Here’s the history of Venezuela in a word: plunder.
Filthy rich from the soil on down, the country is known for it massive oil reserves, not to mention its vast resources of gold, natural gas, diamonds, iron ore and bauxite.
As you’d imagine, such wealth has made some people very rich.
So how is it possible that citizens are literally starving and the country appears to have been ransacked?
Venezuela is in the midst of an economic and political crisis that some fear will result in civil war. For starters, the country currently has two official leaders. Depending upon who you ask, the people are either finally going to escape the corrupt grip of President Nicolas Maduro with the help of interim leader Juan Guaido — or they’re about to ally themselves with a puppet of the United States. And live to regret it.
The only thing everyone agrees on is that the Venezuelan people have to be allowed to sort this out for themselves. Please, National Security Advisers everywhere — no more little fake-out notes about sending 5,000 troops via Columbia to invade Venezuela. Keep your sabre rattling to yourself.
At any rate, the country is a mess. Food and medicine are so hard to come by that 3,000,000 people have fled their homeland and the average Joe has lost 19 pounds in the last year. People pick through garbage looking for food.
By the end of last year, hyperinflation was overwhelming daily life. The annual inflation rate was 1,300,000% over 12 months; the government changed the currency and upped the minimum wage, but it didn’t help.
One expat with medical connections said a few days ago that there were only enough dialysis supplies left in the country for five patients. When the power went off at a major metropolitan hospital, 10 people died overnight. Lack of the simplest supplies — soap and toilet paper, for example — has created sanitation issues.
Another Venezuelan living in Toronto says that a decade ago the infrastructure was trashed — with roads, hospitals, schools and public buildings already in wretched shape.
“It’s so bad there’s an app people use in Venezuela that tells you where there will be toilet paper and when it will be available,” she says, “so you can line up at 3 a.m. to get some.”
Desperation and lawlessness have overtaken Venezuela. The country is wracked by violence.
How did this happen? How did Venezuela go from wealthy democracy to disaster zone?
The country’s economy is based on oil, and a seemingly limitless supply of it. Initially, that brought enormous wealth; economic stewardship was another story. When oil prices collapsed in the 1980s, it was a big economic hit. Things got worse in the 90s and the stage was set for the election of Hugo Chavez and his socialist platform in 1998.
Chavez was a populist whose solution to the country’s split between haves and have-nots was, as one expat put it, “To start a rhetoric of hate.”
Chavez’ promise to wrest control away from the country’s elites meant the nationalization of farms, factories, power and telecommunications companies and various industries; price controls; food distribution to the poor, and investment in housing and public health.
His socialist promises notwithstanding, Chavez moved fast toward authoritarian rule.
Corruption and cronyism crept into everything. As the New York Times said in a 2017 article, “After running on smashing the corrupt elite, Mr. Chavez had merely established his own.”
As the economy continued to worsen, Chavez’ failure to invest in the country long-term became obvious.
After Chavez’ death in 2013, Nicolas Maduro was elected. Maduro took over the country just as oil prices fell again; the country erupted in protests and political demonstrations in 2014 and again in 2017. The government’s response was often violent.
Maduro was re-elected in 2018 — the final straw for many. Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly would not recognize Maduro’s re-election, labelling him a usurper and claiming the presidency was hence vacant. As certain articles in Venezuela’s constitution state, when this happens the head of the National Assembly becomes acting president.
And that brings us to Juan Guaido, who was declared acting president in late January. It’s all legal and, ironically, based on the constitution Chavez created.
For the moment, Venezuela has two leaders. The eyes of the world are on the country now, with Maduro condemned internationally; both Canada and the U.S. support Guaido, as do many South and Central American countries; the UK, France, Spain and Germany will recognize Guaido as interim president if a new election is not announced soon in Venezuela.
What happens next may depend upon what the military does and who they support. Maduro has the support of the military because he has made many of them rich, but U.S. sanctions against Venezuela have all but paralyzed the flow of oil money. Loyalties may change.
Toronto’s Venezuelan community is looking to Juan Guaido with hope. They are united in their belief that Maduro must leave for their country to recover.
Activist Rebecca Sarfatti, who is with human rights group Canada Venezuela Democracy Forum, says this is Guaido’s moment.
“He has shown guts and a willingness to listen,” she says. “He does things with a steady hand. People are feeling a sense of hope.”
And hope, says Sarfatti, is crucial.
“In Venezuela, everything is broken. The current regime is autocratic and dictatorial…You cannot even describe the police abuses. This has been a nightmare and I hope we can wake up. I am so grateful to Canada and free world countries providing us with support.”
Teacher Elena Soni, a Venezuelan living in Toronto, has a thorough knowledge of her country’s complicated history.
“Maduro has to go. The situation is untenable,” she says. But she points past Maduro to Chavez’ intoxication with oil money and his failure to protect the country’s infrastructure or develop long-term strategies. His aid to the poor of Venezuela, says Soni, came in the form of bandaid solutions.
“With the amount of money that entered Venezuela during the years of $100 oil,” she says, “Chavez could have lifted every single Venezuelan out of poverty. He could have built a real agriculture industry, for example.”
Lawyer Karla Villegas came to Canada from Venezuela about a year ago. The decision to leave the country came after the family business was taken over by the government and she and other family members were abducted from their home at gunpoint by paramilitaries. She calls Maduro a dictator and supports Guaido because he, “Represents the collective struggle.”
Villegas can see a silver lining of sorts. “Whoever runs the country now will have to be 100 % transparent. The Venezuelan people will never again stand for what has happened.”
Every Venezuelan who leaves, she says, has vowed to be true to the country. “They’ve made a promise to go out, to educate and better themselves, and stay connected, with the sole goal of one day returning to Venezuela to rebuild the country from scratch.”