by Roisin Murray
29 May 2019
For most of the late twentieth-century, Venezuela was considered the most stable democracy in Latin America, held up as an example for its volatile Latin American neighbours. Venezuela is renowned for being a country rich in natural assets. It is a major producer of oil, as well as a manufacturer of other goods such as gold, diamonds and natural gas. Yet, despite the abundance of its resources, a combination of chronic government mismanagement, corruption and a failed socialism project has meant that Venezuela is on the brink of implosion. The fate of Venezuela is key for the West as the Venezuelan crisis risks wreaking havoc with the international oil market, which would be particularly damaging to its main oil customer, the United States. Challenges to Nicholas Maduro’s legitimacy as President during the escalating political situation have begged the question: who is to blame for the collapse of Venezuela?
This question cannot be answered without considering Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Venezuela’s socialism was the brainchild of Chavez, but his death in 2013 meant he failed to experience the widespread poverty and mass emigration induced partially by his policies. In order to address the question of where culpability lies for the current crisis in Venezuela, this article will scrutinise Chavez and Maduro’s policies and their social impact on the Venezuelan people. This will help to contextualise the origins of the unrest in Venezuela and demonstrate to what extent the cause of the chaos can be attributed to Maduro’s policies, or inherited from his predecessor. Ultimately, this article will seek to demonstrate that Chavez orchestrated the disaster, while Maduro simply executed it.
Venezuela’s foray into socialism can be traced to Hugo Chavez, an army officer who called for a ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ drawing on the legacy of Simon Bolivar, the leader of Venezuelan liberation. Chavez was elected president in 1998 after two unsuccessful government coups. He won the election on the platform of redistributing power to the people, a refreshing divergence from the corruption that had dominated the politics of the mainstream political parties for the preceding twenty-five years. In reality, however, Chavez’s presidency did not signify an end to corruption in Venezuela. Rather, he orchestrated a regime that was run according to patronage and nepotism. Furthermore, the ambiguity surrounding the government’s finances also contributed to Venezuela’s poor score on the Transparency International corruption perception index, which ranked the country 165th out of 180 countries in 2012. Nevertheless, the hallmark of Chavez’s rule was his ‘socialist’ agenda, which manifested itself in high government spending, redistribution of wealth and the nationalisation of Venezuelan industries. Chavez managed to win the trust of the working classes by injecting public money into social welfare programmes. One of the most notable merits of his government was the transformation of the ‘ranchos’ or shanty towns. However, as Webber highlights, his leftist, socialist ideology was not a permanent feature of his leadership. Rather, when Chavez entered office as ‘moderately reformist’, his socialist policies conversely began to develop in response to challenges from the right. And, even then, Chavez’s pseudo socialism remained built upon a market-focused approach to the predominantly private-sector economy.
Nicholas Maduro assumed power in 2013 following the death of Chavez, his former mentor. Previously a bus driver, he was quick to emphasise his humble origins, immediately establishing an affiliation with the working classes. Maduro appeared fully invested in Chavez’s socialist brainchild. He continued to rule Venezuela with greatly regulated price controls and a highly centralised, hands-on economy- all hallmarks of aspiring socialist regimes. He lacked the presence and charisma of Chavez, but secured legitimacy for his actions by constantly referring to Chavez’s memory and the longevity of his legacy. In this sense, Chavez’s shadow was never far from Maduro’s course of action. Unfortunately, Maduro’s tendency to follow the precedent set by Chavez was particularly replicated in his use of corrupt governance to rule. He centralised his power by establishing a more loyal Constitution Assembly under the rule of a new Constitution, thereby undercutting the opponent led legislature, the National Assembly. He further secured the allegiance of the military by offering it control over profitable businesses. For both Chavez and Maduro, corrupt practices seemed to be instrumental in propping up their regimes.
Chavez’s socialist dream was primarily financed by the surging price of oil, a material that Venezuela is fortuitously rich in and built its entire economic infrastructure around. Large investments in social programmes, facilitated by the country’s oil reserves, transformed the lives of poor Venezuelans and did much to bolster Chavez’s approval rating. However, the gains that Chavez made for the poor of Venezuela were negated by his eventual decimation of the Venezuelan economy under the auspices of implementing ‘socialism’. Government overspending caused rampant inflation, culminating in a recession in 2014 shortly after Chavez’s death. Furthermore, foreign investment stagnated under Chavez: revenue produced by foreign investment in 2004 amounted to $1.5 billion, in comparison to almost $5 billion in 1998. Culpability for the economic ills of Venezuela cannot be far removed from Chavez’s hands. As Corrales and Penfold point out, Chavez’s level of power over the economy was unparalleled, even in comparison to other leftist regimes of the era.
Venezuela’s persistent over-reliance on oil, initiated by Chavez and inherited by Maduro, became a contentious issue when the oil boom imploded and prices plummeted around the time of Chavez’s death in 2013. Maduro’s solution to prop up the failing economy was to print more money, thus devaluing the Bolivarian currency further. The combination of these ineffective fiscal economic solutions, widespread corruption and gross mismanagement precipitated an economic and political collapse. Nevertheless, Maduro attempted to continue the socialist legacy that Chavez had begun, despite the economic circumstances rendering this course of action unfeasible. Maduro increased the national minimum wage on six separate occasions in 2018, but the positive effects of this move were negligible given the rate of hyperinflation. Maduro is a living proof that Chavez’s socialist experiment was completely unfeasible in the long-term, but stubborn persistence regardless signed Venezuela’s death warrant.
In the short-term, life for Venezuelans had been rejuvenated by Chavez’s measures. Between 2005 and 2014 unemployment rates and poverty rates fell by 50% and infant mortality plummeted. Workers were met with increased increments to the minimum wage, and literacy levels increased sharply. However, the improved lives of Venezuelans cannot be attributed solely to Chavez, and to do so risks overstating the impact of his policies at the expense of minimising the role of oil. As Canon argued, ‘the oil boom has without a doubt contributed an inordinate amount to the current upswing in growth and reduction in poverty.’ And even when society gave the impression of flourishing, this Chavez inspired ‘age of prosperity’ was built on shaky, unsustainable foundations. Chavez’s policies drummed up substantial national debt, and this ‘boom’ paved the way for the inevitable ‘bust’ when the oil prices crashed.
Nobody has felt the effect of this escalating hyperinflation more than the citizens of Venezuela. Inflation levels have peaked at 1.7 million per cent, obliterating people’s life savings. Savings in bolivars equivalent to $10,000 at the beginning of 2018 only amounted to 59 cents by the end of the year. Widespread malnutrition has emerged due to basic food shortages, with Venezuelan citizens losing a median of twenty-four pounds in weight during 2017. Venezuela’s healthcare system also lies in tatters. Hospitals are lacking in vital supplies, and many HIV-positive and cancer patients are facing shortages of their medication. The growing dissatisfaction with Venezuelan life is reflected in the rate at which citizens are fleeing the country; 1.5 million people emigrated between 2014 and 2017. For those that remain in Venezuela dissent is not easy to express. Censorship of the media obscures the reality of the crisis and the Venezuelan police harshly subdue protesters with tear gas, and on occasion, bullets. Maduro’s recent measures have also resulted in the incarceration of protestors as political prisoners, causing an uproar from human rights groups.
Maduro is bearing the brunt of the criticism from the international community on the handling of the Venezuelan crisis- and rightly so. His economic ‘solutions’ to the recession have only worsened Venezuela’s economic position, he has rejected vital international aid and his authoritarian response to dissenting voices has demonstrated his unwillingness to be held accountable. But it would be injudicious to forget Chavez’s part in determining the crisis. The situation he created formed a set of unsustainable preconditions that Maduro was bound by when he inherited leadership of the country. His policies, that promised to uplift the lower classes, were inadvertently responsible for their being plunged into poverty years down the line. His irresponsible economic measures and unsustainable ideals set Venezuela on a course to crash and burn- but just not during his lifetime. Both Maduro and Chavez should be held equally accountable, whether they are here to face the charges or not.
Roisin Murray is currently working as a researcher at a private security consultancy. She holds an MA in International Relations from King’s College London. Her research interests include diplomacy, authoritarian regimes and counter-terrorism.
Canon, Barry. Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.
Ellner, Steve and Miguel Tinker Salas. “The Venezuelan Exceptionalism Thesis: Separating Myth from Reality.” Latin American Perspectives 32, no.2 (2005): 5-19, https://www.jstor.org/stable/30040273.
Webber, Jeffery R. “Venezeula Under Chavez: The Prospects and Limitations of Twenty-First Century Socialism, 1999-2009.” Socialist Studies: the Journal of the Society for Socialist Studies 6, no.1 (2010): 11-44, http://dx.doi.org/10.18740/S47W2R.
Corrales, Javier and Michael Penfold. The Dragon in the Tropics: Hugo Chavez and the Political Economy of Revolution in Venezuela. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2011.
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