On November 17, Con El Mazo Dando – a Venezuelan TV program hosted by Diosdado Cabello, the president of the Constituent National Assembly and Venezuela’s second-most powerful politician – posted on its website an article about comments Cabello made during a meeting in the state of Miranda.
The article highlighted Cabello’s claim that “[Venezuelans] can say today that of all the countries of the Americas, the most politically stable country on the continent is the Bolivarian Homeland, the Homeland of Chávez,” and that “they (imperialism and its lackeys) know it, hence the blockade, the sanctions, persecution and baseless accusations every day.”
That claim is false.
Venezuela currently has the highest inflation in the world and has faced an economic, political and humanitarian crisis for over half a decade, which was only exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Although Maduro’s government has been the target of worldwide criticism and U.S. sanctions – first imposed in 2015 and toughened under the Trump administration, intensifying the country’s crisis – Venezuela’s instability is due, in great part, to its leaders’ failures.
Hugo Chavez rose to power in Venezuela in 1998, with promises of social and economic reforms. With the adoption of a new constitution in 1999, the year that Hugo Chavez was elected president, Venezuela’s state was renamed the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (in honor of Simon Bolivar, the South American political leader who led the independence of six Latin American countries from Spanish rule). Under Chavez’s government, the unemployment rate halved, extreme poverty fell dramatically, education improved and per capita GDP more than doubled during a period of elevated global oil prices.
Chavez’s promises to nationalize industries and direct an enormous amount of money to social programs were instantly met with hostility by the opposition. In addition, his presidency had its own issues. Despite unprecedented oil revenue for much of his tenure, Venezuela’s fiscal picture deteriorated over time. Under his government, inflation rose from 23.57 percent in 1999 to 26 percent in 2011, and nearly 31.6 percent in 2012. Murder rates almost doubled between 1999 and 2011.
Three years into Chavez’s presidency, up to a million Venezuelans protested his appointment of political allies to top positions in PDVSA (Venezuela’s state-owned oil company). The unstable climate gave space for an attempted coup, tacitly supported by the former George W. Bush administration, which briefly removed Chavez from power.
The coup attempt intensified the conflict in the country for the remainder of 2002. In December of that year, the Venezuelan opposition launched a two-month PDVSA general strike, or oil lockout, in an attempt to force Chavez to resign.
Toward the end of Chavez’s tenure, former supporters started to speak out about corruption and economic mismanagement under his government. As The Guardian reported in 2010, Wilmer Azuaje, who worked with the former president and his family, claimed Chavez’s parents and brothers pocketed farms, businesses, banks and government contracts. Azuaje’s allegations are part of “wider complaints that the revolutionary socialist movement known as ‘chavismo’ [had] been hijacked by money-driven opportunists inside, or close to, the government,” The Guardian wrote.
Most of Chavez’s policies were sustained thanks to Venezuela’s oil reserves, the largest in the world. Oil exports (which account for almost all of Venezuela’s export revenues) allowed him to provide subsidized goods and services to the population. However, with the fall of oil prices, which started in late 2008, his social policies became unaffordable. And, as Vox reported, Chavez “paid no attention to diversifying the economy or investing in domestic production outside of the oil sector” – a problem for a country that relies on imports for most of its basic goods and services, like food, medicine and gas.
Under Nicolas Maduro, who narrowly won the presidency after Chavez’s death in 2013, Venezuela has fallen deeper into crisis. The population is suffering shortages of basics like food, water, medication and electricity. The United Nations estimates 5 million people have fled the country in recent years.
Maduro’s presidential win was quickly followed by the collapse of global oil prices in 2014, which sparked an economic free fall in the country. Maduro’s first response was to print more money, which led to hyperinflation (Venezuela currently has the highest inflation rate in the world).
Mass protests followed, but they were met with force. As Polygraph.info reported in September, a United Nations-backed fact-finding mission report alleged Maduro and other high-ranking officials have been involved in systemic human rights abuses against those who opposed his government between 2014 and 2018.
Along with protestors, Maduro’s regime has persecuted opposition politicians and activists, and hundreds of people have been arrested or exiled (although Maduro said in a September 1 briefing that he was pardoning 110 of them).
And, more recently, the government has targeted leftist activists. As the New York Times reported on November 19, people who once supported Maduro but have started to speak out against his government’s corruption and cronyism are being repressed (or killed) ahead of the parliamentary elections set to take place in December. These moves appear to be aimed at allowing Maduro to consolidate power for the elections.
“The vote, boycotted by the opposition as a sham, could bring what used to be one of Latin America’s most established democracies to the verge of being a one-party state,” The Times wrote. Maduro’s critics, the newspaper added, say that “after having crushed the political parties opposed to his version of socialism… he has trained the state’s security apparatus on disillusioned ideological allies, repeating the path taken by leftist autocrats from the Soviet Union to Cuba.”
In 2017, Venezuela’s government “ensnared dozens of senior officials, especially those linked to the all-important state oil giant, PDVSA” in what it called a “historic fight against corruption,” as the Washington Post reported, pointing out that those moves were part of Maduro’s escalating efforts to consolidate power before the 2018 presidential election.
Maduro was reelected in 2018 for a second six-year term, but analysts called it a “sham election” due to irregularities of the electoral schedule and the lowest voter turnout “since Venezuela’s democracy was restored in 1958,” as The Associated Press wrote.
Since then, Maduro and Juan Guaido, the opposition leader appointed by the National Assembly as acting president in January 2019, have been locked in a political stalemate over control of the country. Led by the U.S., some 65 countries have recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s leader, while the U.N. still recognizes Maduro and has pushed for a negotiated resolution.