MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, MD – The history of Venezuela is one of riches to rags, at least for most of its citizens. They have gone from living in what was probably the wealthiest country in South America to struggling amidst unending chaos under the Maduro government. That includes runaway inflation, lawlessness, and, in some cases even famine and lack of basic medicines. All this is happening despite Venezuela’s ownership and control of the largest oil reserves in the world.
The rise of Hugo Chávez
The simplified version of Venezuela’s path to chaos starts with the election of a populist, Hugo Chávez, as president in 1998. He achieved that office after a long career of opposing the Venezuelan establishment. Many attribute his victory to the economic imbalances among the country’s social classes.
While the country’s economy had long been relatively stable and prosperous, a few wealthy individuals on the top, along with an established elite received most of the country’s benefits. Chávez eventually went on to win reelection several times, finally declaring his country a Socialist republic. At the same time several other countries in Latin America were also becoming Socialist or at least moving to the left.
In Venezuela, Chávez attracted a majority of the populace, the educated middle class and the military. Yet, while most of the measures taken by his government proved unsuccessful, he remained widely popular. He also allied himself with other Caribbean and Central and South American leftist leaders, including Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Nicolás Maduro takes control
In 2013, Chávez died after a long battle with cancer. His vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, assumed the presidency. Subsequently, he won reelection in a very close contest. Since then he has ruled primarily by government decree.
Under Maduro’s presidency, Venezuela rapidly fell into utter chaos, politically, economically and legally. Some define the current period as anarchy, with only 1,000 strong men or so actually benefiting from this. Most public offices came under the control of the military, even in cases where the law forbids it.
Chaos, poverty, starvation and disease
Meanwhile, the Venezuelan public cannot find food or even basic necessities in grocery stores. Trucks transporting these basic necessities of life usually find themselves diverted elsewhere, where the food, medical and other key items are pilfered for later sale on the black market. Chaos continues to reign.
In response, the government nominally placed price controls on food and commodity items. But in reality, prices for even basic necessities continue to skyrocket. Inflation in Venezuela remains the highest in the world. Even after the government adjusted the value of the Venezuelan Bolívar by taking away six zeros, people still must literally carry their money in bags and boxes. This hyperinflation problem is so acute that the US Dollar has become the country’s real legal tender. Merchants are reluctant to accept the Bolívar, choosing instead to accept credit cards and US dollars. Ironically, many claim that it is not feasible to accept the local currency. The reason? It it takes too long to count.
Venezuelans continue to flee the chaos
These dire economic and social conditions, paired with the complete breakdown of the country’s judicial system continues to encourage the exit of many professionals, many of them once supporters of Chávez and his ideals. One described one symptom of the country’s lawlessness and chaos as “malindres con chapas” (crooks with shields). The reference points a finger at the large number of law officers who use their shields to extort money from everyday citizens, especially the nation’s merchants.
On the other hand, upscale shopping centers and grocery stores remain open and appear prosperous. These are supported, of course, by the 10% of he population that derives all the benefits of the chaos.
The Venezuelan opposition seems powerless and lacks strong support
Juan Guaidó won the support of many in the International community as the leader of the Venezuelan opposition. Unfortunately, his following in Venezuela is not widespread. The common Venezuelan citizens see him as an opportunist with ties to the old elite and a surrogate of the United States. Venezuela’s expatriates are afraid that some of the self-declared leaders in exile are negotiating with other countries using Venezuelan territory or territory claims as bargaining chips.
Recent demonstrations by the opposition were met with violence and death by Maduro’s government. A couple of hundred armed goons and secret police supported by the government, mixed it up with the demonstrators. They killed 29 of these citizens, according to local reports. However, unofficial sources indicate that more than 200 citizens and protesters were killed, with hundreds more injured and arrested. Since then, large demonstrations essentially ceased. The would-be demonstrators realizes that they may lose their lives while failing to advance their cause.
Old concepts fail
Even if Guaidó and his followers proved relevant, bringing down Maduro would not solve the deteriorating situation in Venezuela. Contrary to the old stand-by concept of leadership by one strong man, Venezuela, in fact, is now under the control of as many, as one thousand men. Those currently in power continue to accrue immense wealth. Consequently, they have no intention of giving up their stranglehold on the country. These strong men also command the armed forces, thus controlling one of the strongest forces on the South American continent.
The Russians and Chinese openly support the Venezuelan government, and continue to sell them weapons of war. The Venezuelan Army consists of between 150,000 and 500,000 men armed with rockets, tanks, submarines and fighter planes. Venezuela also has close to 18,000,000 men of fighting age.
Many believe that Maduro is just a figurehead and its overthrow would not really matter.
(Below: ABC video report via YouTube video on the chaos in Venezuela during the May 1, 2019 protests.)
Other aggravating facts
Despite its continuing chaos at home, the Venezuelan government continues support for the guerrilla groups fighting the government in neighboring Colombia. While the main group of rebels, FARC, signed a peace treaty with the government, recent restrictive acts by the right-wing Colombian government may send these fighters back to the hills.
In a recent meeting of the left-wing group San Pablo Forum in Venezuela, calls for more activism have resonated in other South American countries. Civil unrest in Chile and Colombia are current examples.
The irony is that while the Venezuelan government has violently crushed protest opposing its rule, they are comfortable asking citizens of other countries to protest their own governments.
— Headline image: Video capture. New Venezuelan protests break out. November 9, 2019. ABC news clip via YouTube video.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is alarmed at the apparent chaos all over South America especially in Venezuela and Colombia. He is in Twitter (@chibcharus), LinkedIn and Facebook (Mario Salazar).