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Witness to Venezuela’s Crisis

13 Feb 2017
By Dr Raul Sanchez Urribarri
Presidente de Venezuela Nicolás Maduro Photo Credit: (Wikimedia Commons) Creative Commons
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In light of the recent US sanctions against Venezuela’s Vice-President Tareck El Aissami, the glare of international scrutiny may finally turn to the country’s dire economic and political crisis. As conditions in Venezuela continue to worsen, individual stories show the impact of what is now dictatorial rule.

A few weeks ago I came back after a month in Venezuela, including a four-day trip to a research meeting in Caracas (organised by the Section of Venezuelan Studies of the Latin American Studies Association) and several weeks in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city. Like many Venezuelans who moved overseas in the past decade, I remain informed about the country’s problems through a range of sources, including social media, journalistic accounts, reports from reputable establishments and scholarly work. I had not travelled to Venezuela since May 2015, when I did a quick one-week trip. Back then, the situation was already challenging, but it has taken a turn for the worse in the past 18 months, as I discussed in a recent post in the Outlook.

This trip allowed me to witness and briefly experience the country’s deterioration and the consolidation of authoritarian rule first-hand. Despite all the information, I was ill prepared to face Venezuela’s decay. The economic crisis has indeed hit almost every aspect of Venezuelans’ livelihoods, directly or indirectly. From the moment one sets foot in Venezuela, one struggles with reminder after reminder of the depth and significance of the crisis. Without a doubt, Venezuelan society is quickly changing in tandem with the crisis’ brisk pace.

Living on the brink

Past this overall impression lie Venezuelans’ individual experiences of the collapse: The taxi driver who struggles daily to find parts for his vehicle and has been badly hit by the dwindling availability of cash to run his business; the neighbour’s domestic worker who spends more than half of her daily salary on public transport, and still chooses to keep working “because at least I can have a meal and occasional access to scarce essentials”; the older lady who drops by to ask for leftover chicken skin because “whatever can be cooked is useful”; the number of people in the streets who are clearly not meeting their dietary requirements and have lost weight (with clothes that no longer fit properly) or, worse, go through rubbish bins for food; the numerous people who mention how family members or friends had recently left whatever they had and departed Venezuela by bus or on foot across the border with Colombia (there are reports of people leaving even by boat).

These are not made-up stories, but actual vignettes of people’s daily struggles through these challenging times. These tales reflect the high price paid for what many observersincluding some who once had a supportive stance towards the regime—have denounced as failed economic policies. Yet, the pernicious currency exchange and price controls currently in place, along with ongoing attacks and threats against the embattled private business sector and an overall sense of lack of rule of law scares off most foreign investment.

Government by corruption

Despite their recognised failure, these policies remain in place for a combination of ideological reasons and, worse, for the sake of preserving the status quo of existing corruption and rent-seeking schemes that favour government allies in the bureaucracy, the military and a parasitic pro-regime private sector—mainly importers in different areas with privileged access to importing licenses and favours.

In the recent past there have been some important developments. For instance, scarcity is less of a problem now for essential goods than it was just a few months ago, at least in some cities. For example, in Maracaibo many goods are imported from Colombia and are therefore available, but only at prices that only the top bracket of the population can afford. These goods come up available in grocery stores, including many ‘new’ places that have popped up across the city—allegedly set up by people with ties to the regime. However, other goods—most notably cash—have become increasingly scarce, and the government struggles to cope with these new challenges in addition to existing problems.

The government’s program for distributing essential goods at affordable prices—‘Local Committees of Distribution and Production’, currently in the hands of the military—allegedly reaches more homes than before and has become more efficient. However, reports of the blatant politicisation and corruption of these schemes are commonplace. In addition to excellent journalistic accounts, I received direct accounts from friends and acquaintances of how connecting to these networks involved ‘knowing someone’ in the ruling party; about how these goods were sold to third parties or accessed through bribes, and so forth.

More recently, the government has created a new program to organise and distribute essential goods and benefits called ‘carnet de la patria’ (literally, ‘the Fatherland’s ID Card’). The idea of the program is to identify all recipients of assistance programs and assign them a single card that would allow them to receive subsidised goods and access special services. This might make sense as a rational bureaucratic measure to guarantee that the resources distributed actually reach the population. However, observers and the opposition have quickly expressed concern for the program, and with good reason: The use of public funds for client list schemes has been well-documented and the government’s loss of support in public opinion surveys might just tempt them to use these (and other) devices to force people to support it or, at least, refuse to vote against them in coming elections.

Perhaps the hardest part to capture in writing is the emotional dimension of the crisis. The decline has had a huge impact on Venezuelans’ individual wellbeing. There is a pervasive sense of anger, frustration and political claustrophobia that has taken root in large swaths of Venezuela’s society. This sensation has been even more acute after the regime effectively suspended the recall referendum process against President Maduro last year, particularly after the failed dialogue efforts between the government and opposition leaders, sponsored by the Vatican since November.

It is safe to assume that the number of people critical of both the government and the opposition continues to grow, leaving room for a growing trend to support regime change. Yet, the government’s notorious turn to authoritarian practices, including the possibility that there could be no free and fair elections in sight and the increasing presence of the military in most government sectors, makes it difficult to predict a significant change of course in the time to come, electoral or else.

As the crisis in Venezuela worsens—experts have predicted an even gloomier scenario for the economy in 2017—more citizens could be tempted to engage in street protests and violent actions, which might push the government to engage in even more draconian measures. In the meantime, the international community will need to keep monitoring the situation and seek productive ways to engage with the government and other social and political actors, hoping to prevent Venezuela’s complete collapse, and the consolidation of what we can now safely call dictatorial rule.

Dr Raul Sanchez-Urribarri is a lecturer in crime, justice and legal studies at the Department of Social Inquiry, La Trobe University. His scholarly work focuses on democracy, rule of law and comparative judicial politics. He also spoke at AIIA VIC in late 2016, a copy of the video is available here.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.