The amount of disinformation about Venezuela Americans are bombarded with is rivaled only by the disinformation on Syria. So I’m going to have to take an objective look into what’s happening in that country.
The official right-wing narrative is that the ruling class, after nationalizing the oil industry, has hoarded all the profits and left the people to starve. The people pushing this narrative haven’t been able to produce any images of emaciated famine victims like the ones we saw of Ethiopians in the 80s or the ones beginning to trickle out of Yemen now, nor have they produced sufficient evidence for the lavish life styles they claim the political class to be living, so this is a dubious claim.
The left-wing narrative is not much more informative. They tend to either ignore it or say it is the result of a corrupt and inefficient implementation of socialism without elaborating much. They’ll use words like ‘mismanagement’ and ‘bad governance,’ but never really get specific.
So what’s really going on? The Maduro government continues to win election after election. Of course, western propaganda outlets claim the elections aren’t fair, but they say that for every election they don’t agree with, and Maduro clearly has a lot of support. Here is a picture of a pro-government rally in Caracas. It doesn’t exactly have the aesthetics of a dictatorship with no support.
There is an often over-looked racial component to the political situation in Venezuela. Chavistas (Maduro supporters) draw most of their support base from blacks, natives and mestizos, while opponents of the government are mostly white. This is due to a complex web of cultural and socioeconomic factors that stems back to the colonial era and is a theme throughout Latin America. White people, in Latin America as in the US, tend to be more conservative and upper-class. It is a complex issue that I can’t fully address here.
You’ll often hear from people who think they know what they are talking about that “Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, so there is no excuse for them to be so poor.” But global supply of oil still surpasses demand, and a product is worthless if you can’t sell it. Oil revenues have fallen by 87% since Chavez took office in ’99 due in large part to US sanctions. So all this wealth Chavez and Maduro are accused of hoarding doesn’t appear to exist.
In 2015, a right-wing media outlet in Venezuela claimed Hugo Chavez’z daughter had $4 billion in overseas bank accounts. This claim was predictably ran with by outlets like the Daily Mail an Fox News, but the outlet never produced the proof they said was coming soon, and there has been no further word in three years.
Since political movements don’t happen out of vacuums, we need some historical context to understand where the Chavista movement came from.
Poverty and wealth inequality is nothing new in Venezuela. It has been the norm for all of the country’s history.
Prior to 1999, the government was mostly a conservative, US-allied oligarchy. There was widespread discontent among poor and minority citizens who felt they had been disenfranchised. This culminated in the Caracazo massacre in which the millitary murdered thousands of people protesting rising oil and transportation prices in Caracas in 1989.
This led to a wave of left-wing sentiment that swept Hugo Chavez into office. Chavez, although the western media likes to imply otherwise, was democratically elected, and so was his successor and current president: Nicolas Maduro.
2002 was a difficult year for Chavez. On April 11th of that year, he was overthrown in a US-backed coup. There had been violent clashes that day between pro-government and anti-government forces in Caracas that killed 19; Chavez was asked to resign but refused, then he was arrested by elements of the military who claimed he had resigned. Chavez’s supporters demanded to hear this from his own mouth. When this didn’t happen, it became clear what was really going on. Pro-government protesters took to the streets and took over TV stations. Other elements of the military then restored Chavez to power. He was deposed for only 47 hours. Venezuelan oligarchs and their western backers had clearly underestimated his support. But they weren’t going to give up that easily.
The opposition’s next strategy was for all employees of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company to strike. This lasted about a month, from December ’02 to January ’03, and brought the country’s economy to a halt. The government responded by firing 18,000 employees (40% of the company’s workforce.) This policy was very much a double-edged sword. I brought the state-owned company under state-friendly hands, which stabilized the economy and restarted the industry, but many of the new employees were not as properly trained as the old ones. A long period of inefficiency, including oil spills, fires, and wasteful spending, ensued. This, along with the sanctions, is a big reason for the faltering of the oil industry today.
I don’t doubt Chavez’s intentions, but he was an ideologue, and ideologues don’t always make the best managers and can be taken advantage of by people with ulterior motives. There doesn’t seem to have been a proper mechanism in place to filter out unethical civil servants. Many positions, especially at the local level, were occupied by kleptocrats. But no government in the world is immune to this. (Until very recently, Scott Pruitt occupied a cabinet seat in Washington.)
This is not to suggest that the Chavez administration was a failure. By most accounts, it was a success. Poverty was reduced from 43% to 26%. Malnutrition fell from 20% to 2%. Unemployment went from 17% to 6%. Infant mortality was cut in half. School enrollment went from 6 million to 13 million. The literacy rate went from 83% to 99% (the highest in Latin America). The homeless rate became the second lowest in Latin America. Maduro has continued the war against homelessness by building public hosing and plans to have it totally eradicated in the near future.
The current economic outlook is bleak. Inflation reached 1000% in 2017 and 13,000% in 2018. GDP peaked in 2010 and has been falling since 2013. Foreign investment is almost nonexistent.
There is no general food shortage, as the western media would have you believe, but their is a shortage of specific food items due to political, not economic, factors. The main problem is inflation. As of this moment, 1 US dollar is worth 114,862 bolivars.
Maduro is raising the minimum wage almost weekly now. He has announced a new oil-backed crypto currency called ‘the petro,’ but without foreign investment, it is unlikely to gain legitimacy and stability. Many people have also taken to trading in US dollars and Bitcoin. A huge black market has sprung up.
The problem here is a decades long civil, mostly cold, war between the countries economic elites and the disenfranchised lower classes. No blame can be placed solely on one side.
Much of the currency crisis has been caused by the bolivar being tied to the US dollar, then dollars being pulled from the county.
The picture the western media is painting is of an impoverished people rebelling against an authoritarian regime. But upon closer inspection, poor people seen to overwhelmingly support Maduro, while most of the protests are happening in the rich neighborhoods of Caracas. I’m no economist or expert on Venezuela, but I know when I’m being deceived.
Rich businessmen have been caught smuggling currency out of the country and stockpiling goods in warehouses. Small business owners have been caught pulling goods off of shelves to create artificial scarcity to protest price controls.
The opposition leaders challenging Maduro today are the same ones who tried to overthrow the democratically elected leader in 2002. The US government has sent at least $49 million to these opposition leaders in recent years. The fascist Reaganite maneuvers I talked about in The Reagan Years are still standard procedure.
Many of the ‘peaceful protesters’ are fascist white supremacists who have been caught lynching black people. Here’s a video of them setting a black man on fire. Are you starting to notice a trend about what types of people the US supports in conflicts? (See In Defense of Russia: Part 1)
This is not an isolated incident. Anti-government protesters, mostly rich white people, killed dozens of Chavistas in the last couple years, they also destroyed infrastructure like bridges and buses.
These people’s families have run the country since colonial times and now democracy has thrown a wrench into the gears, and they’re pissed.
Here is an informative rebuttal from The Empire Files of John Oliver’s recent propaganda piece.
In conclusion, things are always more complex than they are portrayed. Don’t take anything at face-value. There is no one party to blame for the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. It is a crisis decades, if not centuries, in the making.