Homophobia and Birther Paranoia Take Venezuelan Politics by Storm

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Ivan Alvarado / REUTERS

Henrique Capriles, Venezuela's opposition leader and governor of Miranda state, talks with the media as he attends a meeting with members of the Chilean right-wing alliance in Santiago, Chile July 18, 2013.

Venezuela just launched a campaign to revive its moribund tourism industry. And the timing couldn’t be worse. The country is suffering one of the world’s highest inflation rates — topping 40% last month — and South America’s worst violent crime. But the nation’s unhinged politics aren’t exactly the stuff of travel agency brochures, either. Despite Venezuela’s sublime natural attractions, any tour guide would have trouble hiding how ugly and volatile the civic scene keeps getting inside the western hemisphere’s most oil-rich nation.

Social polarization has sharpened in Venezuela since its leftist strongman president, Hugo Chávez, died in March and his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, eked out a disputed victory in a special presidential election in April. In May a mass brawl broke out inside the National Assembly. But this past month has turned particularly absurd. A glaring example is the homophobic smears that Chávez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) is hurling at opposition pols in an attempt to portray them as corrupt. (In macho Venezuela, being branded gay apparently calls your probity into question as well.)

The PSUV, in fact, seems to have decided that questioning the sexual orientation of unmarried opposition leader Henrique Capriles — who still insists he defeated Maduro in April — is the best way to distract Venezuelans from the government’s utter inability to solve the country’s economic and security debacles. PSUV National Assembly Deputy Pedro Carreño last week brandished what he said were photos of one of Capriles’ top aides dressed in drag and cavorting with drug dealers and prostitutes. Carreño’s real target was Capriles, whom he called out on the Assembly floor with gay slurs: “Respond to this, homosexual! Accept the debate, maricón (faggot)!” Maduro piled on by accusing Capriles, who is governor of Miranda state adjoining Caracas, of holding orgies that “prostitute youths.”

But Capriles and the opposition have managed to sully their own image as well. In spite of the myriad national crises that have dropped into their political laps of late, including a currency collapse and chronic shortages of basic consumer goods, they’ve chosen this summer to become Venezuela’s version of “birthers.” Their claim that Maduro was born in Colombia and therefore ineligible to be President has instead generated public sympathy for the sitting President — and made pundits wonder if they’re reverting to the kind of notorious political incompetence that helped keep Chávez in power for 14 years.

The powder keg atmosphere promises to worsen as Maduro pushes the Assembly to grant him “special presidential powers” to fight corruption. The opposition fears, not without reason, that it’s a Chávez-style maneuver to witch-hunt political opponents. Frank Mora, who from 2009 until this year was U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere, fears Venezuela is flirting with broader and more violent conflict. “I worry about a trigger that might bring quite a bit of social breakdown,” says Mora, now director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami. “It’s a very delicate environment, and all it needs is just a spark, an assassination of some kind, for the thing to really get out of control.”

The spark may well turn out to be more economic than political. The Maduro government is trying to resuscitate tourism (which is so poorly run in Venezuela that even neighboring Colombia, which is still fighting a guerrilla war, receives three times as many visitors each year) in part because the nation’s hyper-dependence on oil revenue is now haunting the economy.

According to the Latin America analysis newsletter “Latinvex,” U.S. crude imports from Venezuela dropped almost 18% in the first half of this year. That’s worrisome news for a country that, despite its anti-Washington foreign policy, relies on the U.S. for 40% of its oil exports, and which has seen its foreign reserves fall hard recently due largely to dysfunction at its state-run oil monopoly, Petróleos de Venezuela. What’s more, says Latinvex editor-in-chief Joachim Bamrud, the high costs of shipping oil compared to other commodities means Venezuela can’t yet count on far-away allies like China and Iran to pick up the slack. “Chávez always threatened to move oil exports away from the U.S.,” says Bamrud, “but in reality Venezuela hasn’t done much at all to reduce its dependence on the U.S. market.”

Gay-bashing probably won’t divert attention from those troubles for too long, especially since Maduro is facing displeasure if not challenges inside his own party. But Venezuela isn’t alone these days: Latinvex found that all Latin American oil exports to a more energy-self-sufficient U.S. have slipped 20% this year. At the same time, Latin American leaders are finding that railing at the U.S., even when it’s warranted, doesn’t get them the domestic political traction it once did. In Brazil, for example, President Dilma Rousseff’s administration is voicing anger at Washington over revelations that the U.S. conducts a massive secret surveillance operation there. But the scolding has done little to quell citizen ire toward government corruption and feckless performance in Brazil, which has produced violent street protests this summer.

Meanwhile, here’s hoping that Venezuela’s new tourism push is a success, because it’s one of the hemisphere’s most beautiful and vibrant countries. I’d recommend seeing Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall, or the heavenly beaches at Los Roques. But I would avoid Caracas — in particular, the National Assembly building.