“Venezuela is threatened,” thundered the country’s defence minister, Vladimir Padrino López, on state television late last month. “This is the first time we are carrying out an exercise of this nature in the country.”
In times of trouble, Latin American leaders are well-versed in evoking the spectre of Yankee imperialism to see off domestic opposition, and President Nicolás Maduro’s embattled regime is no different. As the economic crisis deepens, the Venezuelan government has carried out the biggest military exercise in the country’s history, an overt threat to its enemies, both real and imagined.
Maduro announced the military exercises in response to what he branded the “illegal entry” into Venezuelan airspace of US spy planes. In a rambling television address, he claimed (without producing any evidence) that the flights were being used by Washington “to support communications of armed groups in war zones or to prepare actions to disable electronic equipment [of the] government, the armed forces or the economy”. Maduro also extended a 60-day state of emergency, which has broadened the powers of the army and police.
Maduro’s rhetoric might have sounded plausible a decade ago when George W Bush was in the White House, but the prospect of a military coup by Obama is outlandish.
“They [the Maduro government] are trying to survive,” says Francisco Toro, founder and editor of Caracas Chronicles, an influential English-language blog. “They’re trying to hang on to power in a situation where hanging on to power is very difficult, because they’ve lost the support of the vast majority of the population.”
Anti-American bombast is the default response of a government that is facing growing unrest. On 2 May, the opposition submitted a petition signed by 1.85 million people calling for a referendum to remove Maduro from power. This easily surpassed the 1 per cent of the population required by Venezuela’s constitution to trigger a referendum, yet it was squashed by the country’s National Electoral Council (CNE), which is dominated by the ruling Socialist Party. In response, protesters took to the streets. “The government will fall,” they chanted. They were met by police, the national guard and clouds of tear gas.
Some international observers, sympathetic to the project of Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez, cite the size of the protests – smaller than the anti-government demonstrations that shook the country for three months in 2014 – as evidence that only a small minority is disgruntled with Maduro.
Toro believes that it is mainly fear keeping some people indoors.
“It’s now very obvious what happens if you get caught at one of these protests – you’re going to be jailed and tortured. That is established now . . . It takes a lot of guts to show up on one of those protests,” said Toro.
Taking the “anti-imperialist” declarations of the Venezuelan government at face value is a luxury that is only afforded to commentators outside the country. Inside Venezuela, people are too busy trying to survive. At 180 per cent in 2015, Venezuela has the world’s highest rate of inflation. The government has $123bn of external debt that it is unable to pay. There are long queues outside shops and supermarkets for even the most basic goods, and filth, squalor and a lack of basic medicines in the country’s hospitals.
“I have friends who queue for at least five hours every two days to buy whatever is on offer at the grocery shop or supermarket,” says Edmundo Bracho, a Venezuelan lecturer in communications and media at the University of Westminster. Bracho’s cousin is epileptic, and his family have been forced to ask friends due to travel abroad to buy his epilepsy medication, which is no longer available in Venezuela, and bring it back.
The ruling class has long idolised Fidel Castro’s Cuba. As each day passes, the distortions in the Venezuelan economy increasingly resemble those of its Caribbean neighbour. During his time in charge of the Cuban national bank in the 1960s, the Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara presided over heady discussions as to whether Cuba might one day abolish money altogether in favour of a barter system. For those outside Venezuela’s ruling elite (the nation’s wealthiest citizen is the late Hugo Chávez’s daughter) the barter economy is fast becoming a reality: everyday items such as toilet paper are exchanged by Venezuelans of all social classes to get hold of essentials like medicine. With a black market rate of almost 1,000 bolívars to the dollar, the Venezuelan bolívar is worth hardly more than a sheet of toilet paper.
The unfolding tragedy is particularly striking given that Venezuela, with its huge petroleum reserves, ought to be one of the richest countries in the world. Oil accounts for 95 per cent of the country’s export revenues. The oil price has more than halved in recent years, caused by increased supply from US and Middle East sources amid a period of protracted growth in China, Europe and Brazil, but even when oil prices hit an all-time high in 2008, government revenue was already falling.
Bracho says that it was “never a part of the government’s policies” to save some of that revenue money during the boom years. “Instead, it accumulated massive debts and financed ideological allies, such as Cuba and Bolivia, without doing elementary maths.”
Inflation is forecast to reach 481 per cent this year. Yet rather than attempting to turn the economy around, some inside Maduro’s inner circle see the latest crisis as an opportunity, says Toro. “They see this as a crisis they must not let go to waste – to shut down the National Assembly, to shut down any space for constitutional dissent . . . [They] really have this strange deluded sense that this is a crisis that will allow them to transition into a dictatorship of the proletariat. Or something like that.”
James Bloodworth is the author of The Myth of Meritocracy (Biteback)
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind