Every time I bring up the current political turmoil in Venezuela I am always met with some version of the phrase ‘I just don’t understand what’s going on’. There is a strong sense of dismissal in such a statement, a belief that the situation in Venezuela is not an important enough crisis to dedicate any time finding out about. Despite the distance, we must endeavour to understand the current crisis. In Venezuela we see the latest stage of a conflict we have long considered to be over. The Cold War, long believed to have been long fizzled out, rears its ugly head once again.
For those that are new to the Venezuela debate, here is a quick summary of what has been occurring in the last few years. The story begins with a devastating and almighty economic crash. As is the case with many oil dependent economies, Venezuela’s infrastructure remained weak and underdeveloped and its economy not even slightly diversified. Since the 1920s what was one of the most affluent countries in Latin America has based its economy almost solely on the export of oil. In fact, oil sales account for 98% of export earnings and as much as 50% of GDP. Systematic mismanaging first under Chavez and then under Maduro in retaining such a depended economy became a serious problem when oil prices fell and production in Venezuela began to plummet. This reached a new low in 2018 when GDP shrunk by double digits for a third consecutive year. Such a disaster resulted in levels of hyperinflation that we cannot even fully comprehend – more than 80,000 percent. Life and livelihoods cannot possibly function in any normal way with these economic conditions. Now 9 in 10 Venezuelans live in poverty, while 1 in 10 have fled the country.
Government corruption has also contributed to this economic crisis. In 2016, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international non-governmental organization that investigates crime and corruption, gave President Maduro the Person of the Year Award that “recognizes the individual who has done the most in the world to advance organized criminal activity and corruption”. The OCCRP stated that they “chose Maduro for the global award on the strength of his corrupt and oppressive reign, so rife with mismanagement that citizens of his oil-rich nation are literally starving and begging for medicines” and that Maduro and his family steal millions of dollars from government coffers to fund patronage that maintains President Maduro’s power in Venezuela. The group also explains how Maduro had overruled the legislative branch filled with opposition politicians, repressed citizen protests and had relatives involved in drug trafficking. The 2018 edition of the EFW ranks Venezuela as the least free economy among the 162 countries studied (there is not enough reliable data to grade Cuba and North Korea). By comparison, Canada is 10, Denmark 17, and France 57. Moreover, the EFW has data for Venezuela that goes back to 1970.
Certainly U.S sanctions have also exacerbated the economic crisis. On top of those already in place, in February President Trump slapped surprise oil sanctions on Venezuela, aimed at toppling President Nicolás Maduro. Exports plunged and banking froze, as the effects hit harder and faster than expected. The aim of these sanctions may be to hit Maduro where it really hurts, however his close connections (which will be expanded upon further) with Russia have ensured that the leader has been able to stay afloat, meanwhile it is Venezuelans who have been pushed into further economic deprivation than even before. Certainly, the Trump agenda has worked tirelessly to remove Maduro from power. Despite the fact that Trump’s administration announced in late February that Maduro had ordered that aid coming into the country be set alight, new footage sourced by the New York Times has cast doubt on this. America’s heavy handed approach is clearly unhelpful in such a delicate issue.
Yet, it is also clear that this economic disaster is coupled with a healthy dose of political authoritarianism from the “democratically elected” President Nicolás Maduro. Besides from the fact that Maduro has stopped releasing Venezuela’s economic data since 2014, the President has been carefully scraping away at the democratic rights of the Venezuelan people. Despite the fact that less than half of Venezuelans voted in the country’s May 20th election, Maduro was still re-elected by a high margin over his opponent. The election was so problematic that opposition parties mostly opted to boycott the vote altogether. Months before the election, Maduro’s regime coerced citizens to register as Socialist Party members, used state food-handouts to lure hungry people into voting for Maduro and blacklisted opposition candidates. Most electoral officials are part of Maduro’s regime, and have previously ignored vote tampering and last-minute gerrymandering. Only Russia, China, Cuba and thirteen other countries have acknowledged the election results. During the election at least ten people were killed while participating in protests, two of which were teenagers. In fact, between April 2017 when anti-Government protests began in Venezuela, until July, 126 people have been killed in political skirmishes and protests.
Wider human rights violations have also infringed upon Venezuela’s democracy. In January, the Human Rights Watch and Foro Penal, released a report which analysed information about cases of 32 people. They found that not only are intelligence agents detaining and torturing members of the military who are suspected of fomenting rebellion, but in some cases, they are also going after their families or other civilians when they can’t find the suspects. In most cases, members of DGCIM or the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) carried out the arrests. These are not isolated cases. In fact, they are part of a pattern of widespread abuses by Venezuelan security forces that we have documented since 2014, including thousands of people arrested, hundreds of cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment against real and imagined government opponents, and at least 31 cases of torture.
Enter the leader of the opposition, Juan Guaido, who declared himself President of the Interim on the 23rd January. His Party, Voluntad Popular or Popular Will, is centrist and social-democratic, somewhat of an oxymoron I grant you, but certainly not an especially terrifying stance in theory. Immediately recognised by the US, Canada and a number of Latin American Conservative governments, including Brazil and by the UK, France, Spain, Germany and other European Countries after Maduro refused their demand to call for a new election, his position was very quickly legitimised by much of the global community. Trump has made threats of American military intervention if Maduro continues to refuse to back down.
Despite continued resistance from the Venezuelan people however, including protests that led to 14 more deaths, Maduro is showing no signs of backing down. China, Russia and Turkey, have all expressed their support for Maduro, which is unsurprising considering his deepening ties with them over the course of his Presidency. These ties are based largely on economic dependency. China’s state banks extended 17 loans to Venezuela worth a total of $62.2 billion, which is more than it has loaned to any other Latin American country. Meanwhile, Russia’s state-run oil company Rosneft has a vested interest in Maduro’s government. In December 2016, Rosneft took a nearly 50% stake in Citgo, a U.S.-based oil company owned by Venezuela’s state energy giant, PDVSA, as collateral for a $1.5 billion loan to Maduro’s government. In 2017 Russia even extended a lifeline to Venezuela by agreeing to restructure $3.15 billion of debt payments that it owes Moscow. However, Venezuela’s total debt to Russia could be much higher.
But these ties are ideological as well as financial. Venezuelan links with Russia goes back to the presidency of Hugo Chavez. Venezuela was one of few countries in the world to follow Russia’s lead in recognising the Georgian breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent and has since backed Russia’s actions in Syria and the Ukraine. Meanwhile, Venezuela and China are only getting closer as Trump’s government continues to vindicate and threaten them both. It’s unsurprising therefore that the East Asian country is forging closer ties with America’s enemies. More than that, defending Venezuela plays into China’s longstanding and close to home foreign policy of enshrining national sovereignty even in cases of systematic state abuse of human rights.
Turkey on the other hand has been forging closer ties with Venezuela since the 2016 coup attempt and government changes in Brazil and Argentina which have left Turkey with few allies in Latin America. So, as Trump asserts an increasingly aggressive policy against Venezuela and Turkey, Russia and China forge ever tightening links with Maduro, the global community is forced into polarising positions. Positions that can only become more divergent when you factor in the heavy-handed conflict risking policy of a Trump administration. The Soviet Union may have collapsed, but old friendships die hard and long-standing conflicts don’t just disappear, especially when they are based on ideology. In a world where we believed that the Cold War was over Venezuela should be a wake-up call for all of us.
Whilst the lack of an actual democratic mandate for “Interim President” Guaido isn’t ideal, it pales in comparison to the problems of letting Maduro stay. His election was completely crooked, and he has made repeated moves to make Venezuela a more authoritarian state – from silencing opposition to shooting civilian protesters to death in the streets. Now people in his country face a level of poverty and desperation that we will never experience or could ever comprehend. Day after day, Maduro evolves into more of an authoritarian, abusive leader backed up by regimes with a litany of human rights abuses to their name. That does not mean that we must therefore support Trump’s heavy-handed approach, however. He is only exasperating the crisis (as he always does) and bringing everyone closer towards conflict. But the fact of the matter is Maduro does not stand for democracy, and an alternative to him, no matter how flawed, has to be put forward. If that someone is of Venezuela and generally supported by the Venezuelan people as these protests show, is that not a demonstration of self-determination, however imperfect? All in all, if Venezuela teaches us anything it’s that when democracy is broken, sometimes it’s a question of the lesser of two evils.
Matilda Smith is a third year History student and co-Editor-in-Chief of the Globalist