Even his staunchest enemies will not dispute the fact that Hugo Chávez is a great communicator. Throughout his political career, his skill at spinning stories has been remarkable. When bad things happened, it was always the fault of an enemy (the "empire" or the "bourgeoisie"). When good things happened, it was all an accomplishment of the Revolution, powered by the people. Whenever elections approached, it was all about "love" and the "fatherland." Once elections were over, it was back to trashing, expropriating, and drawing battle lines.
His status as the undisputed leader meant that everyone working for him repeated his lines and used his buzzwords, enabling the government to appear like a well-oiled communications machine. Those days appear to be over.
As Chávez fades into the sunset (proof-of-life photos notwithstanding), the Venezuelan government is proving far less adept at messaging than it used to be. Whether it's the issue of the economy or news (or lack thereof) about Chávez's health, the chavistas now in charge are frequently ending up at odds with each other.
Take, for example, last week's devaluation of the Venezuelan currency. For months, the president of the Central Bank denied that devaluation was being considered. Then he contradicted himself by saying that those things "should not be discussed in public." Even just a few days before the announcement, a Central Bank vice president was claiming that devaluation was not necessary because Venezuela has a balance of payments surplus.
Once the move materialized, they struggled to explain it. Finance Minister Jorge Giordani didn't provide much of a rationale in the official statement accompanying the devaluation, merely citing the need to encourage exports of "non-traditional" (i.e., non-oil) commodities. Foreign Minister Elías Jaua said the move was necessary because currency exchange controls "favor the rich," who take advantage of cheap dollars and sell them on the black market. Another minister said that the move was designed to raise the costs for producers and lower their "excessive profit margins."
The government doesn't answer questions from an independent press, and this spares them the trouble of fielding obvious questions. Any independent journalist would have questioned the logic of denouncing currency exchanges while keeping them in place for years. They would have probably pointed out that exporters of "non-traditional" items need to ask permission from the government to export. They would have asked about the things that people are saying on chavista websites, which have assailed a move many of them consider "neoliberal," particularly after the IMF went out of its way to praise the Venezuelan government for devaluing.
The obvious reason for the devaluation -- the poor state of the government's finances -- remains unsaid. Further measures to increase revenue are sure to come. Along those lines, the government appears to be considering raising the price of gasoline, at present the cheapest in the world (at less than $1 per tank of gas, it's practically free). But in this area, too, the messaging has been muddled.
While the Energy Minister and the president of state oil giant PDVSA said that they were not considering ending the massive gasoline subsidy, saying it "wasn't necessary" to stop "giving away" gasoline, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, said the ruling party encouraged a debate on the topic.
On the issue of Chávez's health, the messaging stumbles are legendary. Vice President (and Chávez's official successor) Nicolás Maduro has repeatedly said that Chávez is well on his way to recovery, insisting that he is completely in charge. He has claimed Chávez "told" him his recovery was going well. Similarly, the foreign minister recently claimed that the president was "telling jokes" during a previous visit.
Today the government startled everyone by admitting that the president was having trouble speaking due to a tracheal tube. The revelation, accompanied by pictures of a smiling Chávez and his two daughters (with the tracheal tube safely out of sight), came a few days after the publication of a story by Spanish daily ABC reporting that, indeed, Chávez could no longer speak, a story the government promptly dismissed. And Chávez's son-in-law, in a rare slip, said that Chávez was receiving "palliative care," a term frequently used for end-of-life care.
The lack of message discipline is even affecting the Cuban government. After Fidel Castro himself, in a rare public appearance, sounded bullish about Chávez's prospects for recovery, the Cuban government made an effort to tone down expectations and even tried to modify the transcript of Castro's words to the press.
As the government contradicts itself on issue after issue, it takes high-level parsing to understand what is going on behind the scenes. This only heightens the sensation among many Venezuelans that, as their leader fights for his life, the nation is adrift.
Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.
Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images