Updated: Mar 1, 2019
By: Justin Fiacconi
Venezuela is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. While they are under the control of a power-hungry dictator, the country’s current issues go well beyond the crimes of a single dictator
On January 23rd, Juan Guaido, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself the acting President of Venezuela. Only one problem, they already have one.
Historically, Venezuela has always been known to be of the more wealthy countries in Latin America. While the country is known for its wildly diverse landscape, a lot of people don’t know that it also holds the world record for most wins in the famous annual, “Miss World” beauty pageant. However, the current circumstances in Venezuela are not so good-looking.
Now, Venezuela is under the control of President Nicolas Maduro; a power-hungry dictator who is actively blocking desperately needed foreign aid from entering the country. Due to hyperinflation, it is close to impossible for many Venezuelans to afford basic goods and services that the common community relies on. As a result, Venezuela is not only in the midst of an economic crisis, but a humanitarian one as well.
Recently, Venezuelans have been taking to the streets to protest the increasingly dire conditions in their county. Families are not only struggling to put food on the table, but hospitals are understaffed and lacking the necessary medicines and resources needed to treat patients. To add on to the trouble, there’s not enough jobs for people. Venezuelans are struggling with intermittent power shortages, their crime rate is growing rapidly, their GDP is falling, and to top it all off, they have the highest inflation rate in the world. This is all especially ironic considering that Venezuela has the largest known oil reserves in the world. Now, I know what you’re thinking, how could a country with the largest oil reserves in the world not be able to feed its people? Well, to answer that, we need to start with Hugo Chavez.
In the early 1990’s, when Venezuela was facing large social and economic inequality, a charismatic military general by the name of Hugo Chavez sprung onto the political scene, promoting socialist principles along with an anti-corruption rhetoric. Chavez, who grew up in humble beginnings about halfway between Caracas and the Colombian border, led a campaign that was aimed at benefiting the poor; One that labelled him “A man of the people.”
What Chavez called the “Bolivarian Revolution” was his campaign based on price controls, land redistribution, and high social expenditure; All with the hope of making life easier and more affordable for those who needed it. However, unlike most other leftist political leaders around the world who would try to implement these programs, Chavez had access to an enormous amount of oil.
Chavez used the country’s oil revenues, along with foreign borrowing, to fuel massive social programs including healthcare, education and food subsidies. For the majority of Venezuelans, this made a huge difference. Initially, his policies of re-distribution were very popular as the country was faced with a large amount of inequality, and most importantly they were helping people. Not only did Venezuela have a leader that was able to give them a better quality of life, but they had a leader who was willing to speak out publicly against corruption and foreign intervention. Which was important considering how many strings the United States had been pulling in South American governments before, and during that time. Although, the longer Venezuela went into these social programs developed by Chavez, the deeper their country became dependent on oil. Without Venezuela’s oil reserves, Chavez would have never been able to offer the kind of social programs that he did to his people.
Problems began to arise when Chavez began the nationalization of private businesses, industries and other major sectors in the Venezuelan economy. This was one of the first signs that Chavez was taking an authoritarian turn. The process of nationalization would lead Venezuela to become even more dependent on oil revenues and foreign borrowing. At the same time, it left many Venezuelans having a heavier reliance on the country’s social programs. Recklessly, they were spending all of their oil money on imported goods and their social programs. There was no alternative plan in case oil prices were to drop. And they did, right around the time when Chavez died in March 2013.
As time went on in Chavez’s presidency, he would become increasingly authoritarian, tightening his grip over power. This was demonstrated when Chavez replaced the Venezuelan Congress with a “National Assembly,” which he would control and use to write a new constitution that would help him to not only keep his power, but to be granted even more of it, and for a longer period of time. Power that he would also extend to loyal government officials and high-ranking military officers to ensure that the President would have their full cooperation and support. In a way, Chavez was legitimizing corruption. The same corruption that he campaigned against was something that his eventual predecessor would take full advantage of. While Chavez was selling the idea of a form of democratic socialism, over time, he was much more realistically forming a dictatorship with socialist principles.
By the time Chavez died, he laid out the groundwork for an authoritarian leader to seize power. And that is just what happened when Nicolas Maduro, who was Chavez’s handpicked successor, won the election by the slightest of margins. Although, Chavez hadn’t exactly left Maduro with an easy task. See, Venezuela was so dependent on the oil economy, that if oil prices were to drop, even by the slightest bit, their economy would be in shambles. That is exactly what we are seeing today.
When Chavez was in power, oil prices were climbing, eventually they would even reach $100 per barrel. Yet, when Maduro came to power oil prices dropped by over $20 a barrel, enough to put the Venezuelan economy in a world of trouble. To shorten a rather long story, as awful as Maduro is, with the way the Venezuelan economy was set-up, he was destined to fail from the moment he took office. To make matters worse for Venezuelans, Chavez had placed strict currency controls on his country. These new currency controls made it nearly impossible for one to acquire United States Dollars. Venezuelans only had access to their own country’s form of currency, Bolivars. With the fall of oil prices, Bolivar’s were becoming increasingly worthless.
Quite frankly, it has been all downhill since Maduro became President. While Admittedly, some of it is not entirely his fault, but Maduro is certainly not helping his cause. Since Maduro took office, over 3 million Venezuelans have left the country in hopes of a better life. At every turn, Maduro has attempted to consolidate his power in a more authoritarian direction. He took a much harsher stance against political opponents, and many who spoke out against his government fled the country out of fear of persecution. Maduro would also begin to manipulate governing bodies. In 2015, the political opposition won two thirds of the majority of seats in Venezuela’s National Assembly. Maduro saw this victory as a threat to his power, so in response, he replaced several judges on their Supreme Court with people loyal to him and his government. He would then proceeded to create a new governing body known as, “The National Constituent Assembly.”
The new governing body had more power than the previous National Assembly, and Maduro held a great amount of influence over it. This was a direct slap in the face to not only democracy, but to the political opposition as well. The National Constituent Assembly had the power to change the constitution, and this was utilized by Maduro to strengthen his grip on power by increasing Presidential term limits. In 2017, Maduro even called off a national referendum which was set to decide whether or not he would continue as President of Venezuela. Maduro was winning, and the opposition couldn’t do anything about it.
In 2018, Venezuela held an election. To little surprise, it is widely believed by the opposition and millions of Venezuelans to have been completely corrupted by Maduro. The voter turnout was under 50%, with many having lost faith that their voices would actually be heard due to the authoritarian nature of Maduro’s government. As a result, the opposition-dominated National Assembly failed to recognize the results of this election, in which Maduro won, therefore leaving the Presidency vacant in the eyes of the National Assembly. According to their constitution, in the event that the Presidency is vacant, the head of the National Assembly would assume the role as acting President; With that currently being 35 year-old Juan Guaido. And just like that, Venezuela now has two Presidents.
If history has taught us anything in these sorts of situations, it’s that whoever controls the use of force, the military, and/or the food, usually holds power. While Guaido has most of the domestic and international support, as of right now, Maduro holds on to the power of both the military and the food. Additionally, it’s believed that Maduro takes care of high-ranking military officers financially and gives them access to certain lucrative economic sectors. Maduro is also known to give a special exchange rate to his allies, making things much cheaper for them instead of the majority of Venezuelans. To be frank, this is really messed up. It’s not right that high-ranking military officers are rewarded with excessive amounts of food and money in exchange for their loyalty, while the majority of Venezuelans are worried about whether or not they are going to get to eat that day, but this is the cold reality for Venezuelans.
As far as the food is concerned, the question is not whether there is enough food, but who has access to it. Right now, there are massive amounts of foreign aid that is desperately needed for so many Venezuelans, sitting on the Columbian side of the border. While much of this aid has come from The United States, and it’s no secret that the US has been known to interfere in the politics of Latin America, it is still unjustifiable to withhold food and water from those who desperately need it. Maduro has blocked this aid from entering his country, effectively starving his own people out of fear that whoever is seen giving this to the people of Venezuela will be perceived to be the true authority figure. If this aid were to be distributed by Juan Guaido and his supporters, Maduro and his government would lose their legitimacy, or what’s left of it at least. Maduro is quite literally using food as a political weapon to help him hold on to his power. It’s quite possible that if Maduro loses the food, then he will lose the military as well, which would mean the end for Nicolas Maduro, and a win for everybody.
Right now, as the violence and corruption continues, millions of Venezuelans are starving and could use our help. While I wish it were as simple as just donating $5 or $10, it’s not. All we can really do right now is try to inform people about Venezuela’s crisis, because if we were in their shoes, we would want their help too. Canada and The United States, among several other nations, have recently recognized Juan Guaido as the President of Venezuela. This has been a very important step in helping Venezuelans exercise their right to decide the future of their country.
To be honest, President Trump’s recognition of Juan Guaido as the President of Venezuela might have been the only ‘good’ thing that he has done as The President of The United States of America.