Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights

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Why did Maduro Adopt Crime as a Campaign Issue?

Rebecca Hanson

As I noted in previous post, during the recent campaign Maduro took up citizen security as a banner in a way that his predecessor never did. Given that crime rates in the country rose significantly under Chávez this strategy was somewhat risky, drawing attention to a problem that the government has, thus far, failed to solve. Why bring up such a potentially damaging issue in a race that was already full of uncertainties for the Chavista coalition?

Some commentators have explained his focus this way: Maduro was forced to take on the issue of crime in a way that Chávez never did because he lacks the charisma of his mentor. For example, Roberto Briceño-Leon, the head of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, said that “Chávez was able to keep such a dramatic issue from affecting him politically because of his personal force and connection” to the poor, those most affected by crime.”

The implication here is that Chávez was able to hide behind his charisma, allowing him to “get away” with neglecting a severe problem in Venezuela. His supporters, blinded by his personality, did not recognize the rise in crime that took place under his administration.

However, the lower-class residents that I work with are well aware of crime in their neighborhoods and understand how it impacts their lives. While the “power” of the former president’s charisma is undeniable, Maduro’s lack of it does not tell us why he adopted an issue that worsened year-by-year under Chávez. In this post. I would like to delve into some of the complexities that characterize the relationship between crime and the Chávez government and suggest a few reasons for why Maduro might have taken up such a delicate issue.

First, it is important to recognize that, apart from the advantages his charisma provided, Chávez did not “pay” politically for crime for a number of reasons. Consider the following conversation I was part of. It took place in a PDVSA Jeep (Jeeps are a main form of public transportation in the barrios and PDVSA, the state oil company, provides a subsidized version of them throughout the city) as I was riding up to my house in Los Magallanes de Catia a few weeks ago with a neighbor (Los Magallanes is a lower-class barrio with one of the higher crime and homicide rates in the sector of Catia). When we climbed inside I immediately noticed a sign announcing that the Jeep’s service would begin ending at 10:30 at night due to “la inseguridad” (crime) in the area. My neighbor—an ardent Chavista—read the sign out loud and in a frustrated voice stated that crime had become “a shame” in the area, which led to a slew of commentary.

One man said that poverty had always existed but had not always generated the crime that it does now. Recollecting on his childhood growing up in Los Magallanes, he reminisced that there had been space to play soccer and sports but now, he asked, “Where do the children have to play? Where is there space for recreation? We send them out into the street.” He suggested that what had changed was not the conditions of poverty but the loss of values that came along with the loss of these spaces.

Another man offered up that people always neglected to recognize crimes of “cuello y corbata” (or white collar crime), which he said were the crimes that really hurt people in the barrios, as they stole money from the government. My neighbor agreed and said that it was this kind of crime that took money away from their access to education and healthcare.

Towards the end of the conversation there was a verbal consensus that the most important changes that needed to take place were “en el hogar y dentro de la familia” (in the home and the family), and that people try to blame the government for crime but that criminals are not formed by the state but in the home.

Among the list of reasons that people in the Jeep gave for rising crime, the government was mentioned only once; and, when it was brought into the conversation, it was not even cited as one of the main parties responsible. In general, Catians are much more likely to attribute crime to a lack of education, access to basic resources like space, or to a failing family structure than a lack of police or government action. If they reminisce about a time when there was less violence in their neighborhood, they usually recall a period when there was more space for recreation, when the family was more stable, and when children had “values”—a period that existed long before Chávez was on the scene.

A second reason that taking on issues of citizen security might have seemed plausible to the Maduro campaign is that people do not necessarily see the government as doing nothing about citizen security. Precisely because many Venezuelans identify education, the home, and limited access to basic resources as the roots of crime, the missions that the government has been supporting for years (focusing on education and health services, and housing more recently) make sense to people as a potent way to reduce crime. What this means is that even though the government left prisons, the police, and judicial reform untouched for years many lower-class residents would probably say that the state has been attacking the roots of “la inseguridad”(crime) for over a decade. By supporting education, community organizations, and the construction of homes, many believe that the government is treating the causes rather than just the symptoms of crime.

Indeed, one can see that Maduro’s citizen security platform is closely linked to these previous missions—especially those missions that have supported culture, sports, and music in the barrios. Perhaps one of the key strengths of programs such as the recently announced Movimiento de Paz is that they draw on activities that lower-class residents have been engaging in for years—in some case decades—either through the community councils and communes or through community organizations that existed long before the Chávez government.

Given these perceptions of the “roots of crime,” it is likely that Maduro could have organized a successful campaign without aggressively adopting an issue that speaks to a weak point of his predecessor’s governance (according to government statistics in 1986 there were 8 homicides per 100,000 residents; 2012 closed out with 54/100,000). In other words, it is not necessarily the case that Maduro had to address crime in such an explicit fashion. Why, then, might he have chosen to do so?

One possible reason has to do with the misperception that Chávez utterly neglected citizen security throughout his terms as president. It is undoubtedly true that Chávez spent a his first term in office without touching citizen security, and when strategies were implemented they were sporadic and short-term. Nevertheless, since about 2007 the government has increasingly allocated resources and support for research (like the CONAREPOL report), legislation (such as the 2008 Organic Law of the Police Service and of the National Police Body), institution building (like the National Security University [UNES] and the General Police Council [CGP]), the Presidential Commission on Gun Control and more recently missions dedicated to citizen security, and community initiatives (like the “Mothers for Peace”) with an eye towards reducing crime and violence in a comprehensive manner. Many of these were announced on national television. While these initiatives are far from perfect, they complicate perceptions that Chávez breezed past citizen security by relying on personality alone.

And, while the government might not be perceived as one of the key solutions to crime, over the years the president and his administration became much more tightly linked to security initiatives than they had been previously. As one woman in La Vega (another popular sector in Caracas) recently explained to me, given the violent history of the Metropolitan Police in her sector she was extremely skeptical when the National Bolivarian Police began working in the neighborhood. However, she told herself to wait and give this police a chance since they had Chávez’s support and had been born out of his government.

Thus, another possible explanation for why Maduro might have taken on the banner of security in his campaign is because the Chávez government has been addressing citizen security for a number of years now, and is thus linked to the institutions that came out of this push. And, having actively attempted to address crime, the government is now open to criticisms (like those of Capriles) that they are incapable of solving it. Furthermore, if people identify UNES, the PNB, and the CGP with Chávez’s administration that means that evaluating their work and progress will result in an evaluation of his—and now Maduro’s—government as well.

Finally, in discussing Chávez’s charisma it is important to understand that this charisma cannot be separated from people’s perception that he was a leader that could “get things done,” despite institutional bureaucracy, corruption, and inefficiency. In other words, the “connection to the people” that Briceño-Leon cites stemmed from a belief that Chávez was a president that followed up his words with actions.

If Chavistas did not expect this same charisma from Maduro during the campaign, what they do expect from him now is that he continues with Chávez’s plans. As one mechanic in my neighborhood put it, “Maduro can follow Chávez’s path or we will throw him out!” In other words, Chávez’s supporters are probably more interested in seeing that Maduro continues with the missions and programs that Chávez started, proving that he too can push through bureaucratic obstacles and corruption to accomplish what he has promised.

Taking a hands-on personal approach to crime and the government’s initiatives to fight it was one way of assuring voters that he can keep the ball rolling on Chávez’s legacy. In one of his recent speeches Maduro made explicit reference to these previous missions and the government’s ability to “finish crime off.”  According to Maduro, the government was going to turn the same political will it had used to “end illiteracy and build over 350,000 dignified homes,” in the country to end crime and violence.

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