I’ve been trying to follow recent events in Venezuela. Here’s my take, informed by the work of activist Tom Hayden of Peace Exchange, Chris Gilbert, professor at Universidad de Venezuela and Rory Carroll, a reporter for the Guardian and Observer Latin America, based in Caracas for six years until recently.
Venezuela lost their leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez, to cancer close to a year ago. His coalition elected, by a tight margin, President Nicolas Maduro, ten months ago. Observers estimate him with about a 56% popular majority. He inherited an economic disaster in the making, despite Venezuela being awash in petro-income and oil reserves beyond the wildest of imaginations.
Now the inflation rate is 56%. The currency now almost worthless in the exchange market. The government owes billions, in spite of its oil wealth. Power supplies have recently been cut in cities, the infrastructure is peeling and cracking, being basically unattended. Shortages of bread, meat, toilet paper and basics in the markets. Crime is off the charts. The Bolivarian revolution has been basically mismanaged. Lots of bravado. Good deeds with the poor. But neglect of the engines that drive the economy.
Maduro’s response: continue feeding the poor which is certainly a wise and good thing. But he’s also harnessed and gagged the state owned media and intimidated the private media. The work visas of CNN’s journalists have been revoked and at least one private T.V. Channel has been shut down. And he has jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. Maduro has devised a strategy to form alliances with democratically inclined opposition figures to mutually attempt to stifle the pro-fascist right of the opposition. But he must protect and build also his middle class with economic reforms that right the economy without degrading the course of Venezuela’s social services improvement and hopefully avoiding the prescriptions of the IMF and World Bank. It would appear their oil wealth gives them a leg up in avoiding dependence on their solutions.
The result of Venezuela’s mismanagement? Street actions by mostly middle class students with violent suppression by paramilitary and national guard units. They have shot and killed a highly visible celebrity and injured many. Some in Venezuela believe elements of the opposition have been counseled by the U.S. White House. Some of the opposition were aided in failed campaigns by U.S. political consultants. Though there’s no proof, at least yet, many there believe the CIA are stirring things up with the opposition.
Why should we care ? First, they are neighbors. We share a continent with them. We trade with them. They are our 4th largest oil supplier, right behind Mexico’s imports, accounting for about 10% of our oil imports. This will be important until we can wean ourselves off carbon based energy and become energy independent. And, Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution have been a bellwether for political/social reform in the Americas. We should care about the democratization of this region and the shift away from undemocratic, totalitarian regimes in that area of our world. Yes, democracy is destabilizing compared to dealing with autocratic, authoritarian rule we’ve been accustomed to with our neighbors to the south. And sometimes democratically elected leaders become autocratic when leaders encounter disagreement and resistant. But, I thought we supported messy democracy over the alternative. At least, we say we do.