What’s Happening in Venezuela and Why it Matters
Why should Americans be concerned about what’s happening in Venezuela (1)? How does this South American country with a population less than California (2) matter? I will attempt to answer these questions, but first let’s attend to some background for context. As you read through the following, consider how it relates to what is happening in America.
A History of US Intervention
The U.S. has been interfering in South and Central American countries for so long (3) that it seems that we consider the voices of their own citizens to be inconsequential. For decades the United States intervened in elections, supported coups, and attempted (mostly unsuccessfully) to mould sovereign nations across the continent into something that was malleable to American foreign interests. In the 19th Century, U.S. foreign policy was targeted at limiting European influence (4). Guided by the Monroe Doctrine (5) the United States threatened European countries, deployed military forces across Central and South American countries ( Dominican Republic in 1904, Nicaragua in 1911, Haiti in 1915), and was cited as late as the 1960’s as justification for resisting the Soviets putting missiles in Cuba (6).
With the onset of the Cold War, our meddling intensified, and nearly anything was justified if it could be construed as combating the spread of Communism. Starting in Cuba in 1959 when Fidel Castro overthrew the government of Fulgencio Batista (7), the US started to take active measures to disrupt the new Cuban government. Batista was a dictator but he served US business interests (the US was heavily invested in sugar, cattle and mining in Cuba) and was pro-American (8). Castro had the audacity to attempt to restrict American influence in Cuba and was immediately labeled an enemy of the US.
President Kennedy inherited President Eisenhower’s CIA mission to train and equip anti-Castro guerilla resistance fighters, culminating in the Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco. (9).
All through the 1960’s and 1970’s, the CIA sowed seeds of discord and violence across Latin America – Ecuador (’60-’63), Brazil (’61-’64), Peru (middle ‘60s), Dominican Republic (’63-’65), Uruguay (’65-’70), Chile (’64-’73) for an interesting read about CIA activities in Chile read their own report about it here (10), Bolivia (’64-’75), Argentina (1970s), Nicaragua (’78-’90). (11).
These activities continued into the 80’s – Grenada (’79-’83) culminating in the terribly executed but ultimately successful invasion of this small island in 1983; El Salvador (’80-’92), Haiti (’87-’94) – where the US supported a dictator for 30 years; Panama (1989) – resulting in yet another invasion. In the 1990’s we have been extensively involved with Mexico, Columbia, and Peru. (12)
Finally, I want to add Venezuela to this list. Since the late 1950’s governments in Venezuela have bounced between dictators and democratically elected left-leaning presidents, and for decades one of the most notable characteristics of Venezuelan politics, regardless of who was in charge, has been corruption (13). The Cato Institute even has a paper called “Corruption, Mismanagement, and Abuse of Power in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela” (14) that traces the history of corruption there all the way back to 1821. (15)
In recent years, the US has given millions of dollars to opposition groups hostile to former President Hugo Chavez (16) through a private US nonprofit called the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In 2005, Congressman Rand Paul described the NED as having “very little to do with democracy. It is an organization that uses US tax money to actually subvert democracy, by showering funding on favored political parties or movements overseas.” (17)
I mention all of this because it helps set the stage for understanding the mechanisms that have contributed to the slow demise of Venezuela and how the same path to ruin can and likely is, happening in the United States of America. I also find it ironic that in both cases, it is America itself that has contributed to this demise. I don’t know how much Russia influenced our election, and without any concrete evidence to the contrary I am going to blame this kakistocracy on each of us. Election apathy, low information voters and an antiquated Electoral College. Perhaps Venezuela had the same issues. In any case-
The Story of Venezuela
Venezuela, like America, is resource rich. It has plentiful deposits of gold, nickel, iron ore, diamonds, aluminum, bauxite, asphalt, and petroleum. (18). Their natural gas reserves are the second largest in the Western Hemisphere (19), and they also have an estimated 50,000 tons of uranium (20). Most significantly, Venezuela is sitting on the largest verified oil reserves in the world (21), totaling some 297 billion barrels. The country is also a major oil refiner and owner of the Citgo gas chain. In 2016, Venezuela enjoyed nearly $26 billion in oil exports. (22)
In spite of this enormous potential for wealth, the country is at a 13 year low to oil production (23) coupled with falling oil prices. Equally alarming, the country currently is experiencing rolling blackout due to a shortage of electricity, food and medicine shortages, and growing social crisis (24).
There are myriad reasons that have led Venezuela to this point of crisis. The state owned oil company PDVSA has been plagues with scandals and mismanagement. Experts suggest a failure to invest money into the oil industry and infrastructure, power outages caused by corruption, mismanagement, and low water levels at a key hydroelectric facility, 500%-900% inflation, an inability for foreign companies to operate (recent pull outs by companies like Kimberly-Clark makers of Kleenex, Oreo, and Pepsi), and shortages of cash all contribute to this crisis (25).
Additionally, the government is accused of exploiting poor people for their own enrichment and the eroding democratic institutions. (26) The Maduro government and his supporters also blame the US for interfering and funding opposition parties (27).
In March of this year, the Venezuelan Supreme Court took over the powers of the National Assembly, and although they reversed this decision soon after, it reduced the separation of powers and increased the power of the President.
Furthermore, Maduro blames the countries woe’s on the opposition trying to overthrow him, and a secret “economic war” waged by the US against him (28). He wants to create a new constitution to “bring peace” which the opposition says only consolidates Maduro’s power. (29).
The political reality is that both the government and the opposition are weak. Leopoldo López, one of the opposition leaders, in an interview from jail with Time “The government is working in a barbaric way to steal from public funds, destroy the country, rob the country’s oil while it says it’s constructing a homeland!” (30)
Maduro also actively suppresses the press by preventing papers from accessing newsprint and withholding government advertising. (31) There are wide reports of journalists being beaten and detained. (32)
Charges of nepotism have been levied against the Maduro government claiming 16 relatives of Maduro’s wife were appointed to the National Assembly. (33)
Maduro won the 2013 election by just 1.6 % (34), and currently enjoys about a 20% approval rating. These numbers mirror the Trump administration very closely. Both are widely unpopular and distrusted.
Putting it All Together
Let’s put this together now. I know that I’ve spewed a lot of data and a lot of words, but I felt that for those that aren’t too educated about South American politics (and Lord knows I’m no expert) might appreciate some background. Here are some comparisons between the two leaders:
Trump and Maduro share the following-
- Both came into power by narrow margins.
- Both currently enjoy unprecedented levels of unpopularity.
- Both exacerbate an already divided nation.
- Both are corrupt, with the Trump administration enjoying an unprecedented level of unopposed corruption.
- Both engage in nepotism.
- Both attack the idea of a free press and individual journalists. (Although to be fair, Trump hasn’t had any assaulted yet)
- Both use government funds like they were personal funds.
- Both steal from public lands.
- Both despise their respective Constitutions.
- Both lead weak and feckless political parties.
- Both are actively engaged in the erosion of democratic institutions.
- Both lead resource-rich countries.
- Both demonize their opposition.
- Both leaders seem unable to stop businesses from fleeing the internal conditions.
- Both are comfortable in the role of authoritarian and are happy to accumulate as much personal political power as possible.
I believe that we could be months away from the levels of civil unrest currently exploding in Venezuela. We too are a rich nation being ruled by corrupt and short sighted, unpopular, wannabe dictator.
One notable difference. Venezuela is on the political Left. In Venezuela political protestors have historically been Middle and Upper Class Venezuelans (35), as Leftist policies generally benefit the poor. Under Chavez (the President before Maduro) incomes increased and poverty decreased (36), making Chavez relatively popular with poor people. In the last couple of months under Maduro, as conditions have worsened, the poor have joined the protests. (37)
In the US, it’s sort of the opposite. Many of the initial protestors were university students, grassroots liberal leaning organizations, and women (38). As the levels of protest grow, fueled by anger at the administrations policies and actions, I believe a wider and more diverse group of protesters will appear. When this happens, we will be where Venezuela is today. A cross section of Americans angry and scared for their future, and willing, finally, to do something about it.
We started the Trump era with an unbelievably powerful protest with the Women’s March. Nothing has been done to heal the damage that has been done, and from where I sit, Trump and his cronies appear to be uninterested in leading the country. Our Congressman openly and regularly mock and ridicule him.
Eventually, this train will crash. It might be an FBI investigation. It might be Mueller. It might be Articles of Impeachment. It might by the backlash from the American people taking to the streets in protest. But this will not end well.
Trump has single handedly eroded our Republic, and although there are plenty of examples that show the timeline for destruction, there are few that show how a country recovers.
So pay heed to what is happening in Venezuela. They could be our canary in the coal mine.
Daniel Cashman, EAMP, MS(AOM)