Scarcity was much cooler under Chávez

Maduro's dwindling base
Maduro’s dwindling base

During the last presidential campaign, I took to highlighting the differences between a Chavez-led race and a Chávez –less one. For the sake of consistency, indulge me while I revisit this theme during its immediate aftermath, by asking: what is the difference between a Chávez-presided shortage and Chávez-less foodlessness?

Let us first review the uncanny similarities between Escasez 2008 and its lame 2013 iteration.

In 2008, prior to and following a surprising and unprecedented electoral defeat in a Constitutional Referendum, Hugo Chávez suffered a drop in popularity. This was largely caused by shortages in consumer staples such as milk, sugar, eggs and vegetable oil.

According to market research firm Datanálisis, the “scarcity index” in 2007 was up to 20%, but rose to 35% during the first trimester of 2008, “reaching 90% for some products such as milk.” Long lines at supermarkets, rationing of basic staples, and overall grumbling were prevalent. The critical situation caused a 28% inflation rate that fiscal year. Oh, and Regional Elections were slated to happen in November.

Fast forward to May, 2013: different President, same scenario.

Miserable domestic production of goods stifled by government-imposed price ceilings for raw materials. Currency controls regulating the orgy of imported consumer products with no foreign cash being handed out. Reduced public spending due to a searing fiscal hole following a State-sponsored electoral campaign.

These have all resulted in shortages of basic foodstuffs, medicines, industrial wares and dollars with which to import all of the above. Long lines at supermarkets, rationing of basic staples, and overall grumbling are prevalent. Inflation thus far has risen to 12,5%. Oh, and Municipal elections are slated to happen later this year.

Maquiavelo said that, in order to retain Power, “all Princes must have both virtue and fortune.” Virtue, in making sound political decisions, and fortune, in enjoying favorable circumstances that sound political decision-making may take advantage of.

Chávez, without a doubt, had the “virtue” part of the equation down solid, insofar as that he was shrewd and cunning in handling crises to his advantage. But I will venture to say that, throughout his reign, and contrary to statistical theory of chance, he also enjoyed a shitload of “fortune,” and I don’t mean that in the material sense.

He was just a reeeeally lucky bastard.

What did Chavez do, when faced with a potentially regime-threatening nationwide shortage of consumer goods in 2008?

He followed the Chávez damage-control playbook, measures which were made to be seen as an ideologically-based “I-knew-it-all-along” plan, but were most probably an improvised, reactionary course of action to assure political capital facing Regional elections (the “fortune” part is that he had an unprecedented oil windfall: 2008 registered an historic peak in crude oil prices).

First he blamed our consumer woes on capitalism and the world financial crisis.

Then, clearly making a case for his brand of 21st Century Socialism, he attributed shortages to the increase in demand thanks to people´s higher disposable income.

Then he blamed the private sector for hoarding and speculating, blamed the private media for spurring nervous shopping sprees aimed at destabilizing an otherwise perfectly functioning government, and of course, blamed the North American Empire for generating chaos and inflation overall. Classic.

Then came the spectacle: He ordered the National Guard to seize trucks full of food, always before cameras, through the Plan de Soberanía Alimentaria. During his Sunday televised show, he approved a 600 million dollar Plan Excepcional de Desarrollo in order to foster corn and bean processing plants, as well as irrigation and transport infrastructure. He devised a State-centralized food distribution and retail behemoth through the creation of PDVAL. And then he threatened to expropriate any private entities that he deemed non-cooperative. Which he did. Whilst driving a tractor. On national TV.

And then he used all our petrocash for epically proportioned solutions to the scarcity, such as flying in 747´s full of eggs.

Chávez went on to win 18 of the 22 governorships that November, garnering 55% of the national vote in his favor.

How has the mustachioed replacement, Maduro, faced our current crisis?

Well, he should be given brownie points for initially blaming the private sector for his woes. Off to a promising start. That is, until Lorenzo Mendoza basically did another perreo on his ass, à la Capriles circa March 2013. What has followed this exchange greatly underwhelmed my expectations for Chávez-inspired despotism.

There have been no announcements of forced expropriations, no indictments of capitalism, no grandiose apologies of communal power, no riling up the masses in defense of cheap chicken… just a feeble admission by Maduro that the government is working alongside the private sector and that *gasp* this is a strictly non-political issue. He even called for… dialogue.


I though Maduro was Chávez’s son. I though Maduro wanted to stay in power. I would’ve at least expected a national cadena taking over a supermarket chain.

Have we really fallen this low that no media spectacle may disguise our discontent, no elections are near enough, and that our President is actually resorting to taking measures in order to solve our crisis?

Nah. That would mean that Maduro is actually governing. He might not be headlining his own anti-speculation Broadway Show, or criminalizing corn flour manufacturers, like good old Chávez would’ve done…but that is because he’s too busy defending his legitimacy as President, something Chávez never had to do. (and also, he can’t sing).

In the meantime, Maduro has neither the acumen nor the cash to actually solve the problem in the short term. With chavismo we had loud denunciations of mythical villains responsible for the problems, as well as a pragmatic approach to getting the problems solved. With Maduro, we’re getting neither the bark nor the bite, neither the lights nor the shadows.

As far as I’m concerned, the difference between Chávez and Maduro in dealing with the havoc they themselves pursued, is that Chávez had the virtue AND the fortune, and Maduro has neither of the two.

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  1. “He was just a reeeeally lucky bastard.” I guess “was” is the operative term, ’cause the dude wasn’t so lucky when it came to life and death.

    • Maduro is a lucky bastard also. Did not finish high school, drove a bus, and next thing is he is president of Venezuela. Maduro is good at parroting Chavez with one-liner phrases but Maduro lacks a long-run game plan. His recent turn-about with Polar shows he is a liar not a leader.

      I continually get the impression that Maduro knows he won the election through fraud, that he is extremely nervous about it and is trying to prove he is a legitimate leader, that he never aspired to be president, that he is controlled by Cubans, and that he is incompetent in unprepared speaking sessions.

      Maduro’s accomplishments over the last 5 months are
      1. Overseeing Chavez funeral- (Chavez corpse is still ready if needed)
      2. A billion dollar contract with Cuba to protect the Castro’s checkbook.
      3. Completing an unprecedented international trade deal for 50 million rolls of toilet paper

  2. Excellent article, spot on!

    The most messed up thing is that people are blaming Maduro for the predicament we’re currently at when in reality Maduro is being less irrational than Chavez (he swapped Merentes and Giordani, he says people should pay for Government houses, he’s negotiating with Polar, etc)..

    BTW, Emiliana, are you a former MUNera?

  3. “…….but that is because he’s too busy defending his legitimacy as President, something Chávez never had to do…….”

    And this, more than anything is what has him “dialoguing”. The dialog also serves to legitimize his claim to the presidency because if he is not considered legit, then why talk to him? Why try to dialog in Congress?

    I am somewhat surprised that the opposition is willing to talk. They should clam up until the TSJ rules on the motions presentd before it regarding the so-called elections.

    • “I am somewhat surprised that the opposition is willing to talk.”

      But, it wasn’t the “Opposition” talking. Mendoza is “apolitical”. And, in forcing Maduro to talk, he made the Chavista government look weak.

      Win-win for the Opposition.

    • Roy: The oposición, not Mendoza, are in conversations in Congress and elsewhere.

      Normally, I would be in favor of this but I think that dialog “legalizes” Maduro.

  4. “Have we really fallen this low that no media spectacle may disguise our discontent, no elections are near enough, and that our President is actually resorting to taking measures in order to solve our crisis?”

    Well, I am actually happy that an important issue is not reduced to a show. I give Maduro more brownie points for saying that Mision Vivienda folks should actually pay for their houses.

  5. The problem for Maduro is not that he cannot replicate Chavez’s tricks. its that the same tricks wont work anymore.The excuses have become a joke on the streets. The crime problems that supposedly don’t exist, the shortages that are only in “peoples minds”,the electricity sabotage and the assasination plots.
    Maduro is facing populace fatigue and he’s out of money to cover the mistakes. He could have been better than Chavez and his days would still be numbered. Even if Maduro lasts a couple more years he is a dead man walking. The issue is what comes next…Cabello and his group or Capriles or something similar.

    • Maduro won’t make it through his term, he’ll become a liability if scarcity keeps going the way it is. He’ll get all the blame because, as you said, he lacks the charisma of Chavez and all these crows will come to roost on his head. He’ll probably be replaced as soon as he becomes politically unviable to the party.

  6. I think it is still early to know if he has the ‘fortune’ needed to remain the power, and he does have the machinery. There was nothing about the role the military play in preventing scarcity derived revolts, I will like to know your opinion on that matter? He has also being doing damage control all over the region.

    It is not like Maduro is sitting at home watching teletubies. And everytime we think this folks cannot go any lower, they stay in power and show us a new low.

    • I can not stop thinking about the FANB on the streets… maybe it is a move to show that this is “normal”, and so they will be in place if needed (to stop riots)…

        • If the military try to enter the barrios to really control crime at its source, they will be shot and killed. They are only in the streets to discourage popular discontent with the Government from getting out-of-hand.

          • The ironic thing about what NET said is that the soldiers patrolling the barrios are probably going to be the ones that are going to feel the “source” of the crime, do you think malandros are going to see these untrained youngsters with heavy machine guns and simply let the oportunity to mug them slip? However, at this point, it would probably be a downgrade in weaponry for malandros.

  7. The problem for Maduro is not solved by having soldiers on the street which can be used to quell riots , his real challenge its preventing any riots from happening , Riots would strongly signal that he isnt in controll of things something which can hurt him specially bad considering 1.- that he is attempting to fill in for someone whom everybody knows was much more skillfull as a manipulator and a political leader , 2.- that he comes from what was virtually a scathing political defeat which weakened his image as someone capable of attracting the kind of popularity that the regime needs to justify itself and continue to exist. Riots would seriously undermine his image as a Chavez style popular leader such as he has the need to project to consolidate his hold on power. To prevents the riots he will spend all the money he has and perhpas some which he doesnt have to smother the demand with imported foods. In fact he is closing a gap by opening another one , a financial one which will only grow bigger later in the year .

  8. Great write-up, Emiliana. Lots of fat to chew on. My concern over Maduro’s conciliatory and/or half-reasonable stances, is that these make him seem less dreadful, these whitewash his illegitimacy, and these dull Capriles’ spears.

  9. Maduro has to face some tough challenges : first and foremost he must try and convince the Chavista hard core base that despite the april electoral set back, and the proliferating shortages and difficulties he is still the leader that Chavez appointed him to be . resolute , inspiring , tough on rivals and prodigally capable of continuing to give people the freebies and goodies that they want and of resolving the crisis arising from the government’s atrocious performance as a provider of public security and other essential services .
    Chavistas self confidence was rocked by what the april electoral result showed: a movement no longer capable of commanding the unasailable mayority support that it had enjoyed in the past and by the threat that the rot in their popularity would continue given the opposition increasingly effective attacks . Coming after Chavez death Maduro was the obvious target of inner Chavista criticism and dissapointment.
    Maduro has adopted a two pronged approach to meet these challenges , one he has attempted to maintain the Chavista policy of very violent and confrontational discourse against the opposition , stepping up the virulence of his attacks , just to show he is as tough and aggresive as his adored predecessor and second because his financial and operational difficulties are so great he is seeking to establish a modus vivendi type of collaboration with the private productive economic sector , thus the cordial meeting with Polar president , his offer of official assistance to the company , the soft pedaling of Giordanis aggresive policies on currency controls through the appointment of Merentes , the presence of govts ministers making friendly remarks in private trade and business association congresses , the raising of long frozen regulated prices , the calling of a meeting with the 7 largest private oil industry contractors to tell them that they would be given better treatment in the future ( including dependable payment of their invoices ) provided they went all out to help Pdvsa with its plans and always showed ‘revolutionary solidarity’, etc
    He knows he is politically much weaker and vulnerable than his predecessor ever was and that he must do every thing possible to improve things or engage in intense mediatic manipulation so as to stop the rot , regain the lost ground and affirm himself as the undisputed leader of the Chavista movement .
    Not always mentioned is how outside the political sphere Chavez was a very erratic disorganized , irrational ruler who often made catastrophic descisions on a whim , to vent his histrionic megalomania but which his sometimes doubting accolites were incapable of protesting and disobeying. Maduro has no such power , so he is forced to allow his now more independent colleagues in govt some measure of autonomy in taking more rational decisions . Do note that inside the beast not everyone is raving mad!!
    This equizophrenic split in the way Maduro treats the opposition politically and mediatically ( very harshly ) and his now more benign treatment of the private business sector seeking their much needed help and support will likely characterize the governments style of rule in the short medium term , time will tell whether this strategy will help Maduro and the chavista movement improve its current very challenged situation .

  10. And then, Lorenzo Mendoza waxed the floor with the Bigote… not by saying something ugly about Nicolas personally. Just doing what many Venezuelan politicians will never ever do (because Socialism is cool and good for Venezuelans, definitely NOT!, only in their dreams that there’s Socialism in some part of Northern Europe) economic common sense and the truth. For example, that Polar has less than half of the market for precooked cornmeal.

    The terrible news is not that. It’s that: The Chazz method has diminishing returns…

    How many supermarkets/mills/factories/farms can one expropriate before one runs out of “expropriable” private enterprise? More poignantly, how many bankrupt, state-run supermarkets/mills/factories/farms can you keep afloat in time?

    How much chicken and eggs can you fly or ship in? How many containers can you let rot in ports? How much in bribes and overprice can you pay to the men and women who “make it happen”, find something scarce?

    How many times can you blame “capitalism” and a disappearing private sector and the Empire (Strikes Back!) before people see through your excuses?

    The only way to reverse the almost infinite entropy and drag created by the method is infinite money. Real money.


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