▲ Nicolás Maduro during a broadcasted speech [Gov. of Venezuela]
ESSAY / Isabelle León Graticola
It is no secret to anyone that Venezuela is going through the most convoluted economic and social crisis in its history, a crisis in which the creators have manipulated the existence of the people, degrading its integrity, and extinguishing everything that once characterized Venezuela.
The country holds a key geopolitical location that serves as a route for North America and the Caribbean to the rest of South America. Likewise, the country is endowed with abundant natural resources like natural gas, iron ore, diamonds, gold, and oil.1 Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, with 302 billion barrels in January 2018, emanating an extremely rich country with astonishing potential.2 However, this crisis has not only hindered people's lives but has ironically dissipated the country's resources to consolidate the pillars of the regime to such an extent that today the government of Nicolás Maduro is importing oil from Iran. Inadequate policies that have weakened the society’s sense of responsibility and nationalism, decreased foreign investment out of lack of trust, and annihilated the state-led oil production, therefore reinforcing the country’s economic downfall and hyperinflation.
The Venezuelan government, headed by Nicolás Maduro, has managed its way to continue holding power despite accusations of corruption, crimes against humanity, and even drugs trafficking involvement. The perplexing socio-economic and political crisis has created an unsustainable and violent context in which poorly informed people are manipulated by the government through speeches that take big significance on how society perceives the actual situation, as well as other countries’ statements on the crisis. Up to this point, it has become difficult to understand what keeps bolstering this regime, but if the situation is analyzed from the nucleus, the well-orchestrated rhetoric of Chávez and his successor, Maduro, has contributed to support the ends and sustainment of the regime.
Since Maduro reached power, poverty motivated violence has been rampant in Venezuela and insecurity has become a significant part of society’s dynamics. Consequently, many protests against the government demanding for freedom and better living standards have taken place. Maduro’s regime has been forced to employ tools such as fake news and hateful rhetoric to soften the anger of the people by manipulating them and brainwashing the armed forces to avoid uprisings.
This article aims to analyze how Maduro’s rhetoric has maintained a minority in the wrong side of history and a majority in constant battle by making erroneous accusations to third parties to justify the perturbed situation, while the government keeps enriching its wallet at the cost of the people and its smudged operations. Such feverish society gave rise to pure uncertainty, to a place where disinformation takes the form of a lethal weapon for the dangerous context in which it exists.
The background: Chávez’s indoctrinated society
First, it is necessary to clarify that the focus of this article is merely on the rhetorical aspect as a pillar of the regime. However, when it comes to the background that has sustained Maduro’s administration up to this day, there is a more complex reality, full of crime, death, manipulation, and corruption. Venezuela is an almost abnormal reality because, after more than twenty years, it is still tied to a group of people who have taken absolutely everything from it. From a man that portrayed nothing but hope for the poor, to one who has managed his way sticking to policies damaging to the very people they mean to help, and which, sooner or later, will make the regime collapse.
Hugo Chávez’s presidency was characterized by a tremendous and persuasive oratory; he knew how to get to the people. Chávez’s measures and campaigns were based on a psychological strategy that won him the admiration of the most impoverished classes of the country. Chávez arrived and gave importance and attention to the big mass of the population that previous governments had systematically neglected. People felt the time had come for them to have what they never had before. Filled with charisma and political mastery, his speeches always contained jokes, dances, and colloquial phrases that were considered indecent by the country’s highest class and often misunderstood abroad.
Chávez always built a drastic separation between the ideals of the United States and Venezuela and looked for ways to antagonize the former with his rhetoric. He began to refer to George W. Bush as “Mr. Danger”, an imperial literary character of one of the most famous Venezuelan novels, Doña Bárbara.3
Hugo Chávez is one of the most revolutionary characters in Venezuelan history, one who brought the convoluted situation that today perpetuates in the country. Chávez persecuted journalists and political opponents, expropriated lands, nationalized Venezuela’s key industries such as telecommunications, electricity, and the refining processes of heavy crudes, and slowly degraded the society as the exercise of power was directed to hold complete control of Venezuela’s internal dynamics.4
Chávez extended education and medical assistance to the least favored classes and improved the living conditions of the needy. This policy did nothing but create among these classes a culture of dependence on the government. Chávez’s supporters or Chavistas were the pillars that buttressed the government, while the wealthy were cataloged as “squealing pigs” and “vampires.”5 The Chavistas admired Chavez’s charismatic character and his constant gifts; he gave them fridges and TVs, gadgets that they could never afford on their own. He also constructed buildings, under the “Misión Vivienda” initiative, to give people living in slums a ‘proper’ home. All of this was possible because the oil prices at the time were skyrocketing; he used the oil income to buy his support. The general standard of life, however, continued to be poor. The government knew what to give and how to manipulate to stay in power, and that is precisely what made Hugo Chávez so powerful and almost impossible to defeat despite strong opposition.
Historically, the United States has opposed left-wing governments in Latin America, so Chávez condemned the US, by referring to them as an imperialist power, or the “Empire.” He disgraced US leaders and actions and transferred that anti-imperialistic and anti-capitalist approach to the population, part of which supported him and was blindly loyal to the cause. Chávez’s alliance with Cuba under Fidel Castro led to the supply of oil at cut-rate prices, all related to the desire of reducing US economic influence in South America. Chávez's populist initiatives were the tenets of his administration and controversial foreign policy. These, along with his rhetoric and opposition from the Venezuelan wealthy class, deeply polarized the society and gave rise to what Venezuela has today: a divided society that has suffered from the lack of basic necessities, disinformation, and integrity.
Currently, the spokesmen of the Government of Nicolás Maduro address citizens at all hours from public channels and social networks to stir up the disgruntlement of the population toward the external enemy.6 Despite the poorly prepared speeches, the lack of vocabulary, and the improper formulation of sentences, Maduro has kept the colloquial and unformal rhetoric that characterized Chávez, but has failed to draw the connection that the late president enjoyed. The anti-imperialist strategy has been maintained, and, as the justification of the crisis, it has become the epicenter of the regime’s speech. Nicolás Maduro’s rhetoric revolves around two words: the US and the “Patria”, a word frequently used by Chávez.
The base of Maduro’s rhetoric: the love for Chávez
Shortly before dying in March 2013, Hugo Chávez appointed Vice President Nicolás Maduro as his successor. Chávez’s charisma and legacy are what somehow ensured him that Maduro would provide a smooth transition. After Chávez’s passing, Maduro took advantage of the momentum and sentiment that the Chavistas revealed and ensured that if picked, he would follow the steps of his predecessor and would continue to strengthen the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’. Along with the continuity with Chávez's legacy, the defense of Venezuelan sovereignty in front of the US, and the social equality became the key messages of his administration.7 Nevertheless, Maduro had little support from the elites and inherited a country that was already economically weak due to the downfall of the oil prices and corruption.
In Chávez’s wake, Maduro appealed to the emotion of the audience. He strongly claimed that the people were there for the ‘Comandante’ and said that “his soul and his spirit was so strong that his body could not stand it anymore, and he was released and now through this universe expanding filling us with blessings and love”. He knew what this meant for the people and a crying audience exclaimed “Chávez vive, la lucha sigue”.
Maduro filled his rhetoric with the love for Chávez. He acknowledged that the Chavistas worshipped him as if he was God and that for ideological reasons, support for Maduro was guaranteed. Nevertheless, others recognized that the situation in the country was not favorable and questioned Maduro’s ability to fill the void left by Chávez. When Maduro took power, the country entered a period of reinforced economic decline accompanied by hyperinflation that nowadays exceeds 10 million percent.8 As it was previously stated, the conditions of poverty surpass anything seen before in the country, which is now on the brink of collapse.
Furthermore, Venezuela went through two rounds of mass protests, in 2014 and 2018, that demanded freedom and change. Unfortunately, and as was expected from the government, thousands of violations of human rights were part of the demonstration’s dynamics as brutal repression and the unjust imprisonment of demonstrators took place all along. Simultaneously, Maduro managed to call for concentrations on the days of the major opposition’s marches and retained the populist speech based on ideological arguments and emotional appeals among the minority of supporters to consolidate his power in Venezuela. Last year, in a regime concentration on February 23rd, he condemned the elites as he explained that he was certain that from the bottom of his Chavista sentiment of loyalty to this battle, he was never going to be part of one. He stated that Venezuela will continue to be Patria for more many years to come.
The ongoing crisis has forced many to survive rather than to live, but despite all, Maduro remains in control. Maduro has kept Chávez’s anti-imperialist policy and has rejected any minimum support from the United States. The government takes advantage of the hunger and the vulnerable situation of its people and makes sure that it remains as the only source of food. It does not take responsibility and instead, blames the crisis on the ‘economic war’ that the US has imposed on Venezuela.9 When Juan Guaidó sworn himself the legitimate president, Maduro’s supporters started raising firms in a campaign called “Hands off Venezuela”, while the US was trying to get humanitarian assistance into Venezuela through the Colombian border in the name of Guaidó.
In this sense, he explained in the same concentration speech that they were defending the national territory and the right to live freely and independently. Although it may seem ironic, because the government has killed hundreds of people with its police brutality and torture, this rhetoric is what has kept him the support of the hardcore revolutionary followers. The “Hands off Venezuela”, was shouted and accompanied by the worst English pronunciation –that characterizes Maduro–, and followed with insults to Guaidó.
As Maduro yelled “puppet, clown, and beggar of imperialism and Donald Trump. If he is the President, where are the economic and social measures that he has applied for the people? It is a game to deceive and manipulate, it is a game that has failed, the coup d'état has failed” as the red audience shouted, “jail him, jail him!”. He drew his speech to a hardcore anti-imperialist audience and firmly stated that the US intended to invade Venezuela and enslave it. Maduro finalized his speech by shouting “wave up the flag, up the Patria, for the people in defense of the Revolution”.
Recently, the US State Department released a price for the capture of Maduro and his cabinet, not only for the crimes committed against the Venezuelan population, but also because of their involvement in a huge drug-trafficking network. With this, the regime's position has become more vulnerable and simultaneously pragmatic, but as tough actions were taken against possible threats and opposing figures, Maduro’s rhetoric remains to deny its status and manipulating those that still support him. In another public speech, he stated that “Donald Trump's government, in an extravagant and extreme, vulgar, miserable action, launched a set of false accusations and like a racist cowboy of the 21st century, put a price on the heads of revolutionaries that still are willing to fight them”. He one more time accused the US of being the main cause of the economic crisis of Venezuela.
Nicolás Maduro’s speech has always been directed to the hardcore revolutionaries, those that worship Chávez since the beginning and who firmly believe in the socialist cause. Maduro has maintained his rhetoric despite the changes in the internal situation of the country; he has held an enduring method for antagonizing the opposition, the Venezuelan upper class, and the United States. On the other hand, regarding the strategic foreign allies, the regime openly gives declarations to support them, but again to somehow antagonize the United States. Indeed, this was the case of the US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian top commander, in which government representatives attended the Iranian embassy to give the condolences in the name of the regime and swore to avenge Soleimani’s death. The administration of Nicolás Maduro has no gray areas, everything is either black or white; the opposition, the upper class, the US, and the US-influenced countries are the enemies, and the rhetoric rarely leans toward a conciliatory message, rather has always revolved around these conflicting parties.
What is left
Twenty years have passed since the Chavismo arrived in the country. Nowadays, a passionate minority of the population keeps supporting Maduro. His regime continues to train armed groups to combat discontent headed by opposition leader Juan Guaidó. The Chavismo keeps being strong, but it has been fragmented by those who believe that the revolution ended at the moment Chávez died, and the ones that are convinced that supporting Maduro means being loyal to Chávez. In the case of Juan Guaidó, he keeps doing his efforts. He still has relative support and keeps being a source of hope. Nevertheless, many criticize the fact that he let again the people cool down. A close change is expected, but no one knows what the movements behind are. Meanwhile, the people will continue suffering and trying to survive.
Upon reflection, it can be noticed that Maduro's entire argumentation revolves around a confrontational rhetoric: the US and capitalism against Venezuela; Guaidó against the Patria; the elites against the Revolution.10 Far from recognizing the reality that the country faces and take actions to improve it, this confrontational approach simply places the blame on those who have tried to bring a change in the internal dynamics of Venezuela. The regime has managed to construct a national united front against a common foreign enemy and to demonize the opposition.
Chávez and Maduro’s rhetoric has followed a tangible objective: the Revolution. Maduro's regime up to this point is searching for a way to consolidate its power and sustain itself as the best way to elude a rather somber future in jail. This never-ending nightmare should have long ago collapsed due to the economic catastrophe, hyperinflation, political repression, human rights violations, and the lack of direction for Venezuela. Behind what maintains this structure there is nothing but the exercise of power and the almost absolute control of society. The Patria that they constantly speak of is running out of fuel to keep going. Nonetheless, the rhetorical deceptions of the Bolivarian revolution, which for two decades have appealed to the popular classes, settled in the collective mindset of the Chavismo and brought space for support in the Venezuelan society.
Chávez and Maduro’s presidencies have been based on educating and changing the mindset of the population as they wanted; a population that is content with one box of food a month and which, unfortunately, hunts for the easy means to achieve its goals instead of fighting to improve its lot.
Today, the regime is fed on the memory of Hugo Chávez, on his promises, on his battle. As long as it keeps generating an illusion on the supporters, Maduro will appeal to it as a pillar of his administration and of the Revolution.
1. Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Venezuela facts and figures. 2019, https://www.opec.org/opec_web/en/about_us/171.htm. Accessed 28 Nov. 2019.
2. US Energy Information Administration - EIA - Independent Statistics and Analysis. Venezuela. Jan. 2019, https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.php?iso=VEN. Accessed 28 Nov. 2019.
3. Livingstone, G. (2013, March 10). The secret of Hugo Chavez's hold on his people. Retrieved March 17, 2020, from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/the-secret-of-hugo-chavezs-hold-on-his-people-8527832.html
4. El País. (2007, January 08). Chávez anuncia la nacionalización del servicio eléctrico y las telecomunicaciones. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from https://elpais.com/internacional/2007/01/08/actualidad/1168210811_850215.html
5. The Guardian. (2012, October 08). Hugo Chávez: A victory of enduring charisma and political mastery. Retrieved March 17, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/08/hugo-chavez-victory-political-venezuela
6. Twitter, F., & Miraflores, P. (2017, July 23). Maduro, sus ministros y la corrupción del lenguaje. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from https://elpais.com/elpais/2017/07/22/opinion/1500746848_239358.html
7. Grainger, S. Hugo Chávez and Venezuela Confront his Succession. Dec. 2012. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-20678634. Accessed 29 Nov. 2019.
8. Sánchez, V. Venezuela hyperinflation hits 10 million percent. ‘Shock therapy’ may be only chance to undo economic damage. Aug. 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/02/venezuela-inflation-at-10-million-percent-its-time-for-shock-therapy.html. Accessed 29 Nov. 2019.