although the wheels were coming off the economy under Chavez, Carroll said that "toward the end of his rule and his life, the poor always felt [Chavez] was on their side. That he was in their corner, even if the murder rates outside their front door were out of control. Whereas Maduro just doesn't have the same capacity, he doesn't have the same skills of communication to make the poor really feel that he's their guy."

Carroll, who left Venezuela in 2012 for Los Angeles, was surprised to see his old assignment show up at the 86th Academy Awards on Sunday.

Carroll tweeted on the number of celebrities speaking out about Venezuela's protests. The actor Jared Leto expressed his support for Venezuela during his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor award at the Oscars.

"To all the dreamers out there around the world watching this tonight, in places like the Ukraine and Venezuela, I want to say we are here, and as you struggle to make your dreams happen, to live the impossible, we're thinking of you tonight," Leto said.

Actor Kevin Spacey gave his support to Venezuela on Twitter:
Madonna also tweeted her support: 

Carroll said that, until now, anytime Hollywood was involved in Venezuela, it was usually a "small group of left-wing people such as Sean Penn or Oliver Stone who would express support for Chavez."

He said that everybody else would either ignore it or let it pass. Now for the first time, Venezuela is getting mentioned in the same breath as Ukraine or even Syria.

"I think that's a worrying sign for Nicolas Maduro, that Hollywood is waking up to the fact that not all is well in Venezuela — and the rest of the world is waking up to that."

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