Once upon a time, Venezuela had high hopes. As a stable democracy in a region brimming with volatility, it was an oasis with optimistic aspirations thanks to its copious oil reserves.
But as the years have passed, this vision of an oasis has revealed itself as nothing but a mirage in a waterless desert.
Venezuela is not only in serious political strife – it has also found itself in the midst of an economic disaster. There is a severe shortage of food and basic goods – hair gel and cooking oil are relatively available on supermarket shelves, but supplies of shampoo and bread are virtually inaccessible.
Venezuelans are allocated one day each week on which they are permitted to visit supermarkets, based on the final digit of their identity card number. Tills are automatically programmed to reject the barcodes of those who do not shop on their allocated day.
Every morning in Caracas, the capital, thousands rise hours before dawn to join endless queues in hopes that they will be able to purchase enough food for the week ahead.
In a country where the weekly task of finding nourishment is so perilous, news that certain supplies have run out – or that a delivery simply didn’t arrive – come as no surprise. Even those who have lined up since the early hours of the morning aren’t guaranteed access to basics like pasta and flour.
April 2014 marks the most recent publication made by the Central Venezuelan Bank of an official ‘scarcity index’. At that time the figure was 25.3 percent, indicating that adequate, reliable sources of nutritional foods were largely out of reach for a significant portion of the population. Since then, no more figures have been made public, but estimations in early 2016 were between 50 and 80 percent – reflecting a severe paucity of fundamental products and ingredients.
Such a complex and problematic situation can only be the result of a perfect storm: economic decline interwoven with political unrest and the dangerous effects of a destabilised export industry.
Food scarcity in Venezuela is exacerbated by the hyperinflation currently crippling its economy. Whereas one American dollar was worth around 8 bolivars in 2010, mid-2017 estimates have suggested that this figure had climbed to over 8000 bolivars on the black market. The inability to calculate exact and official exchange rates is symptomatic of overvalued government rates and the reality of exponential inflation. The International Monetary fund predicts that what is already the world’s highest inflation rate could reach 1660% in 2018.
This alarming trajectory can be ascribed to numerous factors – the most substantial of which is the country’s reliance on oil. With the world’s most abundant oil reserves, Venezuela is among the largest exporters of oil on the globe.
After former President Hugo Chavez officially took office in 1999, he engineered a ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ plan which ushered in a new period of socialism compounded with populist tendencies. Chavez remains a heroic figure in Venezuela, revered by many as a progressive leader working to support the country’s poor and dismantle systems of corruption and oligarchy.
The plan’s goals were to provide vaccinations, food distribution, as well as publicly funded healthcare, dental care and sports training to lower class communities. However, despite the short-term benefits achieved, the economy’s reliance on oil has ultimately precipitated a treacherous downward spiral.
What economists label ‘Dutch disease’ – a correlation between increased development in a given sector and the simultaneous degeneration of other sectors – seems to have lodged itself in the marrow of Venezuela’s economy. Capitalising on oil resources and arguably neglecting other industries, Chavez’s administration relied on oil revenue to fund imports and steer Venezuela down a socialist path.
But with oil profits diminishing after Chavez’s death in 2013, current president Nicolas Maduro was left to manage snowballing debt and rising import costs. Domestic production failed to replenish supplies previously provided by imports. Meanwhile, the price of oil has halved since 2014, and with 95% of Venezuelan income derived from oil, this means that the country’s income has also been cut in half.
The culmination of these factors has seen desperation and frustration among the Venezuelan people, with an unpopular Maduro facing allegations of trying to move towards a dictatorship. Disorder came to a head in March this year, with the pro-Maduro Supreme Court ruling that it would ‘take over’ legislative powers held by the opposition-led Congress. Following a public vote whose legitimacy is contested, Maduro has assembled a National Constituent Assembly which is set to rewrite the constitution. Indeed, eradicating the opposition and revamping the constitution suggests that radical change is on the way.
This comes as a desperate effort to echo the moves of Maduro’s fondly remembered predecessor Chavez, who also undertook rewriting the constitution in 1999.
However, commentators in 2017 maintain that an agenda of change to the constitution will likely trigger the elimination of Maduro’s political opposition, with the government shedding its socialist skin in favour of a new, autocratic regime.
With protests on the rise, tear gas filling the streets and an ever-rising death toll, how will the world respond?
Analysts claim that Venezuela’s crisis is not likely to seriously undercut the world economy. Even scope for regional impact is limited to small nations that depend on subsidised oil.
But political ramifications are another matter entirely. Destabilising the distribution of power in Latin America, Venezuela’s collapse is markedly threatening to the few leftist governments left in the region.
This is not just a lesson illustrating the importance of diversification of the economy, but rather another instance of democratic backslide that could be the prelude to a gory civil war. With the opposition party making preparations to establish a parallel government, the possibility that either side will make the call to begin arming itself is increasingly probable. It’s this situation which looms on the horizon – not yet a reality, but close enough to generate whispers of potential civil war.
Coming from the West, where fully stocked supermarkets are the epitome of abundance and capitalism, its the images of empty shelves and mile-long queues in Venezuelan stores that are exceptionally unsettling.
But as the opposition party faces potential elimination, with a judiciary and National Assembly increasingly intertwined with the Maduro government, it’s also the nation’s socialist system that must grapple with the real possibility of finding itself choked by a new dictatorial regime. If not already wiped out altogether, Venezuelan socialism seems to be taking its final breaths. Only time will reveal what comes next, but for a nation bearing the burdens of political and economic turmoil, its current problems could merely be a precursor of perils to come.