Susana Justham Bello, Wycombe Abbey
1960s Caracas seems almost unrecognisable from how we know it today; a bustling metropolis encased by a grand valley, busy highways with colourful cars, vibrant avenues embroidered with trees and the glamour that can be expected from what was once the most thriving and oil-rich country in Latin America. Nowadays, the scene is shockingly different. Instead, we see images of destitution, derelict buildings, streets as empty as the supermarket shelves. Caracas is now a ghost town, a fallen metropolis.
It is estimated that Venezuela’s economy has shrunk 47% since 2013, and the Central Bank of Venezuela estimates that the inflation rate increased to 53,798,500% between 2016 and April 2019. Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and the population is suffering involuntary weight loss. Around 4 million people have fled the country. The situation in Venezuela is one of an economic, political and social crisis.
Democracies are not meant to collapse into authoritarianism. Harvard University political scientist Steven Levitsky says that Venezuela is one of only “four or five” democracies to have turned out this way, of which none were as wealthy nor have they sunk so quickly, and that “in most cases the regime quit before it gets this bad”. The fundamental question is, how did this happen?
In 1922 the Maracaibo basin in western Venezuela began to pour out 100,000 barrels of oil per day, prompting Gen Juan Vincente Gómez, the then-dictator, to permit foreign oil companies to invest in the country. As a result, by 1928 Venezuela was the world’s second biggest petroleum exporter. The combination of the oil boom, and the growth of the capital city Caracas, meant that urban wealth was starting to surge.
It was in 1958 that, after the overthrow of the corrupt regime of the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, the Punto Fijo Pact was agreed by the three political parties (Acción Democrática, COPEI and Unión Republicana Democrática). This pact conceded the acceptance of the presidential elections, and to agree to uphold the democratic regime. Rómulo Betancourt, “Padre de la democracia venezolana” (the father of Venezuelan democracy), became President. With the birth of a new political system and fountains of oil wealth, Venezuela was a Latin American success story.
This success was further seen during the 1970s – 3.8 million barrels of oil were being produced each day in 1970. In 1973 the Arab-led OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) embargo against nations such as the US – which were perceived as supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur War – triggered the price of oil to quadruple, a huge benefit to Venezuela. The oil industry became nationalised in 1975 under the presidency of Carlos Andrés Pérez, forcing foreign companies to give the newly created Petróleos de Venezuela a 60% share in the ownership of oil projects.
However, this prosperity was almost too good to be true, and after the “1980s oil glut” and a drop in oil prices, the country was choking in $33 billion of foreign debt, and Venezuela was compelled to accept an International Monetary Fund bailout. Sharp austerity measures were introduced, prices of consumer goods and public transport soared, and demonstrations quickly became violent, with dozens killed. A nationwide curfew was imposed and basic constitutional guarantees were suspended for the citizens. This was, without a doubt, a turning point for the country.
In 1998 Hugo Chávez’s socialist messages such as “ser rico es malo, es inhumano” (to be rich is bad, it is inhumane), and “no permitiré que en Venezuela haya un solo niño de la calle, y si no, dejo de llamarme Hugo Chávez” (I will not allow there to be even one child on the streets in Venezuela, and if not, my name is no longer Hugo Chávez), ensured his victory in the presidential elections. Over the following years, Chávez, a former lieutenant colonel who had previously led a failed coup in 1992, aimed to tackle social inequality. He wanted to fund “missions” of health, education, food and housing, which in turn made the government more dangerously dependent on oil. He began to sell oil to other Latin American countries and to China at low prices, yet did not focus enough on financing oil facilities, and as a result production began to decline.
In 2000 Chávez introduced a new constitution which made clear his longer-term ambitions, because he could run for office again. This sparked discontent and what can be described as a “counter revolution” occurred in April 2002, in which he was ousted from the presidential palace. The military then helped him restore power and soon he started expanding state television and decreasing the influence of privately-owned ways of communication. Chávez’s social policies won him the 2012 election, but when he died of cancer in 2013, he left behind a complicated legacy in a deteriorating country: criminality, inflation, corruption and mismanagement of state resources.
His chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, has further plunged the nation into crisis by arresting leaders of the political opposition, detaining journalists, censoring the Internet, taking away the power of the National Assembly, violating human rights, and winning an election in 2018 that popular opinion regarded as illegitimate. Whilst he lives in luxury, the country he runs is submerged in poverty, hunger and in the centre of an economic crisis. Venezuela experiences frequent blackouts and a dangerous lack of medicine.
Meanwhile, the opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself interim present in January 2019, is still fighting to topple Maduro’s draconian regime. Yet this power struggle remains unsettled, and it is difficult to predict how much longer the country and its people will be able to endure Maduro.