When a former beauty queen and her husband are killed by highway robbers on a Caracas freeway in front of their 5-year-old daughter the issue inevitably becomes political.
The shooting death of Monica Spear, the 2004 Miss Venezuela, along with her husband, Thomas Henry Berry, on Monday happened in one of the world’s most dangerous countries, where the government regulates almost every facet of life, yet tolerates the social rot and corruption that breeds rampant crime.
The government’s initial response to the tragedy was illuminating. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro described the incident in a Tuesday televised appearance as “very sad” and vowed to apply “the state’s iron fist” to those responsible. But in the same breath, he urged Venezuelans not to politicize “this case to foster hate and manipulation.” Violence in Venezuela, Maduro said, is “a social illness. It’s an illness we have.”
The idea that Spear’s death shouldn't be viewed through a political lens is the standard response of those who don’t want to dwell too much on their own politically problematic views. Just last March, when Maduro was running for president, he told a group of governors that crime “is the direct expression of cultural decadence, and the anti-values of capitalism, particularly U.S. capitalism.”
Instead, the president announced a Plan of National Pacification 2014 to “pacify and disarm” criminal groups. But he gave few details of how this would differ from other unsuccessful attempts to control crime.
Venezuelan writer and El Nacional newspaper columnist, Alberto Barrera Tyszka, denounced this state of denial in a Twitter post on Tuesday: “Sadness is sabotage. Indignation is terrorism. Now they also want to self-censor the pain.” Rayma, the editorial page cartoonist for El Universal newspaper, captured the outrage without words in a Wednesday cartoon depicting a Venezuelan flag with six bleeding bullet holes across it (the assailants apparently fired six shots at the Spear family vehicle).
The bigger problem for Maduro and his allies is how to explain the government’s failed public-safety record after 14 years in power. The government stopped publishing crime data 10 years ago, and it’s easy to see why. Venezuela’s homicide rate has grown fourfold during the past 15 years, with 79 homicides per 100,000 people last year, according to estimates by Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a non-governmental institution that tries to piece together crime figures.
Such numbers make the socialist-led country the third most dangerous nation, after El Salvador and Honduras. By comparison, the 2012 homicide rate in the U.S., the world’s bastion of capitalism, stood at 4.7 homicides per 100,000. And that was considered high among rich countries.
Venezuela’s death count has even come close to that of Iraq (with a comparable population), where there happened to be a war. From 2003 through 2011, Venezuelan homicides were 124,000, or 76 percent of the body count in Iraq during that same period. That's a shocking toll for a nation in peace time.
Boris Munoz, a Venezuelan journalist, held back no punches in a Wednesday op-ed on Prodavinci under the headline “The Country of Every Man for Himself.” Spear’s killing, he said, is “an alarming symptom of Venezuela’s failed national project.” The El Nacional daily was more dramatic in its Wednesday editorial: Chavismo, the movement inspired by the late former President Hugo Chavez, “as an ideology and a praxis, is the father and child of death.”
On Wednesday afternoon artists fed up with the government’s inaction in the face of rising crime gathered outside Venezuela’s national assembly to protest the death of Spear. One protest sign read: “A famous face, thousands of anonymous victims.”
Chavista supporters have had a hard time defending the government under the circumstances. Neil Arenas, a teacher and self-described Chavista, made the most persuasive argument in a Twitter post: “I feel saddened by Monica Spear, but stop politicizing what happened. Like her, many die in the hands of criminals and no one makes such a fuss” when less famous people are killed -- a line, that in an odd twist, echoes the protesters.
One reason high crime levels are difficult for Chavistas to explain is because of the movement's professed focus on poverty alleviation and social inclusion. Although redistributive social programs have been in place for more than a decade, crime has gotten worse. Part of the problem is that getting tough on crime flies in the face of the Chavista political narrative.
For Chavistas, cracking down on criminals, many of them poor, is seen as a right-wing policy at odds with social justice. This helps explain why the government’s many security programs have relied on half-hearted and inconsistent measures, such as short-lived deployments of soldiers in crime-ridden areas. This may send criminals into hiding for a few days or weeks, but it rarely leads to their capture and prosecution.
Battling crime would also require tackling pro-Chavista armed groups that operate in slums to intimidate opposition leaders and their supporters. That could put Maduro’s political base at risk.
The breakdown of institutions and lack of accountability also make it hard to combat crime. Under Chavez, the presidency became all-powerful with influence over Congress, the courts, the Supreme Court and the comptroller general, to name a few. Meritocracy was subverted in government hiring and denounced for promoting elitism, while financial success was stigmatized in a way that fueled class resentment.
Chavez and his heirs have fostered a dangerously permissive society, where rules are neglected or ignored in pursuit of political power. Debating the government’s security policy after Spear’s death may be politics as usual. But tolerating Venezuela's high crime rate is also a political choice.
Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog.