The oil reserves that seemed like they should have been such a blessing, have been in actuality something of a curse. Corruption was certainly nothing new to Venezuela, but the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 and the misconduct and mismanagement that marked his administration put the country on the path to where it is today. Chavez won the presidency with populist promises to lift people out of poverty and take control of the country back from its politicians. A period of high oil prices enabled him to enact a range of social reforms that boosted his popularity, particularly among the lower classes, but he did this at the expense of policies more focused on the future and reforms that may have better positioned the Venezuelan economy to be less dependent upon that one resource. Then once oil prices dropped, the cash for those programs predictably disappeared and the oil industry, along with Venezuelan economy in general, was left in shambles.
Upon Chavez’s death in 2013, Nicolas Maduro took over. A former bus driver, the experience section of Maduro’s political resume was rather thin. The mismanagement and ineptitude of the Chavez years has continued as technocrats and experienced government operatives, the relatively few who were left, were replaced with cronies and political allies. One significant instance of this trend followed the 2015 National Assembly elections. But first, a word about Maduro’s opposition.
It is difficult to argue that the so-called coalition of political opposition has been effective in any real way in challenging the power of the Bolivarian government (Chavez’ political movement, named as an apparent homage to Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar). While the left-wing populist ideas of Chavismo were successful in galvanizing the Venezuelan public and propelling Chavez to the presidency, the opposition has yet to achieve any real cohesion. The factions that make up what can be described as a loose anti-Bolivarian coalition at best espouse wildly different, and in many cases competing, political ideologies. They have had to try to put these differences aside and unite in order to have any real chance at challenging Bolivarian incumbents (2).
This has made it difficult for the opposition to effect change in Venezuelan politics, as the deck has been stacked against them in many ways by the shrewd, sometimes outright corrupt and dishonest, dealings of the Bolivarian establishment. From this another problem arises. Suppose the opposition is successful at toppling the Bolivarian Government and giving Maduro the heave-ho, these ideological differences are bound to resurface. This is likely to cause chaos within the triumphant new ruling coalition. It may be that Venezuela will be better off on balance if this were to play out, but the fall of Maduro and the Bolivarians doesn’t necessarily equate to smooth, effective governance for the Venezuelan people.
In any case, the inefficiency of the opposition is not the only reason why Maduro has managed to cling to power as Venezuela implodes around him. The aforementioned 2015 National Assembly elections offer an example of the lengths to which Maduro and his Bolivarian comrades have been willing to go to maintain his position. Any lingering notions of Venezuelan democracy were scuttled when opposition parties won some two thirds of the legislative seats in December of that year. Before the new legislators could be seated, the lame duck Bolivarian majority went about packing the Supreme Court with political allies, and those allies dutifully invalidated the decisions made by the newly oppositional National Assembly as it attempted to check Maduro’s power in January 2017 (6). The court then stripped the National Assembly of its powers and assumed those powers by declaring the National Assembly in contempt for swearing in three legislators whose electoral victories the court had declared invalid. This paved the way for the election of the National Constituent Assembly — a competing legislative body conferred with the ability to alter the Venezuelan Constitution — in a move that much of the international community has decried as fraudulent and illegal. A move that will be discussed in greater detail below.
Issues with Venezuela’s foreign affairs have also contributed to the country’s fall. A mediation effort led by the United Nations and the Vatican has been ineffective, due in large part to a lack of appetite for enforcement of a settlement from the international community. Latin American countries have been reluctant to fill this role as Venezuela had built relationships with many countries in the region during the Chavez era. As a result, the OAS has been unable to take strong action. If more Latin American countries were prepared to impose sanctions, Venezuela may be influenced to change its behavior (1).
One reason for this reluctance is the Petrocaribe oil program, a system of favorable loan terms offered to Caribbean states who buy Venezuelan oil. Under the program, Latin American countries pay a percentage up front for their oil and Venezuela extends them low-interest loans to finance the rest. This has given Venezuela a reliable local market for some of its oil, but perhaps more importantly, it allowed Chavez, and later Maduro, to build up favor with a number of Latin American countries. This favor could then be cashed in for political support in the OAS and in other regional political issues that Venezuela faced. “Despite the collapse of its oil industry, Venezuela continues to buy foreign oil to ship, at a loss, to the regime’s ideological cousins in Cuba — a bitter legacy of Chávez’s plan to use Venezuela’s oil riches to buy friends in the neighborhood” (13). In other words, the program that is in no small part responsible for keeping political pressure off of Maduro’s government and thereby ensuring that it stays in power, is also an economic albatross exacerbating the conditions that have been fueling calls for his removal.
Fraud and Corruption
While political maneuvering, like that discussed above, threatens the very integrity of the country’s constitution and separation of powers, rampant fraud and corruption among its politicians have led the country even further into political and economic despair. Venezuelan officials dating back to the Chavez years have engaged in a huge amount of graft, as is unfortunately all too familiar in Latin American politics.
In July of 2017, Maduro called the special election to create the National Constituent Assembly to re-write the Venezuelan constitution. Citing the rather obvious illegality of this move, the opposition MUD boycotted the election leading to a predictable result heavily favoring Maduro’s Bolivarians. Even with this advantage, it seems the ruling party left little to chance. The company that administered the election, Smartmatic, acknowledged that the turnout figures of the vote had been manipulated. The announced number of votes cast was at least a million voters higher than the actual number (3). Impressive ballot box stuffing, to be sure. As if this weren’t enough, “the government stacked the election to its advantage, arranging it so that the constituyente would draw one delegate from each municipality, which disproportionately favored the thinly populated rural areas where Maduro is most popular” (8).
To emphasize the needlessness of this attack on the Venezuelan political system, it should be pointed out that more than 80% of Venezuelans saw no need to re-write the constitution, which ironically states that the citizens need to approve votes of this type (8). In sum, the National Constituent Assembly has the power to nullify decisions made by the National Assembly. It is widely agreed that it was elected fraudulently. It is far from representative of the Venezuelan population. And its members are overwhelmingly Bolivarian loyalists. This means that it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to bring about the downfall of the Maduro regime solely by political means. The regime cannot last forever, none can. But the end seems likely to be a bitter and violent one.
Not all of the political malfeasance in the country has been as serious as a direct threat to democratic necessities like the separation of powers. Venezuela has had its share of more garden variety political corruption as well. Multiple current and former Bolivarian Government officials, dating to the Chavez years, have been accused and/or convicted of drug trafficking related offenses. In fact, files recovered in 2008 showed direct cooperation between high ranking Venezuelan officials and the FARC rebels in Colombia (5). This blatant disregard for law and order from such high levels within the Venezuelan Government has made its current situation unfortunately predictable, though no less tragic.
To be sure, political corruption is not a novel concept. It is perhaps as old as the idea of political organization itself. Be that as it may, much of the current corruption in Venezuela, like so many of the country’s problems, can be traced back to the Chavez era. The country’s massive oil reserves and high oil prices during this time opened the door to massive opportunities for politicians to enrich themselves as the administration built its welfare state. The current ruling class has a particular interest in keeping power, because many of them have “engaged in massive corruption, are connected to international drug trafficking, or have committed human rights abuses” (4). If not in power they may have to stand trial for these transgressions, some of which may involve extradition to the United States. This may help in understanding the motive, at least in part, for the apparent overkill in vote rigging and other corruption that was perpetrated during the National Constituent Assembly elections even though the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion. Absent serious, concerted action on the part of the Venezuelan populace, it is difficult to imagine real lasting change in the near term. Indeed, even such concerted action may well prove incapable of producing the desired outcomes.
1. Sabatini, Christopher. "Mediation in Venezuela Is Doomed to Fail." Foreign Affairs. 7 July 2017. Web. 14 June 2018.
2. Trinkunas, Harold. "The Tragedy of the Venezuelan Opposition." Foreign Affairs. 5 January 2018. Web. 15 June 2018.
3. Reuters Staff. “Venezuelan Election Turnout Figures Manipulated by One Million...” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 2 Aug. 2017
4. Trinkunas, Harold. "The Tragedy of the Venezuelan Opposition." Foreign Affairs. 5 January 2018. Web. 27 June 2018.
5. Sanchez, Ernesto J. "Getting Venezuela to Behave." Foreign Affairs. 7 April 2017. Web. 5 July 2018.
6. Wyss, Jim. “Venezuela's Supreme Court, Once Again, Throws Maduro a Lifeline.” Miami Herald, 31 Jan. 2017.
7. Romo, Rafael. “Venezuela's High Court Dissolves National Assembly.” CNN, Cable News Network, 30 Mar. 2017.
8. Shifter, Michael, and Ben Raderstorf. "Venezuela After the Constituent Assembly." Foreign Affairs. 1 August 2017. Web. 14 July 2018.
9. Flannery, Nathaniel Parrish. "Venezuela's Economic Crisis Keeps Getting Worse." Forbes. 22 March 2018. Web. 14 July 2018.
10. “Venezuela's Currency Plumbs Unknown Depths.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 25 Jan. 2018
11. The Heritage Foundation. “2018 Index of Economic Freedom.” 14 July 2018.
12. Renwick, Danielle. “Venezuela Is in the Midst of an Unprecedented Crisis.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 23 Mar. 2018.
13. Schechter, Peter and Jason Marczak. “The Waning of Petrocaribe? Central America and Caribbean Energy in Transition.” The Atlantic Council, 2018.
14. Johnson, Keith. "How Hugo Chávez Blew Up Venezuela’s Oil Patch". Foreign Policy, 16 July 2018.
15. Cárdenas, Jose R. "Don’t Let Venezuela’s Government Smear The Opposition’s Brightest Star". Foreign Policy, 27 June 2018.
16. Faiola, Anthony. "From Riches To Rags: Venezuelans Become Latin America’S New Underclass.". Washington Post, 27 July 2018. Accessed 28 July 2018.
17. Krygier, Rachelle. "In Socialist Venezuela, The U.S. Dollar Becomes King". Washington Post, 2 August 2018. Accessed 6 Aug 2018.
18. Faiola, Anthony. "They Be Pirates: An Old Scourge Is Reappearing In The Caribbean". Washington Post, 13 August 2018. Accessed 14 Aug 2018.