What do Miss Universe and Miami Herald South America correspondent Jim Wyss have in common? Not a heck of a lot physically. But quite a bit symbolically: Left-wing Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro would have liked to use both of them recently to distract voters from his so-far disastrous administration.
Venezuela’s socialists supposedly disdain beauty pageants as bourgeois inanity – and, frankly, I don’t blame them. But Maduro was first in Twitter line this month when Miss Venezuela, Gabriela Isler, was crowned Miss Universe in Moscow.
“Her triumph is Venezuela’s triumph!” he crowed.
Felicitaciones a María Gabriela Isler por su triunfo,que es el triunfo de Venezuela¡¡Que dios la bendiga siempre!!! pic.twitter.com/OTNwOh8BMy
— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) November 9, 2013
The same night that Isler was donning her sash, Wyss was lying on dirty sheets in a Caracas holding cell. Authorities had him in custody for 48 hours that weekend. Their questionable pretext was that Wyss didn’t have permission to report a story he was writing on Venezuela’s worsening shortage of basic goods, from cooking oil to toilet paper. But it’s just as likely that a paranoid government hoped to steer attention away from its economic follies and scapegoat a well respected U.S. journalist.
“I was in the wrong place during tense times,” Wyss told me last week.
But neither hailing the princesa nor hassling the periodista could obscure new and even more dismal numbers like this one: Venezuela’s annualized inflation rate has now soared to 54 percent.
So Maduro has turned up the demagoguery dial. He refuses to acknowledge that policies such as tight currency controls look unsustainable. Instead, he’s going after the “right-wing” private sector that he accuses of waging an “economic war” against the socialist revolution started by his firebrand predecessor, Hugo Chávez.
Last week the President sent soldiers into retail stores to enforce his artificial price controls. He all but encouraged looters by exhorting Venezuelans to “leave nothing on the shelves!” And he even ordered the arrests of an electronics chain’s managers.
Maduro’s populist desperation pass may help his United Socialist Party (PSUV) avoid embarrassment in crucial nationwide local elections on Dec. 8. (Maduro himself only narrowly won last April’s special election to succeed Chávez, who died in March.) Still, it will probably hasten the unraveling of a Venezuelan economy which, in spite of boasting the world’s largest oil reserves, is buckling under chronic mismanagement.
But we’re watching more here than the crumbling of Venezuela’s financial condition. We’re witnessing the disappearance of its global relevance.
It was the discovery of oil in the early 20th Century that conferred that importance on Venezuela. When the Middle East crises of the 1970s choked the world’s petro-spigots, for example, the U.S. could turn south for relief. At the end of the century, in fact, Venezuela was America’s No. 1 foreign oil supplier.
Never mind that the country for much of that time was one of the most corrupt in the western hemisphere. Oil was Venezuela’s dark mascara, and its ruling class used it to hide the nation’s societal rot as deftly as all those Miss Venezuelas – Isler is the country’s seventh Miss Universe – have so notoriously relied on plastic surgery to hide their exterior flaws.
When Venezuela’s oligarchs finally sank under the weight of their own venality, not to mention the nation’s 50-percent poverty rate, Chávez and his revolution burst on the scene. He, too, made Venezuela matter internationally, this time because he employed its oil wealth to aid the poor and to spread his leftist, anti-U.S. gospel throughout Latin America and the developing world.
Today, however, Venezuela and its oil seem to matter less with each passing day. For starters, Chavismo's admirable raison d’etre, alleviating poverty, has been undermined by its populist profligacy, its astonishing inability to rein in South America's worst violent crime and the revolution's own glaring corruption. If there’s one thing “21st-Century socialists” are supposed to have learned from the 20th Century, it’s that inflation is arguably the worst tax you can levy on the poor.
But in the larger geopolitical picture, Venezuela’s status as an oil power is in rapid decline. Low investment and lax maintenance at its state-run oil monopoly, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), have sent production and revenues falling. Chávez made it a point to sell less and less oil to his imperialista enemy, the United States; yet at the moment Venezuela actually has to import refined petroleum products from the U.S. So much for anti-imperialista leverage, chamo.
On the eve of the Moscow pageant this month, Miss Venezuela director Osmel Sousa made a particularly asinine but particularly telling remark to the New York Times: “I say that inner beauty doesn’t exist. That’s something that unpretty women invented to justify themselves.”
Venezuela might have a new Miss Universe crown. But its national mascara —like that of a beauty contestant caught in a downpour she arrogantly ignored – is running, smudging, streaking and all but vanishing. And for the moment, the world isn't seeing much inner beauty behind it.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. Read more of his Latin America coverage here.