As recently as 2001, Venezuela was South America’s richest country. If present trends continue, it will become one of its poorest. Though the country boasts the world’s largest oil reserves, it is enduring an economic crisis unparalleled in recent history. Its GDP per capita has fallen by 40 per cent in just four years, inflation has surpassed 700 per cent, infant mortality has increased a hundredfold and citizens suffer chronic shortages of food and medicine.
Meanwhile, Venezuela is immersed in a grave political crisis. Since the farcical election of a new “constituent assembly”, the country’s authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro, has lived down to expectations by arresting two opposition leaders and sacking the critical attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz (who described the assembly vote as “a mockery of the people”). In the past four months, at least 123 people have died in the violence between government partisans and rebels.
In Britain, the Conservatives have made much of Venezuela’s woes in an effort to embarrass Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader, a proud supporter of Mr Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez, initially failed to comment on events before condemning “the violence that’s been done by any side and all sides”. Though his silence was telling, the Conservatives’ politicking does them little credit. After their recent election failure, they have shown more interest in ridiculing Mr Corbyn than in engaging seriously with the crisis.
Venezuela has long been a divided and polarised society. In 1998, the late Mr Chávez was elected with a mission to reduce the country’s vast inequality and to break the dominance of an oligarchical elite. For a period, aided by buoyant oil revenues, he succeeded: halving poverty, improving health and education services (illiteracy was all but eradicated in 2005) and widening political engagement. The 2002 US-backed military coup attempt reflected the elites’ refusal to accept Mr Chávez’s legitimacy and tolerate his redistributive programme. Their failure to topple the president, in the manner of Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973, demonstrated the popular support for his government.
However, as his 14-year rule progressed, Mr Chávez’s authoritarian tendencies intensified. Media and judicial independence were breached. Corruption and waste flourished among the country’s new political class. And, with baleful consequences, the economy became dependent on oil as enterprise was quashed through crude nationalisation.
Since the commodity price collapse in 2014, Mr Maduro, who was narrowly elected the previous year, has resorted to ever more despotic means to bolster his position. The newly established constituent assembly is designed to marginalise the opposition-led parliament and enjoys the right to rewrite the constitution and delay elections. Many who did not boycott the election (as the opposition advocated) voted only for fear of losing state jobs or food rations. Mr Maduro has already avoided a recall referendum, a procedure introduced by Mr Chávez, through dubious allegations of fraud. In a climate of popular discontent (only 23 per cent of voters approve of Mr Maduro), the signs are that the president will use all methods available to retain power.
Confronted by Venezuela’s human rights abuses, some advocate imposing punitive oil sanctions, led by the US (which accounts for almost half of the country’s fuel exports). Yet oil sales provide 95 per cent of the nation’s export revenue. Severe restrictions would further worsen conditions for citizens and risk triggering a major refugee crisis. They would also gift Mr Maduro an external justification for internal repression, potentially strengthening his position. Rather than carelessly deploying sanctions, foreign states should offer to oversee negotiations between the government and the opposition, preventing an irrevocable collapse into violence.
Venezuela’s fate is a sharp rebuke to those who lionised it as the home of “21st-century socialism”. But the right should not indulge in unsavoury glee, nor declare the country a vision of the UK’s future under a Labour government. There is no reasonable comparison between the two disparate economies. By the same measure, the left should not allow its disdain for neoliberalism and its justified anger at past US aggression to blind it to Mr Maduro’s abuses. The people of Venezuela deserve a higher standard of debate.
This article appears in the 09 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon