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'Throughline' Examines The Rise And Fall Of Venezuela


Venezuela used to be the richest country in South America. Now it's in the middle of an economic and political crisis. The most recent episode of NPR's history podcast Throughline explores how Venezuela ended up here. In studio with me is one of the hosts of Throughline, Ramtin Arablouei. Hi, Ramtin.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

KING: So Venezuela has a long history. Where did you guys start the story?

ARABLOUEI: So we started the story with Nicolas Maduro, the current president of Venezuela's, predecessor Hugo Chavez. He was a boisterous, charismatic president of Venezuela from 1999 to 2013. He was also a very public critic of the U.S. But during his presidency, he put in place a lot of economic programs and policies that led to the situation we're seeing today. But the thing that many people don't know about Chavez is that he first broke into the political scene in 1992, thanks to a strange accident of history which changed everything for Chavez and Venezuela.

KING: OK. What was the strange accident of history that you're referring to?

ARABLOUEI: Well, let me set the scene. Beginning in the 1920s, Venezuela's economy depended almost entirely on oil. Through the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the economy boomed. But then in the 1980s, oil prices dropped and the economy began to decline. Income inequality got worse, and corruption in the government was rampant. That's when Chavez, who was in the military at the time, organized a group of soldiers to overthrow the president of Venezuela at the time, Carlos Andres Perez. I'll let my co-host Rund Abdelfatah pick it up in this clip from the episode.


RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Here's how it went down.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: February the 4th, 1992, and normal programming on Venezuelan TV was interrupted by this unfolding story.

ABDELFATAH: On the morning of February 4, five military units were dispersed across the country. Their mission, to take over key government posts - the defense ministry, the military airport, the military museum, the presidential palace and the national TV station, where they planned to broadcast a video...

ALEJANDRO VELASCO: On the part of Chavez and other of the leaders of this movement, calling on the population to rise up.

ABDELFATAH: This is Alejandro Velasco. He grew up in Venezuela and now teaches history at New York University.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: An attempted coup is taking place on the streets of Caracas.

VELASCO: I remember, you know, my mother turning on the television.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The men in the red berets are rebel paratroopers.

UNIDENTIFIED REBEL PARATROOPER: (Yelling in foreign language).

VELASCO: And, you know, it was one of those things that you kind of see in movies, like, a grainy video of people, you know, in fatigues speaking about the conditions of significant inequality that existed and that something has to change.

ABDELFATAH: Some of the military units quickly took control of a few large cities in Venezuela. But the unit led by Chavez...

VELASCO: He failed. And eventually, they surrendered.

ABDELFATAH: OK. Bizarre twist here. So Chavez, who failed in his mission, is then chosen by the president to make a speech on national television.

VELASCO: He is one of at least six or seven other people who could have taken up that role of prominent leadership. And it falls on Chavez because he is given airtime to tell all the other troops, who had actually been successful, (laughter), in their own tactical missions, to lay down their weapons.

ABDELFATAH: This was supposed to be his punishment, to go on TV and wave a white flag, admit defeat, for two minutes.


HUGO CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

VELASCO: "I take responsibility for the failure of this project."


CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

VELASCO: And then he also said this is a Bolivarian movement.

ABDELFATAH: But it's just over...

VELASCO: (Foreign language spoken).

CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

ABDELFATAH: ..."For the moment."

VELASCO: Which created the expectation that this was not the end, this was the beginning.

ABDELFATAH: After giving the speech, Chavez was escorted to jail, which only added to his newfound stardom.

VELASCO: And that was all that it took to completely alter the narrative of Venezuelan history.

ABDELFATAH: Now, you might have noticed during that speech Chavez called his mission a Bolivarian movement, and the namesake of that movement is a revolutionary leader from the 19th century, a guy named Simon Bolivar, who inspired generations of revolutionaries after, including Chavez. Chavez drew on Bolivar to form his social and political missions. He even renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

MARIE ARANA: Here's this tiny man. He weighed all of 120 pounds. He had no chest to speak of. He was spindly. He was...

ARABLOUEI: This is Marie Arana. She's written a bunch of books on Latin America, including the biography "Bolivar: American Liberator."

ARANA: He would walk into a room and larger, taller people would be dwarfed, really, by his presence because he was so dynamic, friendly, the sort of warm personality that inspired people.

ARABLOUEI: Bolivar managed to use that charisma to bring together a massive, diverse army of people from across South America to fight for independence from Spain. He also had a really ambitious vision for a united, Spanish-speaking South America, called...

VELASCO: Gran Colombia, Great Colombia. Which would bring together a federation of independent republics, nevertheless united as one.


ARABLOUEI: He and his army set out fighting battle after battle across South America, losing some but winning many, first liberating Colombia then Venezuela.

VELASCO: Moves down to Ecuador and liberates Ecuador.

ARABLOUEI: Peru was up next.

ARANA: And that was the end. I mean, that was the cutting of the throat of the Spanish colonies at that point.


ARABLOUEI: Bolivar was appointed dictator of Peru. He even had a country named after him, Bolivia. So now the Spanish were gone. Bolivar had liberated millions of people. But ruling a country was much different than freeing one. Managing an economy and keeping a bunch of people united after the revolution proved difficult for Bolivar. And before long, his vision of a united, Spanish-speaking South America fell apart.

KING: So Chavez says he's inspired by Bolivar. What does that mean then for the way that he leads?

ARABLOUEI: The rise and fall of Chavez and Bolivar are very similar. They are revolutionaries who successfully, you know, free a country or, as they say - but they have problems actually running the country. And Chavez understood that Bolivar's legacy represented this promise of equality, democracy and justice. And you can kind of imagine Bolivar as all of the American Founding Fathers kind of rolled in one for Venezuela. And when things got difficult, both Chavez and Bolivar resorted to autocratic rule. So this left a huge leadership vacuum when they died. And today, the shadows of both men loom large over Venezuela.

KING: Ramtin Arablouei, co-host of NPR's history podcast Throughline. Ramtin, thanks for coming in.

ARABLOUEI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.