The Venezuelan Crisis: How Did We Get Here?

When faced with a humanitarian crisis, we are bound to question how we ended up here. We debate over responsibility, consequences, prevention and relief strategies so that we feel we have some understanding, in the hopes that these kinds of tragedies will not happen again. Putting this approach into context, we can look at the crisis in Venezuela, and we can attempt to understand and approach the situation in a way that is most beneficial for those who are experiencing suffering in the light of the political crisis. However, the controversial nature of the situation has split opinions in Latin America as it has split the country into supporters of the President Nicolás Maduro and of the opposition. Understanding how this happened though, brings you one step closer to empathizing with the people of Venezuela.

Venezuela is so oil rich, and so the nations’ politics have been at the mercy of oil prices, and the government-owned oil sales are often been used to bolster public spending. This was particularly important for the government of former President Hugo Chavez, as his popularity was boosted by his heavy spending on government initiatives to improve public welfare. For instance, a 2010 Organisation of American States (OAS) report noted that there had been marked improvements to illiteracy, health care, and poverty issues, along with economic and social advances. Nevertheless, the government’s overarching dependence on oil products resulted in overspending and price controls that became too unstable, thereby increasing poverty, inflation and causing shortages in Venezuela. This is known as ‘Dutch Disease’ where a country becomes so dependent on commodity exports which, when they experience a price boom causes a surge of foreign currency that consequently yields an uncompetitive exchange rate. As such, an overvalued exchange rate can then negatively affect the country’s other imports.

With that said, Chavez’ government deliberately maintained an overvalued exchange rate through the oil boom that began near the end of 2003. While fuel boomed, everything else collapsed, leading to one of the most dire cases of Dutch Disease. Meanwhile, though the act in itself possibly not even being as benevolent as it may seem, Chavez’ lavish spending on his constituents exacerbated these issues. According to Corrales and Penfold “aid was disbursed to some of the poor, and more gravely, in a way that ended up helping the president and his allies and cronies more than anyone else.” Nonetheless, Chavez’ death coincided with both his highest popularity and his lowest quality of government. This demonstrates how political gains for the individual can drain the life out of a country, and ultimately fracture and put weight on the people through socio-economic damage.

Moreover, Chavez’ successor, Maduro was noted to be inheriting ‘one of the most dysfunctional economies in the Americas.’ The distaste for Chavez’ appointed successor was demonstrated by how he won his election by a meagre 1.5%. Maduro copied Chavez’ economic policies, fuelling rising inflation rates and even larger shortages of goods. However, later on, none of Chavez’ popularity followed Maduro and the opposition won a landslide against him in 2015. Despite this, Maduro has since refused to give up the Presidency. He has continually used institutions, such as the Supreme Court and the military to further his agenda against the opposition-ruled National Assembly. As well, Maduro’s government seems to not to react Venezuela’s difficult economic reality, instead, they rely on old techniques that do not suit the current climate, thereby mismanaging an already fraught economy.

What Maduro lacks, in addition to high oil prices, is Chavez’ popularity. Distrust and dissatisfaction stand in the way of Maduro’s power and have encouraged a split in the country’s loyalty. Maduro’s attempts to control and manage the country have included jailing protesters, the killing of approximately 80 protesters, and jailing Leopoldo Lopez, a leader of the opposition. These actions, plus the attempt on the 29th of March to take over the National Assembly have heightened tensions between the government and the opposition. Promises of a constituent assembly also seem to be attempts to delay the scheduled 2018 election and to maintain authority.

Furthermore, at the mercy of this power struggle lies the lives of Venezuelan civilians, who now are subjected to a humanitarian crisis due to basic shortages of food, clean water, and toilet paper, which have led to a dangerous, yet thriving black market. Astonishing numbers of citizens suffer from malnutrition on what they call ‘The Maduro Diet.’ These shortages branch out into medical care, with 76% of hospitals lacking the basic medication they need to function. This is all caused by the inflation and lack of moderation of the economic crisis that has engulfed Venezuela.

In addition, due to hunger, frustration and desperation, rates of violent crime have skyrocketed. The increasing levels of anarchy reflect the difficulty of the situation for those in Venezuela. For example, shootings at protests have killed children as young as thirteen. As a result, a militant edge has developed to the protests in retaliation. The dissent is demonstrated by polls conducted by the opposition, where the public voted heavily in favour of moving forward elections to change the government.

The poorest and most vulnerable suffer most, while those suffering from mental health problems are deprived of any psychiatric care, they are also enduring the same malnutrition and shortages as others. With that said, while international intervention seems to be the way forward, economic sanctions on Maduro and his supporters would deprive them of their ability to keep governing, particularly sanctions on the PDVSA, the government’s oil company. However, there is the fear of the demonization of the foreign threat, causing civilians to cling to Maduro as the enemy at home.

Maduro’s government lacks the same popularity as Chavez’ because the policies he has implemented have destroyed public welfare and disregarded public opinion. For Venezuelan’s, this situation is unbearable. As well, whilst we continue to comment on this situation and question how it came about, we need to also look forward, into the future for Venezuela, so that next time we do not need to ask how this happened, as it will not have happened again.