The answering machine at the government office greets callers with a recording that says “Chávez lives, the revolution continues.”
In the 24 months since Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died, the administration has gone to great lengths to keep the memory of the charismatic socialist alive. President Nicolás Maduro evokes him in almost every speech, his face is plastered on billboards and murals, there are university courses and ballets dedicated to his legacy — and answering machines that evoke his name.
But there are also clear signs that his followers, or Chavistas, who helped give the administration and its Bolivarian Revolution a string of powerful electoral victories over the course of 16 years, are losing faith amid a tanking economy and social unrest.
When Chávez died March 5, 2013, from a still undisclosed form of cancer, about 42 percent of the population identified itself with his party. Today, less than a quarter of Venezuelans identify themselves with the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, said Saul Cabrera, a political analyst and pollster with the Caracas-based Consultores 21.
“Ever since the death of Chávez, things have been complicated,” he said. “There’s the perception that his successors, the sons of Chávez, don’t know how to solve real-world problems.”
And Venezuela needs solutions. A series of economic missteps and collapsing oil prices saddled the country with the world’s highest inflation (68 percent last year), a shrinking economy, sporadic shortages of basic goods and massive, soul-killing lines for the few items to be had.
To complicate matters, the country is awash in violence. Although the administration quit reporting aggregated homicide statistics years ago, civil society data suggest it’s one of the most murderous countries on the planet.
Considering the scope of the problems, some are surprised at Chavista resilience. Yet red-shirted loyalists cram the streets of Caracas and other major cities anytime the administration calls.
That allegiance comes from the recognition that Chavismo is the only alternative for those who want a participatory government with a focus on the poor, said Antonia Muñoz, who was on the national directorate of the PSUV from 2008 to 2015.
While enthusiasm for the PSUV may have waned over the last 16 years since Chávez first took office, that’s only natural, she said.
“Any government in power will lose steam,” Muñoz said. “Everything bad that happens is attributed to the government.”
The recent shortages and food lines have been hard on morale, she admits, and some PSUV followers have drifted off. “But there is still a large part of the PSUV that knows what’s happening and knows that we have to resist.”
“What’s happening” — according to Maduro and many Chavistas — is an economic war being waged by the opposition with U.S. backing. They attribute the empty shelves and nervous hoarding to a destabilization plot aimed at toppling the government.
Washington has called those claims “ludicrous” and civil rights groups say Maduro is summoning ghosts in a cynical attempt to distract from his failed policies. But to many Chavistas it rings true.
“I have a lot of respect for the people of North America, but there are centers of power there that want to maintain their hegemony,” said Salvador Lugo, a member of the national PSUV youth directorate. “It’s a natural part of capitalism.”
“Yes, we’re going through an economic down-cycle, but there is also a real policy — both internally and from abroad — directed at destabilization,” he said. “And that’s not a lie, it’s not the case of the boy who cried wolf. It’s not a Halloween story. It’s real.”
What’s also real is that the government has been cracking down on its critics with a ferocity that Chávez never did. Many of the country’s name-brand opposition figures (including three former presidential candidates) have either been jailed or are under investigation.
Last month, Maduro imprisoned Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma on charges that he was conspiring to assassinate him with the help of Washington and military dissidents.
Maduro has responded by requiring all U.S. visitors to apply for visas and forcing the embassy to shed staff.
But government accusations of shadowy coup plots — and they come almost monthly —increasingly ring hollow to those who see government mismanagement, not foreign intervention, in the chaos, said Jesus Seguias, a political analyst and pollster with Caracas-based DatinCorp.
“Venezuelans are desperate because of what they see on the street,” he said. In recent polls, 90 percent of the population said crime and food shortages were their top concerns.
“People are looking for any avenue to express their discontent,” he said, “and rest assured they will.”
That discontent has mainly been expressed on the streets. In February 2014, what began as protests over crime and the economy spawned into national demonstrations that sparked a heavy-handed government response that left more than 40 dead on both sides of the political divide.
Since then, the streets occasionally erupt with protests and counter-protests that only exacerbate tensions. (The mothers of those who died in last year’s demonstrations marched on Sunday.)
The United Nations and human rights groups have blasted the government for its abuses, but Maduro insists he’s the one who’s under attack.
Chávez “knew that it was going to be a difficult and pitched battle,” Maduro told supports Thursday as he eulogized his late boss. “He created us with the values of loyalty and sacrifice in case one day we had to face imperialism and defend our sacred country.”
The commotion comes as the country is preparing for congressional elections in September.
Seguias said that the DatinCorp polls suggest that disgruntled Chavistas are frustrated enough that they will express their discontent at the polls.
“People won’t be voting for the opposition,” he said of dissident PSUV members. “They will be voting against Maduro.”
Others, however, aren’t convinced. Cabrera, with Consultores 21, said the opposition hasn’t managed to woo disgruntled Chavistas. Any discontent, he said, is likely to register as absenteeism at the polls.
Venezuela’s brand of “21st Century Socialism” has bright spots. During the last decade and a half, the system helped reduce poverty and inequality — although both have spiked recently — as it used its massive oil wealth to subsidize housing, transportation and education.
It’s those same programs, critics say, that have been used to buy the loyalty of the Chavista masses and are bankrupting the country. But PSUV adherents say it’s a matter of priorities.
“If we’ve made mistakes, it’s because we’ve erred in favor of the great [poor] majorities,” Lugo said. And the masses will recognize that during congressional elections.
Since Maduro, Chávez’s hand-picked successor, took office 23 months ago after winning a razor-thin election, his approval ratings have fallen from around 50 percent to less than 20 percent.
In speeches, he acknowledges that he’s unpopular. But he’s also hopeful that the memory of Chávez will help the country overlook the current crisis.
“When the electoral council sets the date for new parliamentary elections,” Maduro told his followers, “let’s put on our Chávez backpacks and go conquer democracy.”
Clarification: A previous version of this story said it was unclear when the new visa regulations would take effect. The Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C., has now published the new visa guidelines.
Venezuela by the numbers
2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015
GDP 5.5% / 1.3% / -3% / -1% [est]
Intl Reserves in bln US$ 29.89 / 21.48 / 22.06 / 23.96
Poverty 21.2% / 27.3% / N/A N/A
Inflation 20.1% / 56.2% / 68.5% / N/A
Oil Price $103.42 / $98.08 / $88.42 / $44.48*
Homicides (per 100K pop.) 73 / 79 / 82 / N/A
Sources: Central Bank of Venezuela, World Bank, INE, Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia. *Preliminary