The Venezuelan Crisis: A Brief History

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Venezuela is broken. The country has fallen to a state of poverty, violence, and despair on a scale hitherto undreamt of. Of course, it was not always in such dire straits. Typically, when trying to solve a problem it is best to stop and look at the root causes of the problem before proceeding to fix it. In the case of Venezuela, it is critical to look at the history of the nation, in order to find an area of notable change to pinpoint where the problems began arising. That area of extraordinary change came in 1999, when Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela. Under Chávez, Venezuela underwent drastic change, under the guise of Socialism, when it was in fact a far left authoritarian regime. The Chávez administration put all economic drive in Venezuela on its oil reserves, and began funding its controversial socialist changes with the oil sales. This short-term surface success was not to last. Thus, the ongoing crisis in Venezuela is the result of over a decade of corrupt, authoritarian rule under Hugo Chávez. The breaking point occurred in 2014, when the oil prices fell and inflation rose, forcing many citizens to flee.

Before Hugo Chávez, Venezuela was reaping the benefits of being an oil state. Unlike many countries in Latin America, Venezuela had avoided major debt and was stable. Even the working class and poor had enjoyed food subsidies, cheap public transportation (due to the low price of oil), and better than average access to education. Like most Westernized Latin American states, it had its fair share of corrupt leaders. However, it had managed to avoid dictators since the 1950s and had enjoyed little to no interference from the United States in its affairs. The sensation of peace and stability would begin to waver with a coup in 1992, led by a young Hugo Chávez, a lieutenant colonel who loved to steal the media spotlight. Another coup later that year would occur, while Chávez was in prison from the first coup, though the initial one was by far the more important one. It is estimated around 300 people died in these attempted coups. Although the coups were unsuccessful in overthrowing the government, Chávez got something more critical: a platform from which to speak. He had become a household name in Venezuela, a Che-like figure who tried a violent overthrow of what he perceived was a corrupt capitalist system.

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A young Chávez during the 1992 coup, making headlines for himself.

By the time Venezuela held elections in 1998, Chávez had gained enough traction to run successfully as a candidate. He was charismatic, supported by many members of the military, cameras were constantly on him, and perhaps most importantly, he was mestizo; that is, he was a fresh shakeup to the constant criollo/white leaders Venezuela always had. Likewise, his Socialist platform garnered mass appeal to the working class, and most especially the poor, who would end up overwhelmingly voting Chávez into power. With around 56 percent of the vote, Chávez won the election, instigating a new spark of nationalism and a state-led economic structure. This phenomenon was “The Bolivarian Revolution,” named in honor of the Venezuelan figure who led Latin America into independence, Simón Bolívar. Just like Bolívar, Chávez would prove himself to be a caudillo (strongman) figure, and just as critical to Venezuela’s history.

Nearly immediately after taking office, Chávez began to draft an entirely new constitution for Venezuela, completing the new constitution by 2000. The new constitution emphasized Venezuela as a multicultural and multiethnic state, but it also abolished the congress and senate, allowed the military to vote in elections and assume political positions, and increased a president’s term from five to six years. On top of that, though it managed to expand rights for indigenous groups and women, it was silent on Afro-Latinos’ rights; Venezuelan governments had a long history of downplaying racial and class problems. It would seem, despite his positive rhetoric for his fellow mestizos, Chávez was just as silent on the Black population as his predecessors. To cap off his new constitution, Chávez ran for office with the claim of the new constitution requiring an election yet again, winning in 2000, gaining another 6 years of tenure, on top of the 2 years he had already served up to that point.

Chávez would put Chavismo to the test in his social policies, and to his credit, managed to boost the well-being of the previously marginalized indigenous people, the poor, and a decent number of the working class. It also helped that Chávez himself was a gifted public speaker, oozing with charisma and energy. There was a rise in wages, decrease in inflation, and attempts to hear out the voices of the people. Initially, the Chávez era ran by a philosophy of building things from the bottom up, but rapidly, it later often went from the top down; essentially, from a passive revolution to a radical overhaul. Chávez’ social changes under his Socialist platform were a new radical form of far left thought, too different to simply be called Socialism, hence the coining of a new term-“Socialism of the 21st Century,” as Chávez promoted it, which was later referred to as Chavismo. Of course, the government did not just enact reform to the nation; it also began to change its approach towards its handling of the opposition.

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One of Chávez’ many populist rallies.

A major reason for the Chávez administration’s more apparent turn toward the radical side came when it faced more open opposition, specifically in the 2002 coup, when Chávez was briefly ousted as president. The opposition involved in the coup feared that Chávez’ administration was becoming increasingly undemocratic; many previous Chávez supporters also turned on the administration in the coup, including many in the military. Notably, this coup ended with less bloodshed than the 1992 coups did, with somewhere between 19–60 people dead and 150 people injured. Most, if not all, were the demonstrators, shot under Chávez’ orders. This military-approach violence was not a new tactic. In 1992, the Chávez-led coup ended with a few hundred dead, many of them killed by the Chávez forces, whose intent was to kill the sitting president and anyone in their way. After the 2002 coup, Chávez began to crack down harder on the opposition to stay in power. The subtle undermining of the nation became more apparent.

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The 2002 coup.

Chávez began to act more openly as a populist demagogue by the time of the parliament and presidential elections for Venezuela in 2004 and 2006. There is overwhelming evidence that the Chávez administration cheated in these elections to solidify its power and stack the branches of government in Chávez’ favor. Chávez maintained support with a base that was fairly diverse, as he began to nationalize many industries and began to work with Chinese, Cuban, and Russian investors, rewarding heads of companies and interested entrepreneurs with louder voices in representation and cash, and expropriated property. The level of corruption far exceeded that of previous presidents.

The press began to face censorship and continual questions of authenticity from Chávez, and soon, state-sanctioned radio stations, programs, news sources, websites, and speakers began to appear as the only major sources of media. Typically, independent stations would be imposed with unreasonably high fines from the government, then, a front company created by the government would step in to fund them, but only under the allowance that programs were sympathetic to the Chávez administration. In 2009, amendments were made to the constitution, including abolishing term limits for the president, after failing to do so in 2007, when a massive series of protests followed the attempt.

Gradually, Venezuela began to show signs of serious trouble in its economic sectors as well. Chávez would fire the heads of companies who disagreed with his policies, such as the gutting of thousands of PDVSA (the main Venezuelan oil and gas company) workers who instigated a strike in late 2002 (following the ousting coup) when Chávez began the nationalization process. This meant technical experts were gone, and soon, Chávez began to subsidize the oil to other nations that were friendly to his regime, such as Cuba. Because of these policies and others like it, Venezuela’s access to its petroleum reserves wavered, government debt began racking up, and money laundering began trickling to all areas of the government. The other reforms enacted by the government that were enacting positive change were also not cost-effective, exacerbating the problem of the government debt, with Chavista leaders also tending to look out for themselves rather than the people they were supposed to be working for and representing. Things were only going to escalate further.

In 2011, Chávez announced he was suffering from an undisclosed type of pelvic area cancer. It was critical to his image to show no signs of weakness, and by the time the next presidential campaign came in 2012, he announced he was cured. He was re-elected in October of 2012, with the same troubling margin of votes indicating he cheated. In December of that year, he announced his cancer had returned and that he would receive treatment in Cuba. It was around this time that he asked for vice president to succeed him. The successor was Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver and trade union leader. On March 5th, 2013, Chávez died of his cancer, leaving behind a looming inflation rate of 56 percent in Venezuela, the highest in the entire world at the time, and mass poverty and violence becoming ever more rampant than it was before he took office.

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Nicolás Maduro, the current (contested) president of Venezuela.

The even more unpredictable Maduro tackled the presidency with no holds barred. Just a month after the death of Chávez, Maduro had to earn his presidency in another presidential election, running against Henrique Capriles, who previously ran against Chávez and came close to winning, despite the fraud. Maduro’s campaign savagely slandered Capriles, censored opposition ads, accused him of being gay, mocked his Jewish ancestry, and accused him of running transvestite and prostitution rings to dissuade voters. Maduro won by just 1.49 percent of the votes; Capriles claimed Maduro’s stacked administration cheated, which it almost certainly did.

Maduro’s grip on Venezuela was even harsher, slamming critics and allies alike who stood in his way. In 2014, everything Chávez enabled finally reached a breaking point. By making the country completely dependent on oil alone, it served as a crutch. The oil prices fell in 2014, and Venezuela felt the crash harder than any nation. Inflation would begin to skyrocket. By 2015, inflation in Venezuela reached 180.9 percent. In 2017, one hundred dollars’ worth of money could not buy a single egg. Appropriate health care became unaffordable, blackouts became frequent, water was becoming less sanitary, violence increased, poverty gripped all classes of Venezuela, and a mass exodus began.

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A chart showing the inflation, leading towards the beginning of 2019. Note that the chart’s measuring point for inflation begins in the 20000% range.

Venezuela became a failed state in the 2010s. In 2017, most Venezuelans suffered from malnutrition, and lost an average of 24 pounds across the board. Nine in ten Venezuelans live in poverty as of 2017, and one in ten have left the nation. Children especially have been affected by the malnutrition, with infant and child mortality increasing dramatically, and 21 percent of pregnant women suffered moderate or severe malnutrition in 2018. The capital, Caracas, has been a contender or has won the title for the worst murder rate in the world for years, with 111 homicides per 100,000 people. The diaspora of the Venezuelans has also caused a regional crisis, with sick Venezuelans rushing to bordering nations for treatment, and Brazil especially seeing a massive uptick in measles, HIV, and tuberculosis on the cities bordering Venezuela as of late 2018. Maduro has tried to maintain his image and the façade of the government as well, increasing the censorship of what could come in or out of Venezuela. In 2017, the government issued an indefinite ban on all protests, imprisoned political adversaries, and dissolved the National Assembly.

Venezuela has remained in an abysmal and worsening state. As of 2019, oil accounts for 22 percent of the country’s GDP and over 80 percent of its exports. Maduro remains in power, holding a contentious presidency, while his rival, Juan Guaidó, is also claiming legitimacy to the presidency. Venezuela’s National Assembly declared Maduro was incompetent, but the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (which was previously stacked by Chávez) defended Maduro, worsening the political divide. Thus far, the United States, most of Latin America, and most of Europe recognize Guaidó as president; Iran, China, Cuba, Russia, Syria, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and other allies of the Chávez presidency recognize Maduro. While countries bicker over the question of intervention and leadership, the people continue to suffer. That being said, the United States has had a terrible track record for intervening in foreign affairs, particularly in Latin America. None of this has begun to address the disastrous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and just this week, it was reported by U.N. investigators that Maduro’s government has been engaging in crimes against humanity. [37] Among these crimes listed in the 411 page report are arbitrary killings, torture, sexual violence, and targeted assassination of opponents.

Venezuela now faces a question of when it can recover its stability-if anytime soon, and with or without intervention. While I cannot say with certainty what Venezuela can or should do, besides curb the reliance on oil, I believe it is safe to say the causation is the reckless presidency of Hugo Chávez, and the continued and worsening instability is the fault of his successor, Nicolás Maduro. People have suffered greatly under their rule, and the people in the world dealing with the fallout need to realize this fact, and accept it, to avoid similar dictators. This was not a “Socialist utopia” by any means; indeed, Chavismo is a better term, for it was his system and not the people’s. Socialism depends on the means of production, their distribution, and their exchange being in control of the masses.

For decades, Venezuela faced years of stability. It was with the introduction of Chávez, a populist demagogue, that the country began to slide into instability. In short, we should not, under any circumstances, point to Venezuela as a shining example of Socialism at work, but nor can we decry the situation as the “failures of Socialism.” In time, Venezuela may find its way to peace again, but the current crisis is likely going to remain for an unbearable amount of time.

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Caracas, the capital of Venezuela.

WORKS CITED:

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. BBC. 19 April 2013.

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Broner, Tamara Taraciuk. “The Venezuelan Exodus: The Need for a Regional Response to an Unprecedented Migration Crisis.” Human Rights Watch. January 15, 2019.

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[37] Cumming-Bruce, Nick. “Venezuelan Leaders Implicated in Crimes Against Humanity by U.N. Investigators.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Sept. 2020.

Spanish/Venezuelan ‘Murican. I’ve got a degree in film and in history, and a bad appetite for puns. Follow me so that I can survive in this world. RIP Harambe.

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