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
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.
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.
for example, last week's devaluation of the Venezuelan
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
Even just a few days before the announcement, a Central Bank vice president was
claiming that devaluation was not
because Venezuela has a balance of payments surplus.
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
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.
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
(at less than $1 per tank of gas, it's practically free). But in this area,
too, the messaging has been muddled.
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
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
during a previous visit.
the government startled everyone by admitting that the president was having trouble
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.
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.
the government contradicts itself on issue after issue, it takes high-level
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