There continues to be a mass exodus from Venezuela, which has seen about 5 million people, more than 10% of the population, flee the country. They are attempting to escape hyperinflation, severe shortages of food and medicine, a sharp increase in violence, among other terrors. This economic and political crisis didn’t happen overnight, we have to go back at least as far as the presidency of Hugo Cháves.
Cháves came to power in 1999 and his tactics were characterized by populism: big, sweeping ideas people could get behind as he promised to improve the lives of the poor. He was a big fan of Simón Bolívar, the military and political leader who led several South American states to independence in the 1800’s. Bolívar had a dream of a Pan-American future, something Cháves wanted to emulate in what he termed the Bolivarian Revolution.
The aims of the Bolivarian Revolution were to create a Latin American coalition, champion nationalism and encourage a state-led economy. Cháves was able to spend liberally because the oil industry was doing well at the time. He made investments in social programs improving access to healthcare, increasing literacy rates, and contributing to an overall reduction of poverty. His presidency was situated as part of the “pink tide” of the early 2000s, a wave of socialist styles of government that swept the continent including leaders like Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.
But the good times didn’t last as the oil industry declined and his measures like price caps on consumer goods and currency controls began to backfire. Sanctions by the U.S. also contributed to the worsening economy. In 2010, Cháves declared an “economic war” on the bourgeois of Venezuela following a decline in government revenues, marking the beginning of the crisis. In 2013, he abruptly died of cancer and his successor, Nicolás Maduro came to power. Maduro continued on with many of his policies but discontent among people started to rise with inflation skyrocketing, people starving and violence escalating.
A helpful way to understand how quickly things have been changing is the Bloomberg Cafe con Leche index, which has been tracking the price of a cup of coffee in Caracas. Its price has jumped to 90,000 bolivars from 2,000 bolivars over the past 12 months, an increase of 4,400 percent.
In 2017 Maduro denounced the National Assembly, mostly made up of opposition members, and instead created a Constituent Assembly. Constituent Assemblies are meant to overhaul the constitution and when Cháves made one back in 1999, he did so following a referendum. Seeing this move merely a way for Maduro to maximize his power, opposition members abstained from participating in the election, as such it was filled with government loyalists.
The UN has stated that Maduro’s government has repeatedly used violence to silence opponents and instill fear in the population in order to solidify power. There have been multiple protests and many deaths and opposition members have effectively been barred from participating in democracy. Many are in exile, some are in prison, while others have been subjected to violence, torture, and extrajudicial killings.
In 2018, Maduro entered his second six-year term following widely contested elections. In January 2019, Juan Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly declared himself president citing various articles in the constitution. While he wields no real power given the existence of the Constituent Assembly, and while the military still backs Maduro, he has the support of the United States and 50 other countries, while China and Russia continue to support Maduro.
More recently, in January 2020, Guaidó’s leadership was challenged. An election to make Luis Parra speaker was held without quorum, and later Juan Guaidó was sworn in by torchlight at a different location as he was blocked by police from entering the National Assembly.
We seem to be entering a new era with the hopeful progressive policies of the pink tide an almost distant memory, while we forge ahead into a time of heavy-handed, authoritarian style tactics. While Cháves briefly brought prosperity and hope, the economy has imploded under Maduro resulting in a man clinging to power via illegitimate means. His human rights abuses are inexcusable and it’s clear he must leave office in order for free and fair elections to take place.
But is that likely to happen? Or will we see Juan Guaidó thrust into power with the backing of the United States? While I’m not arguing for the continuation of the tragedy that has been endured under Maduro, I am cautious of any figure that is backed by the U.S.
The U.S. has a long and devastating history of overthrowing left-wing governments that don’t serve their economic interests. A key historic example is the ousting of democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 after he moved to nationalize the copper industry. Instead the U.S. established the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that committed egregious human rights abuses against its own people until it ended in 1990.
U.S. military intervention is something Latin American nations have dealt with since their emancipation from Spain.
Like many, I want to see socialist policies that improve the lives of the poor in Venezuela, and it’s obvious that Maduro can’t be that. But I am cautious and watching intently as to what sort of leader Juan Guaidó will be as he’s backed by the United States, who has a habit of removing socialist presidencies and implanting right-wing governments that serve their specific interests.