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Latin America 101: The End of a Dream


The Latin America 101 articles intend to deepen the reader's knowledge of the Italian situation in Venezuela throughout its history. The fundamental purpose of this series is to draw attention to the topic of Italian immigration by providing a thorough overview of the road that led the Italians to Venezuela and then evaluate the relevant historical events.

Latin America 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

6. Latin America 101: The End of a Dream

Latin America 101: The End of a Dream

The Bolivarian revolution spelt the end of a period in history called the Italian-Venezuelan idyll.

Display of Venezuelan flag by protesters during manifestation - [Photo] - Bloomberg

Since Italians began migrating to Venezuela, the two countries and their relationship went through many ups and downs. In the 1950s and 1960s, Italian migration was at a high, and immigrants made a significant contribution to the Venezuelan economy. However, at points, even Italy and Venezuela's political and diplomatic ties were in a state of flux. In 1958, Italy was the very first European country to recognize Rómulo Betancourt's new democratic administration, with Amintore Fanfani as Prime Minister; the Italian Christian Democratic government decided that making ties with Latin America was one of the top goals of Italian foreign policy. Between 1945 and 1948, Betancourt was the president of Venezuela, overseeing the adoption of a new constitution and a comprehensive reform program. However, he was driven into exile when Perez Jimenez's dictatorship came to power. Betancourt did return in 1958, once the Jimenez system fell apart, to become President of the Venezuelan Republic. Prime Minister Fanfani met Rafael Caldera, the leader of the Venezuelan Christian-Social Party (COPEI), in Rome in 1958, and the International Union of Christian Democrats had its Congress in Caracas in 1962. During a conference of the Western European Union (WEU) in June 1965, Fanfani insisted on strengthening ties between communal groups and South America.

A few months later, the President of the Italian Republic, Giuseppe Saragat, paid a visit to Latin America, following a proposal from his Minister of Foreign Affairs, in order to establish a body for economic, cultural, and political cooperation, projecting an image of genuie interest in South America. The years of the Fixed-Point Pact - a government agreement between various Venezuelan political parties - which were marked by ineffective and unscrupulous leaders from the two main parties, Democratic Action and COPEI, enraged Italians as much as the rest of society. Despite this, the two countries' relations remained positive: countless bilateral agreements for commercial, industrial, scientific-technological, and cultural cooperation were signed, emphasizing the close ethnic links, friendliness, and cultural affinity between the Italian and Venezuelan peoples. In reality, among the economically developed countries, Italy was one of the top five partners to Venezuela in the early 1990s.

Many Italians living in Venezuela supported the rise of Hugo Chávez' government; he was someone who promised an end to crime and corruption that had characterized previous governments, such as the democratic government of Rafael Caldera (deposed by a coup d'état in 1998). Dissatisfied with the political class who had held power on and off for forty years, many Italians living in Venezuela supported the rise of Chávez. Several agreements were reached between Italy and Venezuela throughout the Chavismo years. Most Venezuelans, including locals and immigrants, saw Chávez as the saviour of a country on the verge of moral degeneration. Chávez labelled himself as the leader of the "Bolivarian Revolution," a socialist political agenda named after South American independence hero Simón Bolivar. Although the focus of the revolution depended on Chávez's objectives, major aspects included nationalism, a controlled economy, and a powerful military actively involved in public programs.

Hugo Chavez with his supporters after his election [Photo] - Radio Free Europe
Hugo Chavez with his supporters after his election [Photo] - Radio Free Europe

Chávez worked to build a Latin American alliance strong enough to not only expel US influence from the area but also start competing politically and economically with the US and the European Union, combining Bolivar's vision of a unified Latin America, free of foreign interference, with revolutionary Marxist ideology. To that purpose, he promoted the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which was a Venezuelan regional alliance for social, political, and economic integration, founded in 2004 alongside Fidel Castro; and PetroCaribe, a Venezuelan-led regional energy program, created in 2005. These projects received strong national support as alternatives to globalisation and the economic plans that many Latin Americans believed were imposed upon them by the US and international lending institutions.

People in Venezuela were severely polarised about the political situation, and this fragmentation, combined with the government's lack of openness, made it impossible to assess Chávez's revolution's success. Opponents cited Chávez's growing authoritarianism, a more than doubling of the country's homicide rate under his rule, shortages of basic foods such as sugar, milk, and beans, one of Latin America's highest inflation rates, and a continuously high infant mortality rate, as evidence that government oil profits were still not reaching the poorest citizens. Many people have pointed out that under Chávez's administration, democracy was severely undermined - Chávez and his alliance did, in fact, control all of the state's major institutions. But Chávez's supporters cited effective education programs, better healthcare access, increased employment, and more than 20% reduction in poverty rates during his presidency.

Chávez, Bolívar and Maduro pictured in a murales in Caracas [Photo] - Limes
Chávez, Bolívar and Maduro pictured in a murales in Caracas [Photo] - Limes

Support for Chávez among Italians in Venezuela began to wane not just only when it became clear that the President would not use oil money to fix the country's problems, but also when he initiated expropriation and nationalization efforts, sometimes without compensating those affected. The Italians, who had already been downgraded as members of the white elite and were despised by Chávez, started to accuse Chávez's politics of having negative consequences. The government shut down businesses, starting with family-owned trades before progressing to larger companies. Kidnappings, thefts, robberies, and murders also afflicted many Italians. The country's economic situation worsened with Nicolas Maduro's election in 2013, but for a time, ties with Italy followed the same path as they had in the past years. He had been chosen vice president by Chávez in 2012, and after his death, he took over as interim president until the election, when he took effective authority. During a 2013 visit to Rome, Maduro expressed his desire to strengthen financial, industrial, agricultural, and commercial cooperation with Italy, with a particular focus on the fields of education and infrastructure.

With the deteriorating political and economic situations in Venezuela, an increasing number of Italians living there have come out in support of the anti-chavist resistance. In 2010, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs pledged full support of Italian industries in Venezuela, stressing the two nations' economic and political ties. Chavez, on the other hand, believed that the country was in the midst of a cyclical period of history marked by the alternating of democratic and authoritarian systems, and that a more favorable condition to the interests of the Italian community would be restored shortly. In 2014, the Italian national airline canceled Caracas-Rome flights, making the journey home longer and more expensive, and the Italian National Social Security Institute (INPS) penalized Italian pensioners in Venezuela by applying an unfavorable exchange rate to pensions. The Italian community has been pleading for generations with the government into paying more attention to its difficulties, such as the decrease in purchasing power, lack of primary goods, and increasing diffculty of medical assistance. In this regard, the motion on Venezuela's crisis was passed in 2017, which committed the Italian government to implement initiatives to encourage the Venezuelan government to display a constructive attitude toward resolving the country's critical situation; to commit the Venezuelan government to restore the separation of powers and prepare an assistance plan to fellow countrymen living in Venezuela, including through a strengthened diplomatic-consular structure.

Manifestation against Maduro's government [Photo] - IAI
Manifestation against Maduro's government [Photo] - IAI

In recent months, the Italian-Venezuelan community backed the self-proclaimed interim, President Juan Guaidó. While there was call for immediate elections, other demands included releasing political prisoners, and the repatriation of those in exile. Angelo Palmieri, a representative of the Italian community in Venezuela, submitted an open letter to Italian President Sergio Mattarella in February, requesting that Guaidó be recognized as the temporary president, nominated by the National Assembly - the only legally constituted entity in Venezuela. On January 1, 2019, a significant result was achieved: an agreement was ratified between the proficient Venezuelan authorities and the Italian Government, on the possibility of distributing pharmaceutical drugs to the Italian community, having the support of the Italian Embassy in Caracas and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Despite these advances, Italy now finds itself in a stance of neutrality, torn between backing Guaidó - in response to calls from Italians living in Venezuela - and honoring the views of political groups within the Italian government.

The tough situation that arose as a consequence of the supposed Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela prompted a large bulk of the Italian community, which had roots in the country for generations, to depart and return to their homeland. Although the promised land they had traveled to turned into a barren wasteland, rife with violence and corruption. Migratory movements to Italy have increased dramatically in recent years, particularly since the death of Hugo Chávez. The centuries-old Italian ideal regarding Venezuela has come crashing down against an impenetrable barrier, and the community that has contributed so much to the economic success of a country so far away from its origin wishes nothing more than to return home and start over.


Image references


Author Photo

Federica Panico

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