The nation of Venezuela is headed toward economic and social collapse, yet there is little international attention being paid to the ongoing crisis.
Venezuela’s economic and social crisis continues unabated. The decline started under the rule of Hugo Chavez in 1999 and accelerated upon his death in 2013. Under the rule of successor Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has been in a steady decline for almost two decades now. The country’s economy is in continual free fall and civil liberties and freedoms are being repressed at an unprecedented rate. A complete collapse within the country appears inevitable. Venezuela is now at a point where a complete collapse and a humanitarian, economic, and geopolitical crisis are near at hand.
Background briefing – how did Venezuela get this way?
Scarcely a decade ago, Venezuela was one of the strongest-performing economies in the whole of South America. Aided by one of the largest reserves of oil in the world, Venezuela’s living standards were the envy of Latin America. When Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1999, the situation quickly changed. Undertaking what has been termed a ‘Bolivarian revolution’, after Simon Bolivar, Chavez set about radically changing the trajectory of Venezuela, from a relatively free-market democracy to a socialist republic.
As part of the Bolivarian revolution, Chavez sought to nationalise major industries, including the oil trade. The overall economy and industry at large in Venezuela narrowed as focus was increasingly placed on the oil trade. Chavez used the money from oil exports for increasingly exorbitant social spending, which was unsustainable. When oil prices began to plummet in 2014, inflation skyrocketed, as did Venezuelan debt. GDP has shrunk by over a third in the last five years alone. As the economy was not diverse enough to adapt to these changes, and the Maduro regime would not relinquish economic control to private enterprise, fiscal collapse ensued.
A humanitarian crisis in real time
The collapse of Venezuela’s economy and the ever-tightening repression of freedoms coincide. Without the ability to maintain a façade of legitimacy through generous social spending, political freedom and civil liberties have steadily eroded. The situation has deteriorated to the point where Freedom House, an organisation that conducts research on human rights and political freedom, changed its report on Venezuela from ‘Partially Free’ to ‘Not Free’ in 2017. Political opposition has been heavily repressed as Nicolas Maduro amended the constitution to give the Presidency far more executive power. Dozens of journalists, opposition politicians, and activists have been arrested and jailed as a result of the regime’s attempt to stifle all forms of dissent. Throughout the latter half of 2017, many protests and demonstrations have taken place against Maduro’s government. These have usually escalated into violence as police forcefully intervened. Over 100 people have already died in protests so far, this year alone.
The crippling effects of Venezuela’s economic collapse have resulted in a complete meltdown of civil society. Homicide rates have soared in recent years. Venezuela now has one of the highest rates of murder in the entire world. Living standards have deteriorated across the board. Basic medical supplies are almost impossible to obtain. Many people, including children, are dying from preventable diseases. The situation is made worse by the Maduro government’s refusal to accept any form of outside humanitarian aid or financial assistance.
Where is the international community’s concern?
There is currently relatively little commentary and fanfare on the issue of Venezuela. The majority of attention and reporting on foreign policy issues is focused on North Korea and the Middle East. The Venezuela crisis, however, is one that requires just as much attention as the aforementioned situations. This is particularly true from the United States’ perspective, as Venezuela is far closer than either of the previous two antagonists. There is also more potential for a direct effect on the United States’ immediate economic and national security interests.
The United States clearly has an outsized role and interest in finding a solution to the crisis, owing to its geographical proximity and influence. Yet, the Trump administration’s response to the crisis, as well as those of other nations, has been found wanting. Current sanctions and policies toward Venezuela clearly are not working. Meditation efforts from other Latin American nations between the government and opposition parties have produced precious few tangible outcomes. Despite empty condemnations from the United Nations and piecemeal sanctions from other countries, Venezuela’s slide toward collapse continues apace. Maduro must face genuine sanctions, economic and political, in order to bring about a change of course for Venezuela.
Why did Western leftists support Chavez and Maduro?
During Hugo Chavez’ rule and the early days of the Maduro regime, many western Leftists supported Venezuela. A notorious example is Jeremy Corbyn, UK Labour leader. A particularly embarrassing tweet shows him praising Hugo Chavez as making a ‘massive contribution’ to Venezuela. Corbyn was also recently forced to remove a video from his website showing him paying tribute to Chavez and Bolivarian socialism.
Thanks Hugo Chavez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared. He made massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) March 5, 2013
Even when it was clear that the economic policies Venezuela was pursuing were disastrous, elements of the left still supported Maduro. Owen Jones, the prominent British socialist commentator, wrote an effusive piece on Venezuela as recently as 2014. More recently still, Jones, on Sky News’ Press Preview programme, could not condemn the Maduro regime outright. Instead, he played the ‘whatabouttery’ card, focusing on the Saudi Arabia situation rather than confronting the topic at hand – Venezuela’s failure as a state.
Venezuela’s state news service, TeleSUR, has steadily pushed out propaganda about the country to the world, similar to other state broadcasters like Russia’s RT channel and Iranian Press TV. In order to spread the message of Bolivarian socialism to the world, TeleSUR set up stations throughout Latin America to project soft power.
The station also set up an English-language service. Operating similarly to RT, TeleSUR’s English service constantly attacks the United States and Western democracies, while reporting uncritically and favourably about Venezuela. A favoured tactic of its English-language service is to denounce any criticism, particularly from the West, as being examples of ‘imperialism’. This language mirrors that of many western Leftists who denounce the United States and other Western democracies as being imperialist.
The need for a decisive response
There is no chance that this situation will ameliorate in any acceptable way without some form of international response. The time will come, soon, when an international response will be required. People are already leaving Venezuela en masse, with these numbers bound to increase. From a humanitarian standpoint, a response will be required to accommodate Venezuelan refugees from the crisis. Venezuela is an economic time bomb, with a collapse bound to cause instability for Latin America as a whole. It is incumbent on the international community to act now, before the situation becomes even worse.
Scott Davies is a freelance writer from Adelaide, Australia, with an interest in politics, history and culture. He holds a BA (Honours) in History and is currently studying a Master of Teaching (Secondary).