Will a beauty queen's murder help bring down Venezuela's socialist government?
Beauty queens are revered in Venezuela, none more so than those crowned "Miss Venezuela." So when a beloved former "Miss" named Mónica Spear and her ex-husband were murdered by highway bandits, the crime sparked national outrage -- touching off street protests, non-stop media coverage, and an ongoing national conversation about the socialist government's failure to a stop a runaway murder epidemic.
Now, outrage over the murders is prompting many Venezuelans to confront the contradictions of Venezuela-style socialism. One of the biggest ironies: violent crime has exploded since President Hugo Chávez, a firebrand leftist, took office 15 years ago. This has happened, moreover, as capitalism has increasingly been dismantled -- supposedly replaced by more economic equality and "social justice" in the oil-rich yet impoverished South American nation.
Chávez, who died last March of cancer, coined the term "21st Century socialism." He contended it would reverse corruption-riddled Venezuela's long economic decline, as would his strategy of pursing anti-American alliances. But as fallout continues over the high-profile murders, many Venezuelans are becoming more cynical about President Nicolás Maduro's socialist agenda as tens of thousands of Venezuelans are being murdered annually. Maduro, Chávez's hand-picked successor, is grappling with food shortages, falling oil prices, and annual inflation topping 50%. He rules a politically polarized country where just over 50 percent of voters support his leftist agenda. He possesses neither Chávez's charisma nor mystical connection to Venezuela's poor majority.
Spear, crowned "Miss Venezuela" in 2004, died in a hail of gunfire on a dark highway on Monday, January 6, with ex-husband Henry Thomas Berry, a 39-year-old British citizen who specialized in adventure tourism at a local travel agency. Their 5-year-old daughter suffered a leg wound.
Police said several bandits laid sharp objects on the road that flattened the car's tires; other reports said the car was disabled after hitting a pothole -- a common problem on poorly maintained roads. The couple locked themselves in their car as the bandits showed up, but to no avail: Six shots were fired as a tow-truck arrived. The couple's ill-fated holiday in the spectacular mountains and plains of western Venezuela had been intended to give them a new start together.
With Spear and Berry's murders, Venezuela's skyrocketing murder rate suddenly has human faces -- and President Maduro is on the defensive. He'd been focusing on deepening "21st Century socialism." This included an "economic offensive" against the commercial class: from owners of supermarkets to electronics stores to car dealerships -- all were being ordered to offer government-set "fair prices." And before November's make-or-break municipal elections, he'd won votes by taking bread-and-circuses populism to new heights, tacitly giving Christmas shoppers, as some observers saw it, a green light to loot electronics stores. "We're doing this for the good of the nation," he said. "Let nothing remain in stock!" A number of retailers were jailed -- accused of speculating, hoarding, and unfair lending.
Now, sensing political trouble over Spear and Berry's murders, Maduro is shifting his attention away from his "economic offensive." He's instead calling for an unprecedented anti-crime program, and he recently met with big-city mayors, governors, and administration officials to come up with a plan. Details remain sketchy. But Maduro should focus on improving the nation's often corrupt and inefficient police forces and criminal-justice system. In the past, he and Chávez had believed socialism would address what they believed were crime's root causes: capitalism and class-conflict; poverty and economic inequality -- and even violent American movies shown on Venezuelan television and movie theaters.
Venezuela suffered the world's fourth highest murder rate in 2010 after Honduras, El Salvador, and Jamaica, according to United Nation's statistics. Official Venezuelan crime statistics are non-existent: the government stopped providing them ten years ago. But sociologist Roberto Briceño León, president of the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, a watchdog group, estimates that yearly homicides have increased 427% since Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998, after campaigning on a platform to seek a "third way" between socialism and capitalism, and to reverse rampant corruption and declining living standards. "In 1998, we had 4,550 homicides in the country, but we closed the past year with 24,000," Briceño León recently told Globovision, a Caracas television channel, in a segment about the Spear and Berry murders. To put those grim murder numbers in perspective, war-torn Iraq's population is comparable in size to Venezuela's, yet it suffered 7,800 killings in 2013 -- about one third of Venezuela's homicides. "A third of our murders, and yet the international community says absolutely nothing about the violence in Venezuela. Shame on them," wrote Juan Cristobal Nagel, an opposition blogger at Caracas Chronicles.
To outraged Venezuelans, the couple's murders were especially tragic because their lives were caught up with the rise and fall of the Venezuelan dream -- an ideal that existed from the 1970s to mid-80s, the era of "Saudi Venezuela" when oil prices were soaring. Berry's British parents had immigrated to Venezuela more than 40 years ago, when Caracas was a charming place known as the "city of red roofs." His father was a mathematics professor at Simón Bolívar University. Spear, a fifth runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant, went on to become a successful soap-opera actress for the Spanish-language Telemundo network. In 2011, she moved to Florida, one of more than 500,000 Venezuelan now living aboard to escape Venezuela-style socialism. Many are members of the business and professional classes, people whom class-warrior Chávez saw as part the problems ailing Venezuela.
Police investigating Spear and Berry's murders quickly rounded up nine suspects who were part of a gang that preyed on motorists; they were carrying credit cards and a digital camera that belonged to the couple. It was splendid police work. But to most Venezuelans it underscored that their country, even under "21st Century socialism," has two standards of justice: one for the well-connected and famous, and the other for ordinary Venezuelans, observed Briceño León, the sociologist. Indeed, most Venezuelans doubt that police would have expended such an effort for ordinary Venezuelans, he explained. "People can commit crimes without any consequences," sociologist Luis Cedeño, director of civic group Active Peace, told Globovision.
Whatever crime-reduction plan President Maduro implements will face a major problem: Venezuela is broke. Draconian currency exchange and price controls have left many supermarket shelves empty; even toilet parper is in short supply. Attracting significant foreign investment is not an option -- not after Chávez nationalized large swaths of the economy. Recently, Bloomberg News reported that Venezuela's "economic distress is so acute that the central bank stopped releasing regular statistics for the first time ever, threatening to increase borrowing costs further as the nation faces $10 billion of financing needs." Benjamin Wang, a money manager at PineBridge Investments LLC, was quoted as saying: "There's no transparent data to measure the risk."
As the fallout over the death of a beauty queen plays out, cynicism is likely to grow toward Venezuela-style socialism. So will murder, corruption, and economic decline. How ironic that a beauty queen's death may serve as a catalyst for positive change that opposition candidates have been unable to achieve by defeating Hugo Chávez or Nicolás Maduro at the polls.