Venezuela is in crisis, but it has been building over the last few years. A combination of factors have led to this crisis, including a low global oil price, drought, government mismanagement, and a dysfunctional currency system causing hyperinflation. The end result is what we are seeing in the news – food, power, and medicine shortages, increased crime, and cuts to government services. But the exaggerated claims by the mainstream media are just that – exaggerated. The main complaint with food is that it has become a class issue. There is plenty of food for the rich, the middle class have fewer choices and meat is too expensive, and the working class and poor are being forced to line up to get the price-controlled food which often runs out. And there are fewer choices among the diet staples this year. This is far from ideal but also a far cry from a mass starvation.
How did this crisis come about? It depends on who you listen to. Both socialism and capitalism are blamed. President Maduro, the opposition party, and the U.S. government are blamed. Policy, bureaucracy, and corruption are also thrown into the mix. The truth lies somewhere along the spectrum.
In December 2015, a coalition of opposing parties won the legislative elections. But the result was less about a vote for the opposition and more about sending Maduro a message. The opposition coalition, consisting of parties across the political range have not tried to hide their political or economic agendas. This could return the country to the neoliberal right. People are tired of corruption, economic mismanagement and political repression, but it doesn’t mean they support the opposition. Mostly people just want to eat.
Maduro’s response has been to declare a state of emergency in what has amounted to a ruling by decree. The Supreme Court which supports Maduro voided the election results and granted the emergency powers. The opposition has responded with a petition to bring about a recall referendum to demand Maduro’s removal.
There is also support among the people for what is known as critical chavismo – a following that promotes neither bureaucracy, nor the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, any criticism of the government is seen as counterrevolutionary. It has also been difficult to organize support when the discussion always seems to lead back to food. The expressed opinion here is that the government should be more open minded to these criticisms. Otherwise, it becomes easier for the right to return to power.
Maduro has openly claimed the U.S. is planning to act on behalf of Venezuela’s right. Some actually do believe the crisis has been caused by the right. Maduro suspected a coup around May 15 which aimed to induce riots which would have increased the need to apply the Inter-American Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS). If the OAS applies the Charter at some point in the future Venezuela will be removed from the OAS. But the organization has the reputation as a vehicle for the U.S. to put in place neoliberal policies. Maduro has asked other Latin American countries to stand by and not isolate his government. He has the support of Cuba who has called the OAS imperialistic. OAS members have so far rejected the removal of Venezuela.
There are a number of well known examples where the U.S. has intervened in other countries’ affairs to implement a neoliberal government. This process has been accompanied by the mainstream media presenting a one-sided picture of events. We then start to view the events through these eyes without question and believe the U.S. has no choice but to intervene. In the case of Venezuela it is the media presenting the incorrect position that the country is close to collapse. The mainstream media is wrongly laying the groundwork for foreign intervention.
Of course there is legitimate concern over who will win the U.S. election in November. If Clinton is in the driver’s seat there may be some kind of intervention in Venezuela which will be looked on as necessary to overcome Maduro. This is not so far removed from what happened in Libya. But if the government were to be replaced and neoliberalism implemented the results would be devastating. There would be a reintroduction of austerity measures that have repeatedly failed in other parts of Europe and Latin America. It would be wrong to subject the people to programs that punish them for things caused by government corruption and incompetence. Venezuela has already been victim to decades of neoliberal governments until Chavez came to power. But it can never be underestimated that the right waits tactically to take advantage of any crisis to overthrow governments representing social and political progress in Latin America.
Looking at the history of U.S. and Venezuela relations may help shed some light on where we are at this point. Relations were good under the conservative Caldera government, but deteriorated when the socialist Chavez came to power. George W. Bush was accused of a coup attempt in 2002. Chavez took back control over the country’s oil reserves which challenged U.S. interests. Venezuela’s oil profits were used to fund various programs, including health, education, and employment which helped reduce poverty. Chavez’s affinity with Cuba was also a source of tension with the U.S. But despite the differences economic relations were not affected. By 2006, the U.S. was Venezuela’s principal trading partner.
Relations have been better under Obama who would perhaps want a different leadership in Venezuela, but U.S. interference has not been a factor in this current crisis. The U.S. and Venezuela still have close economic ties, despite Obama’s Executive Order which targets persons involved with human rights abuses in the country. The Order does not target the people or economy. In 2015, both countries made renewed efforts towards diplomacy. Business continues due to both countries’ reciprocal economic interests. I suspect Obama is more concerned with Venezuela becoming a failed state than leading a U.S. intervention due to its position as one of the top five suppliers of oil to the U.S.
But even with media bias and a certain myopic vision some things can not be overlooked. It would be unfair to claim Venezuala’s government is a shining star. Many government policies have been unsustainable due to a failure to diversify the economy or increase productivity. Its institutions have also been undermined by allowing indefinite re-election and absolute control of the branches of government. It is not without its own myopia to condone a corrupt and undemocratic government who say they speak for the people. To ignore the human rights violations under Maduro is to be wearing blinkers. If socialist governments are being challenged in Latin America it can’t be singly blamed on the U.S.
Also, despite all the good Chavez brought to the country, a sustainable economy or democratized institutions were not the focus. The country has never moved past its dependency on oil for export earnings. Economic diversification never happened. Because of this it has actually been cheaper to buy imports rather than produce them locally. So when the oil price crashed the country couldn’t afford to buy necessities, such as food and medicine. And as is the case with any scarce commodity in demand, that which is available never reaches those who cannot afford to pay the price. Everyone, including the black market, all seem to have their fingers in the pie.
So putting all this together presents a very complex picture. Venezuela is in crisis not because its socialist government is the wrong ideology, but rather because of its dependence on the price of oil. A rejection of Maduro is not a rejection of the left. Maduro is a populist leader who has stepped too far into the autocratic mode.
What is to be done? Latin America needs to become more integrated and independent from countries like the U.S. Economic policy changes are needed to address the currency crisis, increase diversification away from oil, and ensure adequate general supplies and services for the country to function. In the meantime, the people of Venezuela are busy planting food, bartering, and building networks of production and distribution of basic goods.
The main players in this crisis are Maduro, the opposition coalition, and the U.S. But this media directed assault on the reality of what is happening in Venezuela is misguided and intentional at the least. It’s always so much better to just tell it as it is. It will be interesting to see what happens after the election.