Venezuela is the eerie endgame of modern politics

Over time, Chávez successfully polarized society into groups of fanatical supporters and equally dedicated enemies—warring tribes who felt they had little in common. Some of the differences were based on class or race, but not all. One Venezuelan I met—he owned a bookstore before people could no longer afford to buy books—told me that he fell out with a university friend who’d become a fanatical Chavista. They never made up.

Even now, polarization is built into the streetscape of Caracas. In the middle-class Chacao district, which is controlled by the opposition, the names of activists murdered by the regime are painted onto a fence that stands near a square where many anti-Maduro demonstrations have been held. In the working-class neighborhoods, one sees pro-regime murals and billboards, though many of these defy the clichés. Some of them, heavy on Venezuelan flags and “No Trump” slogans, could easily be described as nationalist rather than socialist. Others—the paintings of Chávez’s eyes, for example—belong more strictly to what can only be described as a cult of personality…

Polarization adds to this cynicism by creating suspicion and mistrust on both sides; people hear politicians shouting diametrically opposing slogans or presenting contradictory facts, and their instinct is to cover their ears. Then they retreat inward—or they leave, in vast numbers. The 4.5 million people who are thought to have left Venezuela in recent years have done so either by walking across the border into neighboring countries or by seeking to study or work abroad. Historically, Venezuela was a magnet for immigrants, not a source of refugees. The current exodus has left enormous gaps in many institutions, broken up families, and destroyed circles of friends.