Picture a nation with widespread economic distress, food shortages, rampant political corruption, waves of migrants fleeing instability, and an increasingly authoritarian government. You may have thought of Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan. Those would all be correct, but this week’s focus is on a country with those same problems much closer to home. Many nations in Latin and South America are facing systemic problems today, but the oil-rich nation of Venezuela may be one of the most severe cases. As “president” Nicolás Maduro begins his second term, Venezuela faces a tipping point in its future. But first, let’s take a quick look at this nation’s recent past, beginning with the administration of Hugo Chávez.
In 1999, Venezuela adopted a new constitution and named military leader Hugo Chávez as the president and chief executive. Chávez rode a wave of populist energy into power and began his presidency by using Venezuela’s substantial oil revenues to create massive public works programs. These programs worked well for nearly ten years, increasing the general welfare of Venezuelans in the process. But Chavez’s populist policies eventually began to take their toll on the economy, and the large-scale spending programs couldn’t last forever. Faced with increasing economic problems, Chávez declared an “economic war” in 2010 to attempt to exercise further direct control over the economy. But the effects of the Great Recession and Chávez’s policies of deficit spending led to further deterioration of the Venezuelan economy.
After Chávez died in 2013, vice president Maduro took control and didn’t fare much better. Maduro accelerated Venezuela’s authoritarian backsliding and became increasingly unpopular. An opposition party rose to power following parliamentary elections of the National Assembly in 2015, but several courts declared the elections invalid. By 2017, massive protests had erupted throughout Venezuela as the situation worsened. Maduro then called for the creation of a “Constituent Assembly” to draft a new constitution. However, this assembly would only be elected from groups that had declared their loyalty to Maduro in the first place. Unsurprisingly, this assembly took over in August 2017 and discussed sweeping authoritarian reforms to government.
So where are we now? Well, the Constituent Assembly banned all major opposition parties from running in the 2018 presidential election, so Maduro naturally won. This was highly disputed by the National Assembly that instead proclaimed Juan Guaidó to be Venezuela’s true president. Maduro was sworn in for his second term on January 10th, but his government has already encountered significant defections including a Venezuelan Supreme Court justice and the Minister of Defense. So far, the only a few nations still proclaim their support for Maduro, including Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and Bolivia. America’s support for the original National Assembly and Juan Guaidó have led Maduro to declare (without substantial evidence) that the United States is interfering in Venezuela’s elections.
To be fair, the United States has meddled in the political affairs of Latin and South America in the past. This is even how the term Banana Republic was born. But most of this blatant regime change activity ceased after the 1970s (when the 1979 Iranian Revolution proved that overthrowing governments isn’t a great long-term strategy). No evidence has emerged to suggest American involvement in Venezuela’s current domestic politics. The only major response so far has been the Trump administration stating the they had “not ruled out military intervention” in solving this crisis. As is typically of the current administration, it was not made clear exactly what that intervention would look like or the mechanisms that would trigger it.
So why should you care? The result of Venezuela’s economic and political crises is a massive economic depression in an oil-rich nation. This causes instability and fluctuations in oil prices, which influence the price of nearly everything you buy. There is continued inflation, starvation, street fighting, and the emigration of millions of refugees from Venezuela. Most of these refugees have not come to America (since the journey would be extremely difficult), but they are pouring into neighboring countries (thus increasing the changes of instability in those nations). Much of South America is already straining under difficult political and economic circumstances, so the addition of hundreds of thousands of unemployed and impoverished people dramatically worsens the situation. We all know that the best way to stop a problem is to solve the root cause of it. If large-scale immigration is the problem in this scenario, encouraging Venezuelan stability is certain one of those solutions.