Venezuela’s dictator is not to be trusted

On June 24th, Venezuelans will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Carabobo. This was a landmark event in the nation’s history, as it assured its full independence from Spain. Although Venezuela is undergoing a deep social and economic crisis, it is expected that left-wing dictator Nicolas Maduro will usher in festivities, with all the typical nationalist bravado of Third World strongmen. This should be an occasion for Venezuelans to critically reconsider their own history, and examine what lies ahead for their very troubled country.

Make no mistake: in the 19th Century the Spanish Empire was corrupt and despotic, and Venezuelans had a just cause in seeking independence. But, in doing so, they committed crimes of their own. For example, in 1813 Simón Bolívar infamously decreed that any Spaniard not actively favouring Venezuelan independence, would be executed. Indeed, in 1814, he massacred more than one thousand Spanish prisoners in La Guaira.

In November 1820, after almost a decade of a very bloody civil war, Bolivar engaged in peace negotiations with Spanish General Pablo Morillo. They agreed to a 6-month armistice and exchange of prisoners. Yet, in January of 1821, the city of Maracaibo (until then a Spanish stronghold) declared independence from Spain, and Bolivar’s army occupied it. This was a clear violation of the terms of the armistice, and consequently, Spanish authorities announced that hostilities would be resumed. This prompted royalist and independence forces to clash in Carabobo, on June 24th, 1821. The Spanish were defeated, and Venezuelan independence was now sealed.

Bolivar can be praised for many things, but at least on this occasion, he did not prove to be an honourable man. Years later, he acknowledged that in meeting with Morillo he was not interested in peace, and he only used those negotiations to buy time and reorganise his troops for a final confrontation.

Despite these moral failures, Venezuelans have long worshipped Bolivar as some sort of demigod. The late Hugo Chavez took this worship to unprecedented levels, to the point of obsession. He styled his political movement the “Bolivarian Revolution”; he aggressively pursued indoctrination programs in schools presenting a very sanitised image of Bolivar; he frequently reserved an empty chair in cabinet meetings for Bolivar’s ghost; and in 2010 he even exhumed Bolivar’s remains as a strange homage. Chavez frequently spoke of 2021 as some magical year in which, on occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Carabobo, Venezuelans would be celebrating amidst a sea of socialist happiness.

Chavez died in 2013, but eight years later, his utopian vision has not materialised. The nation has the highest inflation rate in the world, and the economic collapse has prompted a humanitarian crisis. Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, has continued his mentor’s political style. Under Maduro, the cult of Bolivar continues to be promoted with nationalist fervor, and that tactic serves to drift attention away from the massive levels of corruption and Maduro’s dictatorial moves.

Maduro became a dictator in 2017 by dissolving the National Assembly that was legitimately elected. He then staged an electoral farce in 2018. This prompted resistance from many sectors in Venezuelan society, but Maduro effectively repressed any opposition with iron-fist tactics, and this is how he has managed to stay in power. The international community has expressed concern, and many countries—led by the United States and the European Union— have imposed economic sanctions on Venezuela.

Maduro is now exhorting opposition leaders to come to the negotiating table, and some of them are apparently taking the bait. This is not the first time. In fact, Maduro has played this trick many times, always with the same predictable results: at first, Maduro releases a couple of political prisoners, and in return, the opposition eases some of its pressure; after a short period of time, once Maduro has a tighter grip on power again, he incarcerates new political prisoners, and completely disregards any of the terms agreed to in the negotiations. Negotiations are shut down, and then a new cycle begins, until Maduro calls for dialogue once again. Negotiations with Maduro are just a ploy to give him time.

Venezuelans need to understand that every time they commemorate the Battle of Carabobo, they are celebrating the immoral tactic of a caudillo (a strongman) who completely disregarded the terms of a peace agreement only a few months prior. This should be a lesson for Venezuela’s current crisis. Can Maduro —a self-proclaimed Bolivarian strongman— be trusted in any negotiation? Any Venezuelan who thinks Maduro is a reliable negotiator is as foolish as the Spaniards who believed that Bolivar could be trusted in the peace negotiations of 1820. The lesson from the Battle of Carabobo should be clear for Venezuelans: with caudillos such as Bolivar and Maduro, any negotiation is an extremely risky business. Is the risk worth taking? Methinks not, but only time will tell.

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