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Joel D. Hirst Headshot

Learning From History: Venezuela Through the Lens of Nicaragua

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The 'revolution' had taken its toll. Tens of thousands were dead. Corruption scandals, food shortages, and governmental incompetence had increased the frustration of the population with the revolutionary bureaucrats. The blanketing propaganda through which the regime blamed the United States for all its ills could no longer hide the fact that the society was disintegrating. Nevertheless, despite the obvious signs of decay the revolutionary government called elections -- believing their public opinion polls that showed them with a significant lead, they were convinced that they still commanded popular support and could guarantee legitimacy of their regime at the voting booth.

Of course, I am talking about Nicaragua when in 1990 the Sandinista revolutionary government led by then (and current) president Daniel Ortega lost elections to the unlikely candidacy of Violeta Chamorro. Stunned by their loss, they had no other choice to hand over power to doña Violeta.

In Latin America, history tends to repeat itself in a never-ending cycle; with populist 'revolutionary' governments emerging to feed upon the hopes of the poor only to burn themselves out in a blinding flash of incompetence, corruption and violence. The same conditions that brought down the Sandinistas in 1990 could very well spell the end of now-deceased Hugo Chavez's 'Bolivarian Revolution.' The last decade in Venezuela has seen more than 150,000 murders -- making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Shortages of food and basic consumables, power blackouts, soaring inflation and generalized incompetence have made life for average Venezuelans frustrating. Arbitrary power wielded by revolutionary judges and bureaucrats has made navigating the labyrinth of laws and regulations almost impossible. Political discrimination has been rampant and the opposition has been systematically harassed. All of this has been hidden beneath a thick veneer of government propaganda -- the only thing at which the revolutionaries appear to excel.

There is one very important difference. While in Nicaragua, 'Comandante' Daniel ran in 1990 and has continued to be a force in Nicaraguan politics, eventually returning to power in 2006 (with extensive support from Hugo Chavez); in Venezuela the revolutionaries are facing their first election in fourteen years without the powerful figure of Chavez calling the shots.

Despite this fact, just like in Nicaragua in 1990, the Venezuelan revolutionaries appear to believe that they are headed for a resounding victory over Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski. Goaded on by their own polls and laudatory articles in the international press pontificating about Maduro's 'comfortable lead' and the sympathy factor brought on by Hugo Chavez's recent funeral, they are confident they will win. After all they still control the National Electoral Council, an organization at the full service of the 'revolution', as well as the apparatus of the state and the national treasury. And they can still intimidate the voters by the use of coercive force. All this was also true in Nicaragua.

They may of course win. However, while Chavez himself remained personally popular throughout his time in power, the same cannot be said for the ministers surrounding him and the government he represented. Now these same people are counting on the quasi-religious use of Chavez's persona to overwhelm the opposition. They very well may be underestimating the popular discontent in a revolution that has lost its hero, and with it, its magic.