What is happening, in a nutshell

Venezuela was hardly any news outside Latin America for a long time. In the seventies, the Venezuelan Ministry of Tourism used the slogan of "the Caribbean's best kept secret" to promote tourism in Venezuela. The slogan did have some validity: Venezuela was a very expensive place for visitors, the tourist infrastructure was minimal, even if the standard of living was higher than in most neighboring countries.

Venezuela was a country that exported mostly coffee and cacao until the beginning of the XX century, when oil started to be exploited more and more. Venezuela was for some time the main oil exporting country. It became wealthy for Latin American standards, but the economy grew in a very distorted fashion: Venezuelans became incredibly more dependent from imports of nearly everything but oil, iron and some other commodities.

A big amount of immigration came about: hundreds of thousands of people came in mainly from Spain, Italy, Portugal, Colombia, but also from many other countries from Europe and Latin America and, from elsewhere.

Venezuela's last dictator, Perez Jimenez, lost power in 1958. From then on, the country was ruled by the alternating governments of Christian Democrats and Socio-democrats.
When other countries in Latin America were going through long periods of very hard dictatorships, Venezuela was a democracy....sort of.

In fact, Venezuela was ruled by either of these two parties, while the other parties had little change to show something. The country was very centralized. In 1988 a process of decentralization started to become concrete when Venezuelans could finally elect directly
their governors, majors, etc.

All the different governments had been utterly corrupt, many incompetent. Still, they used the money coming in from oil to establish many universities, schools, hospitals, etc.
Unlike what the chavistas are trying to make believe, most of us studied at public schools, we went to public universities, we got scholarships from the government.
The hospitals were free, even if the resources were meager and sometimes appalling.

The country had a very important boom during the seventies, when oil was nationalized and oil prices went up. Beginning in the mid 80s, the economic fall was made apparent by the drop in oil prices. The government had less and less money for more and more people.

In 1988, Carlos Andres Perez was elected president. He had been president during the "Saudi times" in the seventies and many people believed he would bring back those golden times when many Venezuelans preferred to go buy their TV by flying to Miami.
This time, Carlos Andres Perez did not have the money he had in the seventies and he even tried to implement several IMF policies that proved very unpopular. The most important was the attempt to raise the price of gas by about a tenth. It had been for many years cheaper to buy gas than to buy water. There were riots and the police fired and people got killed.
The climate of dissatisfaction grew. In 1992, a military, Hugo Chavez Frias, organized a coup.
Many people died, but the coup failed when Chavez surrendered. He went to prison.
Carlos Andres Perez was prosecuted for corruption charges and he was forced to resign.
A provisional government came about and after that a coalition made of a bunch of very different parties. The new president was Caldera (a former president, also from the "Saudi Venezuela times", but a Christian Democrat this time), and most of his people were Socialists or center. Again, people thought Caldera could provide the standard of living we had in the seventies.
There were several scandals and on top of that the oil prices hit bottom-line. The price of the oil barrel dropped for several years to 10 to 13 dollars a barrel. Public spending had to be squeezed.
At that time, Caldera decided to free Hugo Chavez Frias. The military went to campaign and won the 1998 elections. One of the very first things he did was to invite former dictator Perez Jiemenez to the inauguration ceremony. Many people protested (not only the opposition, but also many of his supporters). Perez Jimenez, in exile in Spain, decided not to risk the trip to Venezuela. Hugo Chavez Frias assumed power in 1999.

Some people abroad started to become interested with the "Venezuelan case". Some of them even visited Venezuela, started reading about it, many went to congresses organized by the Venezuelan government, some went on tours organized by chavista groups.

On 3 December 2006 Chavez secured a new term in office. Some people abroad still think he is a good man.

Some misconceptions:

  1. Chavez has been elected by the majority. Thus: he is a democrat
  2. He says he is for the poor and many poor confirm it so and to think otherwise is to be arrogant and paternalistic towards Venezuelans
  3. He is the declared enemy of George W. Bush and he says he fights against imperialism
  4. The opposition is just a bunch of white rich people who are afraid of the poor
  5. The poor are all for him, the rich are all against him
  6. He is the first president to use oil for helping the poor
  7. In Venezuela there is a lot of freedom of speech
  8. Venezuela has progressed under Chavez' rule
  9. Chavez does not really want to rule forever...it is just one of those Caribbean ways of expressing oneself.

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