Venezuela: A Failed State

Few could imagine the growth of Venezuela’s economy during the 20th century. A booming oil industry would bear much of the responsibility for this growth, but also for its decline. As oil became the center of the Venezuelan economy, it led to an undiversified economy, and further internal problems did not seem to help the situation. That would all change, or so some thought, when Hugo Chávez, a socialist from a military background was elected in 1999. Hugo Chávez was just one of many personas that emerged during the end of the 20th century in Latin America. What political scientists now call the ‘Pink Tide,’ a turn to leftist ideologues, seemed to spread across the Western Hemisphere. Even with the failure of Chávez’s policies, he was nonetheless a charismatic leader. When he died on March 5, 2013, his successor Nicolás Maduro, took Venezuela further down an authoritarian path. However, even with massive protests and the lack of resources, Maduro still clings to power. What strategies does Maduro employ to remain in power? What role did Chávez play in this path towards authoritarianism? How will Venezuela overcome this struggle? These are the questions that Javier Corrales, a Dwight W Morrow 1895 Professor of Political Science from Amherst College, sought to answer in a presentation given on April 17, 2018. The event, “Venezuela: The Survival Strategies of an Authoritarian Regime,” sponsored by the John Sloan Dickey Center of International Understanding, the Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies Program, and the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, provided a concise yet in-depth exploration as to why Maduro remains in power.

AN UNHAPPY VENEZUELAN A man waves a flag on the road

AN UNHAPPY VENEZUELAN A man waves a flag on the road

To understand the current state of affairs in Venezuela, Professor Corrales claims we must first understand the inherent political problems that plague the country. Even before Chávez took advantage of the lucrative oil prices to spread the wealth, the country had an abnormal voter distribution. In a typical voting distribution, most voters will lean center, while only a few will be on the outskirts of the political spectrum. For example, 10-40-40-10, is a common distribution, with 10 being left, 40 being center-left, 40 being center-right, and 10 being right. With this distribution, it is easy for an incumbent president to lose an election if they do a horrible job. However, Corrales postulates that Venezuela had a heavy left-leaning leaning block: 44 left, 22 center-left, 33 center-right, and 1 right. Not only did this make it harder for Chávez to lose, but it also made it easier for Chávez to promote hate speech against the opposition. Corrales’s work is interesting in that he does not place emphasize on the economic redistribution that Chávez pushed for. The reason for this he claims is that these voting blocs existed even before the increase in oil prices. Therefore, even without the added benefit of economic redistribution, Chávez had already embarked on a shift towards a socialist semi-authoritarian state. Following the exposition of voter blocs, Professor Corrales discussed how to eliminate problems that came up when consolidating power. While all of these were started under Chávez, under Maduro these techniques increased ten-fold. These categories, were wonderfully presented in a table that demonstrated the increase in severity and occurrence under the Maduro regime. First, Corrales declared was the issue of the opposition in the public electorate. Maduro took notes from Chávez’s antagonism of the opposition and continued them. However, keep in mind that the voting electorate was already skewed to the left. What then happens is that the opposition becomes more radical in order to counter the incumbent, leading to further antagonism from the incumbent. Secondly, Chávez decided to pack the supreme court, when the court was not on his side. However, Maduro’s Supreme Court decided to strip the National Assembly’s powers in 2017. With the National Assembly out of the way, Maduro established a ‘Constituent Assembly.’ 545 seats of this assembly consist of members of the Simón Bolívar Great Patriotic Pole, a party originally created by Chávez to consolidate support. Rumors of a tumbling, whirling-like sound at Bolívar’s grave at the National Pantheon remain unsubstantiated. Then, Maduro moved to purge the army and his party for supporters. Many followers of the Venezuelan crisis may recall the horrible exchange rates and near collapse of the Bolívar. However, this is done to provide a leverage to Maduro’s party and military supporters, as they can procure goods and services without having to worry about exchange rates. Furthermore, Corrales claims that Venezuela is a semi-narcostate, as cronyism and drug cartels are essentially ignored by the Maduro administration. When dealing with street protests and uprisings, the answer is simple: repression. As of 2018 more than 5,000 Venezuelans have been arrested and over 130 lie dead. The severity of this repression is not uncommon in socialist states around the world. Finally, when dealing with international pressure from countries such as the United States, Venezuela decided to cozy up to Russia and China. The United States is no stranger to having a socialist state within its hemisphere. However, with the rising threat of international terrorism, the United States had bigger fish to fry. Therefore, it was not until recently that the United States began to focus on the crisis in Venezuela. Many leftists proclaim that the United States purposefully manipulated the oil markets to take revenge on Venezuela for apparently having a successful ‘socialist’ state. However, Professor Corrales claimed that while the United States’ oil policies had no doubt affected Venezuela’s oil prices, it was not intentional. Besides, according to Corrales’s work, the push towards a socialist dictatorship started before the oil prices were beneficial for Chávez’s social policies. Corrales also mentioned that if the United States had truly wanted to curb Venezuela’s supposed success, then it would have done much more to ruin Venezuela.

On the domestic front, Corrales proclaimed that Maduro was trying to purposefully suppress consumption to get Venezuelans used to scarcity. Once they are used to scarcity, then rationing and suppression of civil rights become normalized, which gives Maduro increased political capital. Not only is Maduro essentially running a starvation economy, but he continues to purposefully lower the standard of living in Venezuela. According to Corrales the only reason the suppression of goods has not achieved its full goal is because Maduro’s bureaucracy is highly ineffective. With massive amounts of corruption and support of drug cartels, it is easy to see why. After the presentation I asked him what the United States should do to stop the crisis. He claimed that the current steps that the Trump administration is taking, that is to embargo individuals instead of the country, is the correct approach. Corrales also declared that carrying a ‘big stick’ could make this into a “David versus Goliath” conflict, that is one where Venezuela claims to be the victim of Western or American imperialism. While a reasonable answer, Venezuela already claims to be the victim of ‘Yankee Imperialism,’ clearly a rallying point for the failing Maduro regime. Finally, I asked Corrales, what the least violent solution to this problem would be. Acknowledging the optimism behind his answer, he claimed that the perfect solution would be for Maduro to accept the results of the upcoming May 1stelection. He claimed that Venezuela was not yet lost; democracy could be saved in the South American nation. Corrales gave an alarming prediction of the future of Venezuela if Maduro remained in power. He stated that Cuba was a perfect example of what happens when the state, not the people, wins. “In Cuba the state won much faster, the battle is far from over in Venezuela,” declared Corrales.

At the presentation I happened to meet a student from Venezuela that had a much more pessimistic outlook on the crisis. Joshua Zambrano ’20 firmly claimed “there is no solution.” Upon further dialogue he disclosed that his family left Venezuela in 2007. Zambrano stated that his family worked as accountants at a firm that got nationalized by Chávez in 2007. After that, his father knew that the situation would only get worse. Chávez claimed that he was nationalizing firms for a more representative democracy, but the reality was that Chávez was pillaging Venezuela’s economy in order to achieve full socialism. However, half of Zambrano’s family remained in Venezuela, whom support 40 other families with 50 dollars each. These 50 dollars are not in cash, but rather in food that has become a scarcity these days. More interestingly, Zambrano told a story about one of his family members that was a die-hard ‘Chavista,’ hanging pictures of him on their wall, crying endlessly when he died. That all changed two years after Maduro came in power, but it nonetheless shows the cult of personality that Chávez created, and that now Maduro lacks. Joshua Zambrano, however, was fortunate enough to move to America. Meanwhile, many college students remain in Venezuela, and some are behind the protests against Maduro.

Because of the economy, Venezuelan students are unable to afford college. Therefore, under the implication that they have nothing to lose, college students are the most active resistors of the Maduro regime. Some of the colleges have been purposefully attacked by Maduro as he believes they are “bastions of the wealthy elites” who are the “enemies of the state.” The “wealthy elites” seems to be a common trope among those on the far-left. Ironically, Maduro’s education policies hurt lower income students more as they now must scavenge for food and medical supplies just to support their families. On the other hand, state run colleges, called “Bolivarian universities,” espouse Marxist ideas and only serve to propagate the government’s ideology. Soon however, it will not be the lack of a Western curriculum that will impact the students in Venezuela, but rather the lack of a curriculum in general. Soon even these state-run schools will face a lack of funding. Venezuela is also facing a brain-drain due to professorial wages ranging from six to twenty-five dollars. Universities in neighboring countries such as Ecuador can pay the fledging professors fifty times more than the universities in Venezuela.

Yet even with its evident failures, Venezuela continues to attract its fair share of supporters. Leftists such as Bernie Sanders have supported Venezuela up until recently, and across the Atlantic, terrorist-enabler Jeremy Corbyn stills supports Venezuela. There is no denying that building ties to Russia and China is problematic enough, but when terrorist groups and drug cartels are supported by Venezuela, the United States cannot afford to turn a blind eye. Venezuela is undermining sanctions on Iran and has even hosted an FBI-wanted Hezbollah operative. With Maduro ignoring drug cartels, one could argue that he is directly responsible for drugs infiltrating American borders and ergo violating American sovereignty. Furthermore, the economic and educational suicide of Venezuela have created a humanitarian crisis like no other in the Western Hemisphere. The world will be watching Venezuela on May 1stwhen it holds elections. However, opposition parties have not cooperated enough or have resorted to boycotting due to electoral discrepancies. The truth remains, Venezuela cannot solve this issue on their own. America’s enemies will use Venezuela as a launching pad to further undermine American hard and soft power in the region and in the world. The United States cannot afford another Cuba in its hemisphere. It is time to bring back the Monroe Doctrine. It is time to admit that socialism has failed yet again. It is time to acknowledge the violence Maduro inflicts on his own people. It is time to acknowledge Venezuela as a failed state.