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It’s a key moment of reckoning for Venezuela.
Nearly a month ago, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president, posing the biggest challenge so far to President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly iron-fisted rule.
But if the opposition is newly invigorated, for many others this is a moment of painful soul-searching. Mr. Maduro was supposed to be a “steward” for former president Hugo Chávez’s “21st Century Socialism.” In recent years, however, widespread hunger, sky-high inflation, rampant crime, and acute shortages have tested the faith of many Chavistas, as the venerated leaders’ supporters are called. Even among Venezuelans who don’t approve of how Maduro has handled the crises, belief in the revolutionary model often endures. “If the revolution [ceases to exist] I would lose my soul,” says Valeria Palacio, a supermarket vendor. “This is about the Chavista way of life.”
A key question for the opposition, then, is how to appeal to people like Ms. Palacio: Venezuelans who still venerate the revolution and its leader despite the disappointments of his successor.
Valeria Palacio lives in a space dominated by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Her run-down apartment has a Chávez portrait painted on the living room wall and a little statue of the late socialist leader placed on a shrinelike coffee table, surrounded by his books and even a replica of his iconic red beret.
But there is no sign of the current president, Nicolás Maduro, Mr. Chávez’s handpicked successor. “Venezuela is broken. Maduro has done poorly,” says Ms. Palacio, who works as a supermarket vendor.
The widespread hunger, sky-high inflation, rampant crime, and acute shortages that have hit the country hard over the past three years have started to poke holes in many Venezuelans’ once unbreakable faith in the government. Maduro was supposed to be a “steward” safeguarding Chávez’s revolution, but instead, Palacio says, he’s “destroying” it.
Yet she still supports him.
The former leader pulled millions of Venezuelans out of poverty and delivered government programs to some of the most ignored portions of the population, thanks to soaring oil prices. Palacio says she can’t let go of her hope that his revolutionary model will once again flourish. “If the revolution [ceases to exist] I would lose my soul,” she says. “This is about the Chavista way of life.”
Palacio isn’t alone in her struggle to square her passionate support for Chávez’s “21st Century Socialism” with a crumbling economy and bland but iron-fisted leader.
On Jan. 23, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared that Maduro’s most recent election was invalid, making Mr. Guaidó himself the nation’s interim president until a fresh vote can be held. Since then, the newly invigorated opposition has gained momentum, posing the biggest challenge so far to Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian government. Amid the visible growth in suffering across Venezuela, with an estimated 3 million fleeing over the past three years, some Chavistas – as supporters of Chávez’s political project are known – are starting to question some of their political beliefs and who represents them.
It’s a key moment of reckoning for Venezuela. Support for Maduro has dipped under 20 percent, according to Caracas-based pollster Datanálisis, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority of Chavistas back the opposition. If Chavistas renounce Maduro, the opposition’s chances of taking the nation in a new direction increase. But to win them over, the opposition has to appeal to those like Palacio: Venezuelans who still venerate Chávez and his plans for the revolution despite the disappointments of his successor.
“Maduro and Chavismo are two different things. Maduro’s approval rating has been around 20 percent for the last three years while the popularity of Chávez and his revolutionary legacy have been slightly over 50 percent steadily,” says Luis Vicente León, a political analyst and director of Datanálisis.
Guaidó is starting to make inroads among Maduro fans and Chavistas alike. He’s also appealed to constituents who say they didn’t feel a connection to any existing leadership option – in the opposition or otherwise.
“Guaidó has now a majority of Venezuelans behind him, roughly over 50 percent,” says Mr. León.
However, Chavistas still fill up the streets of Venezuelan towns in their signature red shirts, proclaiming steadfast support for the Maduro government. People of all ages gather at rallies alongside a striking presence of uniformed soldiers. Supporters dance, sing, and call out in unison slogans like “Loyal always, traitors never!”
Pro-government demonstrators keep showing up for different reasons. Some say they support Maduro purely out of pragmatism: Despite acute shortages of basic food and medical products, the government still gives supporters handouts. Some 5.7 million people still receive food subsidies, according to government figures, and others have free housing or modest financial support. That could all disappear if Maduro falls.
“The government is the people. They care about us. The opposition is only interested in power and money,” says a Chavista who introduced himself by a pseudonym, Armandio, at a recent rally in downtown Caracas.
But others, like Palacio, are with Maduro only because of their deep belief in Chavismo. They call themselves “Chavistas of heart.” For them, 21st Century Socialism, as Chávez dubbed his revolution, was a great success until the economic downturn. Some are quick to blame the opposition for an “economic war,” a common Maduro refrain.
“There are dark interests fighting against our revolution,” says Saul Romero, a self-proclaimed “diehard Chavista” who lives in the working-class neighborhood of Petare. The “rich global elite are after our oil, gold, and diamonds. They don’t care about democracy at all.”
Mr. Romero, an electrician who has voted in all 23 elections since Chávez assumed the presidency in 1999, says the international aid stalled at the Colombia-Venezuela border is a hypocritical gesture, since he blames the US-imposed “embargo … blocking every financial transaction” for the shortages in food and medicine today.
“First, they harm us, and then they send us a pittance,” Romero says, agreeing with Maduro’s decision to block the foreign aid.
Others say they are ready to take up arms to defend the revolution. Supporters like Ángel, a Chavista in his 70s, are easy to find on the streets, usually sitting under tarps in areas called puntos rojos, or red points. These sites serve as meeting points for casual chats and meetings to plan grass-roots action. Some have formed militant groups to intimidate government critics.
“We are at war, my friend,” says Ángel, resting in a chair at the downtown Sabana Grande promenade. He’s overseeing part of the “10 million signatures campaign,” an initiative urging Maduro supporters to sign their names on official documents to denounce any possible US military invasion.
Chavistas used to form a united, ideologically rigid block, but vocal dissidents are starting to emerge.
“This regime is a criminal enterprise that plunders the natural resources and is bent on destroying every institution to achieve absolute control,” says Carlos Molina, who served as Chávez’s tourism vice minister and now supports the opposition.
Guaidó and the opposition are encouraging more people like Mr. Molina to join them. His deputy in the National Assembly, Stalin Gonzales, suggests Chavistas should be part of the transitional government led by Guaidó.
This kind of outreach in a nation long defined by its political polarization is an attempt to appeal to and reassure people like Palacio, who see an ideological rupture between Maduro and Chávez.
Palacio doesn’t appear poised to budge just yet. Under Chávez, “For the first time, we, the poor people, were recognized and represented in Miraflores,” she says, referring to the presidential palace.
Romero agrees. He says revolutionary values like solidarity, equality, and high morals are deeply embedded in the hearts and souls of Chavistas. He remains a committed one, he says, and thus far the opposition and Guaidó haven’t offered enough to convince him otherwise.