The first thing you need to do before you read about Venezuela is to drop all the cliches you may carry with you. Venezuela is a very complex country which is closer in its outlook of life to Brazil's NorhtWest and the Spanish Caribbean than any other country of Spanish America. As such, its history, customs, political mores are quite different from, say, Mexico, Peru or Argentina and their over romanticized past.
Here are some of the misunderstandings that in good faith you might have about Venezuela, or that you have been given by Chavez's propaganda system.
Racism. Venezuela is a racially mixed country. The only "racial" group that is more than 50% of the population is the mestizo/zambo/mulatto/alloftheabove group. The concept of pure race is almost ludicrous and reserved at best to recent immigrants and some distant rural areas formed by Native Americans or the African descendants of the quilombos. The "racial" problem that some attribute to Venezuela is mostly a creation of Chavez to divide the country and lock in his ambitions though the dedicated support of specific groups, or groups who think of themselves as special.
Although it is true that the darker your skin the less likely you had a chance to access education and riches, Venezuelan' history is full of "non whites" that made good and that got accepted into upper society and political echelons, at least since the times of Bolivar's armies. Money in Venezuela has a "whitening effect", something to keep in mind if you still persist in looking to Venezuela's problem through a racial lens. Of recent Venezuelan Elected Presidents none except perhaps Caldera could claim to be 100% "white".
Development. You need to understand that Venezuela was not a barren colonial outpost when Chavez reached office in 1999. If certainly it was a country in crisis, it still had managed three amazing decades of development between 1950 and 1980. In fact, when we compare resources, the fifteen years of Chavez do not compare at all with any of these decades in infrastructure achievements, including hospitals, schools, etc.... Even in social changes the 60ies show more real social change than what we have seen in the last ten years. Chavez propaganda would like you to believe otherwise but short of changing names to institutions and buildings, the "bolivarian revolution" is scarce in significant material achievements and void of any intellectual accomplishments.
Economic independence. It is not rare to find foreign Chavez supporters uttering such untruth as him nationalizing the Venezuela oil industry. The fact of the matter is that most of basic industries where sate owned in 1998, in particular the oil industry which was taken over by the state in 1978. The "foreign privatization" that were passed in the mid 90 ies were for exploitation of limited areas, and when all is said and done not much different than those that today the Chavez revolution is passing to exploit the Orinoco belt for its heavy oil. As for the rest it is important to note that if Chavez had a real conviction of the need for the state to control the economy, this was lacking in the first 4 years of his rule, becoming present only after 2003 when he discovered that nationalizations were also a way to control the country politically as most workers became state employees and thus easier to blackmail if they wanted to keep their jobs.
Land reform. Chavismo will have you believe that when they reached office Venezuela's land was in the hands of very few people. This has been a manipulation all along. The 60ies saw a mass land transfer to poor peasants. That it eventually failed to live to its hopes does not mean it did not take place, just as the additional redistribution that took place in the last 8 years is totally failing its promise, leaving Venezuela importing today more than half of its food when it was almost self sufficient around the time Chavez did his coup.
Democracy. It does not exist anymore in Venezuela as separation of powers is a thing of the past. Chavez power sustains on the basis of plebiscite like elections of dubious value and honesty. In 1998 it was normal for all to see Chavez coming to power through elections. Today the state is obscenely busy promoting the idea that chavismo and Chavez memory should never leave office. That is enough to state this case.
However it is important that you forget all of your classical notions of democracy or you will be fooled in believing that democracy still exists. For example the press is relatively free to criticize and elections are regularly held. The secret of Chavez regime is that the judicial power is subjected to the will of Chavez and his heirs. As such any complaint, any lawsuit that you may file against the government, any scandal reported on newspapers or media will be buried, without response. This is the paradox of the country: much is reported and yet nothing is done about it. A major consequence of this is that minority rights are thus not respected and this is always a hallmark of declining democracy, allowing for a former majority to retain control when it becomes a minority.
Environment. Some people actually believed that Chavez was an environmentally friendly president, the more so when he made inappropriate speeches at certain conferences like in Copenhagen; or when he lambastes Capitalism as the killer of the planet. The truth is that Chavez has probably the worst environmental record in Venezuela's contemporary history. Three items to illustrate this:
1) Indiscriminate land seizures, "invasiones", that result in anything from damaged National Parks to squatter settlements without drainage, running water, etc;
2) Probably the cheapest gas in the world, the state actually subsidizing fuel, and not providing any emission control system; Urban pollution is reaching new highs in Venezuela without anyone doing anything about it;
3) Deforestation and water pollution due to indiscriminate illegal strip mining; this is ruining large tracks of the former wild and natural Guayana highlands, having consequences on climate, sedimentation of rivers and even an increase in measurable amount of mercury at the Guri damn, one of the largest dams in the world.
Anti US posturing. This is all it really is, posturing, and yet it is the one time that most generates support for Chavez in Europe and even in North America. The fact of the matter is that after 15 years of "revolution" Venezuela still exports more than half of its oil to the USA! This has happened all through the Iraq war even though Chavez criticized the war at any opportunity. A case can be made that the US has allowed the Chavez mad experiment to survive because Chavez sold the US all the oil it needed to face contingencies of the war, while sending prompt payment in cool cold green cash used by Chavez for his political ambitions (and keeping Castro's Cuba alive).
Human Rights reality. The constitution of 1999 was heralded as an achievement in human rights. Yet it already carried problems like the refusal to provide for abortion rights or the protection of sexual minorities under the pretense that the rights were written in with enough latitude to cover all in the future. It did not happen. In fact, it has proven regressive. There is no talk, for example, on gay marriage when in fact several countries that were behind Venezuela in Latin America are now well ahead. This has affected the private life of the author of this blog and his partner of soon 15 years. Abortion is the worst kept secret, the regime not supporting it but not doing anything to control it. Indigenous rights have been manipulated to allow in many cases control of native population by political hacks when not outright by drug trafficking cartels or Colombian guerrilla. If death penalty does not exist in the law, it exists in practice as Venezuela has possibly one of the worst prison systems in the world where a maximum sentence is almost equivalent to a death sentence. And more...
Transparency in public administration. One of the main planks of Chavez in 1998 was to fight against corruption, open the government archives to all, stop backroom deals with chosen private companies, etc. Transparency if you will. The contrary has resulted, creating one of the worst offenders measured by any international transparency index tools available. Corruption in Venezuela now numbers in single hits worth dozens of millions of dollars. The total sum, as estimated conservatively, would be for at the very least 20 billion USD just lost to paybacks. Amen of excessive commissions, and waste, and obscure bidding, and "contributions" for political causes.....
Now, at a road block, even if all yours and your car papers checked out fine, the cop or guard will ask you for something for their trouble in checking your papers. "para el cafe" they will tell you point blank.
Women power. The outside observer would be fooled into believing that women in Venezuela own a very large share of power. After all, of the "5" declared powers of the state, women are in charge of 3! but the real power in Venezuela, the only one that truly matters, is the executive. All the important ministries, the ones where money passes in large amount, have been held by men in, oh, 95% of the cases at least. The legislative one, where some money also passes, is held by a man. The other three powers are mere secretarial agencies held by women who have for only mission to provide all the excuses for the abuse of the regime, from electoral fraud to make sure that corruption is never duly investigated. In short, women in high office are just well paid maids.