CARACAS, Venezuela — Since the eruption of protests against President Nicolás Maduro last month, Flor Blanco, a 57-year-old seamstress, has repeatedly clashed with her husband over a question at the core of the crisis here: Did socialism kill Venezuela?
Blessed with the world’s largest oil reserves, this South American nation was once the region’s richest per capita. Twenty years after the launch of the late Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution, it is now one of the poorest. Blanco’s husband, a loyalist of Maduro — Chavez’s anointed successor — still calls socialism society’s great equalizer that gave the poor dignity. But like more and more Venezuelans, Blanco is questioning not just a man — Maduro — but an economic model.
“My husband doesn’t see the reality,” she said, gesturing in anger at her cheek bones, razor-thin from lack of food. “Look at us — we’re skinny. We can’t buy food or clothes. Socialism? For me it’s a farce.”
Venezuelans on Tuesday are set to march in the latest in a wave of protests meant to bring Maduro down — a critical test of the sustainability of a domestic uprising being vigorously backed by the Trump administration. In Washington — where Republicans are seizing on Venezuela to score points against those Democrats who have newly embraced the term — the debate has focused as much on socialism as it has on Maduro’s own failings.
But socialism’s role in Venezuela’s collapse, observers say, is not as clear as either side likes to think. At least fleetingly, socialist policies propped up by state petrodollars helped bolster the country’s status as one of the Western Hemisphere’s most equitable societies. But state-heavy policies that distorted prices and exchange rates, coupled with corruption, mismanagement and official repression, turned Venezuela’s economic landscape into scorched earth.
Though perhaps worsened by Maduro’s stewardship, experts say an economic comeuppance was inevitable.
“All the wrongs were created under Chávez,” said Henkel Garcia, head of Econometrica, a Caracas-based financial analysis firm. “The economy only survived as long as it did because of high oil prices.”
Among the Venezuelans taking to the streets, many have fully rejected socialism and Maduro for years, and sense a historic moment to rid Venezuela of both.
But others still see him as simply an inept steward of Chávez’s far-left ideals. They want him — but not socialism — gone.
Today, roughly a third of the nation, pollsters say, still appears to back socialism — although only half that many remain loyal to Maduro.
“Chávez made mistakes, but he had a true social conviction,” said Juan Barreto, a mayor of metropolitan Caracas during Chávez’s years, who broke with Maduro three years ago. “Maduro’s system has absolutely nothing to do with socialism. Maduro, quite simply, is a despot.”
With hyperinflation causing acute shortages of food and medicine, more and more former Chavistas, or adherents of Chávez’s ideals, are saying mea culpas and increasingly turning out against Maduro.
“Before I die, I want socialism gone from Venezuela,” said Yessid Merlano, a 50-year-old waiter.
When Chávez first rose to power in 1999, Venezuelans faced an initial recession. But from 2003 to 2007, Chávez presided over a period of robust growth, largely due to strong global oil prices. The economy tanked again when oil prices fell and Wall Street collapsed in 2008, but the contractions of the later Chávez era were relatively short and mild — nothing like what Venezuela is living now.
Merlano was drawn in by the promise of a worker’s paradise. Relying on Chávez’s programs to help the poor, he moved his family out of the slums and into a government-built apartment complex complete with hibiscus-filled gardens and mountain views. Regulated prices and an artificially strong currency allowed his family of three to dine in style in front their new flat-screen TV.
But, he said, under Maduro, the bill came due.
Scarcities of food and medicine first surfaced years ago but are now so chronic that he and millions of other Venezuelans have shed pounds and sought work abroad. Before returning to Caracas last year, he spent 10 months working as a laborer in neighboring Colombia, “where all I saw were Venezuelans begging in the streets,” he said.
“I feel guilty that I was a Chavista,” he said. “It’s all my fault, all the suffering.”
A partial police state, Venezuela is a distant, ruthless cousin of European socialism. There is no comparing it to free Canadian health care or high French tax rates.
But it is also not communist Cuba or North Korea, where foreign investment and private ownership are strictly limited. Although many of them have fled the nation, wealthy Venezuelans still own private companies and high-walled mansions in elite neighborhoods. They play golf at country clubs and are taxed at a relatively manageable 34 percent. The occasional McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza can also be found.
Some say it is simply wrong to pin the collapse on an economic system. During the Chávez era, for instance, Bolivia also embraced big-state structures under its leftist President Evo Morales, witnessing a sustained period of economic growth.
“I don’t buy the whole ‘socialism caused this’ argument; that’s a U.S. political football,” said Moisés Naím, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who was Venezuela’s minister of trade and industry in 1989. “Venezuela also had corruption, ineptitude. It wasn’t just nationalizing and taking over companies but creating a system that bankrupted the public and private sector.”
Maduro has insisted the humanitarian crisis is manufactured by the foreign press while blaming his enemies — chiefly the United States — for imposing painful sanctions on oil sales last month that will hurt the nation. Government critics, however, say woefully mismanaged state policies became a tool to keep the socialists in power, destroying the country in the process.
Decrying Venezuela as a “mafia state,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the United Nations last month that “the Maduro regime’s failed policies, oppression and corruption stole [Venezuela’s] future.”
State health care, once a pride of the socialists, collapsed as hyperinflation and shrinking resources left hospitals with shortages of syringes and antibiotics, as well as broken equipment too expensive to repair. As the government ran out of dollars, it cut imports of medicines and owed money to pharmaceutical and equipment companies, most of which closed or left the country.
Shrinking resources and hyperinflation were tied to an implosion of the lifeblood of Venezuela: the oil industry.
In the 2000s, Chávez purged skilled managers, engineers and technicians from the state-owned oil giant PDVSA, stocking it with government loyalists. That set it up for a catastrophic failure as global prices fell from record highs. Venezuelan oil output is now at its lowest levels since the 1950s.
Industries nationalized by Chávez, who expropriated 1,500 companies, collapsed as regulated prices distorted markets. In two decades, the government seized nearly 5 million acres of productive farmland that has now been largely abandoned. In 1999, there were 490,000 private companies in Venezuela. By last June — the most recent count available — that number had fallen to 280,000.
“I blame their model of 21st-century socialism that . . . bred persecution against business owners,” said Carlos Larrazábal, head of Fedecamaras, an association of Venezuelan industries.
Silvana Aguirre, a 40-year-old resident of the Petare slum in eastern Caracas, was a fervent believer in Chávez but rejected Maduro as Venezuela began to slip into crisis in 2015.
Overnight protests recently surged in Petare, leading to a violent crackdown in late January by pro-government security forces.
“When Chávez won, things got better for a lot of us,” she said. “But then the revolution failed. It was destructive. We had never struggled as much as we’re struggling now.”
The disillusionment is being felt even in the labyrinthine streets of the January 23 slum, where Chávez’s mausoleum rests high on a hill. Following his death in 2013, mournful residents here built a shrine to their eternal commander.
But as protests have erupted in recent weeks against Maduro, the sound of pot-banging protesters has echoed loud enough to reach the ears of the soldiers guarding Chávez’s tomb.
“Socialism,” said a 61-year-old street vendor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was scared of government reprisals. “That word, people don’t believe in it anymore.”
The neighborhood still has red-shirt-wearing loyalists who stand against the opposition led by Juan Guaidó. His allies include political parties, they say, that ignored the poor before the rise of Chávez — a leader who, unlike Maduro in 2017, is seen to have legitimately won his campaign victories in relatively free and fair elections.
“Guaidó should go to the USA,” said Elizabeth Torres, the 54-year-old custodian of a religious shrine erected to a man she calls “Saint Chávez.” “Everything he does is under their orders, so why is he here? Before Chávez, we didn’t have enough money. Now things are bad, but it’s not the government’s fault. It’s because of all these [foreign] attacks.”
Still others remain loyal in part out of fear — fear of the motorcycle-riding, pro-government thugs who rule the streets, of losing a system that gives them subsidized if dwindling supplies of food, and of an opposition they say will seek retribution against Chavistas despite its pledges of amnesty.
“I support Maduro because he’s the president,” said Maria Alejandra Sanchez, a young mother holding her 1-year-old child in front of the Chávez shrine. “But he’s not like Chávez, no, not at all. Look at me now? I look like a beggar. I don’t have enough money for anything. I have nothing for my baby to eat today. All I can do is go home, cry and get depressed.”
Rachelle Krygier, Mariana Zuñiga and Andreina Aponte contributed to this report.