For many foreigners, and even for most Venezuelans, understanding the country’s current situation is a tough, almost puzzling experience. How is it possible that the country with the biggest oil reserves in the world is also the country with the highest criminal rate and largest rate of inflation? How could the country spiral into such misery without the rest of the world really noticing, or its own citizens being able to actually do something about it?
The answer is a complicated one, requiring a brief history lesson. When Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s former president, sought election 17 years ago in 1999, he promised the people he would help them overcome what he perceived was a loss of national identity. According to the document he redacted in 1996, “Una Revolución Democrática. La Propuesta de Hugo Chávez para transformar a Venezuela” (A Democratic Revolution: Hugo Chavez’s Proposal to Transform Venezuela) the way to overcome the country’s perceived national catastrophe required finding a “political, social, economic, territorial and world equilibrium.” This solution sounded ideal to most Venezuelans at the time, who were fed up with the government corruption.
Chavez was elected and the “Socialist Revolution” began.
On paper, of course, it sounded great: help the poor, be more inclusive, reclaim a sense of nationalism. We were all supposed to be equals. What he really achieved, however, was creating a system in which everyone grew poorer and living at the government’s mercy. Instead of creating ways for the people to become autonomous and self-sufficient and facilitate the creation of dignified jobs to help the country’s economy grow, he used and misused Venezuela’s immense energy resources (as well as our gold, and other natural valuables) to feed his own political agenda. He used them both domestically, where he could afford to buy the people’s loyalty, and internationally, where he became the Socialist leader of a Latin America handing out free gifts in the form of millions of dollars worth of petroleum.
To Chavez, this was a somewhat affordable model of business. At the time of his death in 2013, the average price of a barrel of petroleum was $99.83. According to El Nacional, one of the country’s main newspapers, Venezuela was producing around 3 million barrels a day (out of which $2.5 million were exported, mainly to the US). If the country was earning $249.58 million each day, poverty should have never been a concern, especially considering that Venezuela is relatively small with a population of 28.5 million people, according to the 2013 Censo Nacional de Población y Vivienda (National Census of Population and Dwelling). If Venezuela was truly socialist, with all of us as equals, every Venezuelan should have received $8.8 millions daily, or the equivalent of that amount in proper infrastructure and quality of life. Instead, we had, and still have, alarmingly increasing levels of poverty, criminality and continued government corruption.
Enter present day Venezuela. Ruled by Nicolás Maduro, the current president hand-picked by Chavez’s himself before his death, the country is in worse shape than anyone could have imagined. In the first trimester of 2016, the average price for a barrel of petroleum was $26.14, according to El Ministerio del Poder Popular del Petroleo (Ministry of Popular Power of Petroleum), with the production levels around 2.5 million barrels a day — most of which is exported to the US and China.
Although oil prices dropped around the globe, one of Venezuela’s main issues is that its government and state were too dependent on it. Because we are rich in petroleum, we believed that we didn’t need to produce anything else in order to sustain ourselves. According to CNN, approximately 90 percent of necessities are imported (and even that numbers might run short). Agriculture production in the country was almost non-existent to begin with, and the few private companies that remained in the country had their lands confiscated by the government — often without compensation.
Adding to this problem is the devaluation of the Bolivar, Venezuela’s official currency. In 2015, a US dollar was worth 175 Bolivares. Today, a dollar is worth 1025 Bolivares. To put it another way, one Bolivar is worth $0.00098. On top of that, the minimum wage is currently 22,576.60 Bolivares a month — equivalent to around $22 a month. According to statista.com, this means Venezuela has the highest inflation in the world at 481.52 percent. Statista also states that “Higher inflation rates are more present in third world or developing countries, because they often lack a sufficient central bank, which in turn results in the manipulation of currency to achieve short term economic goals. Thus, interest rates increase while the general economic situation remains constant.” This is all too true in Venezuela’s case.
On top of that, Venezuela is barely able to make enough money to pay for its international debt, which totals almost $10 billion, according to bancaynegocios.com. The government can’t afford to import basic food items such as milk, eggs or flour (or anything else, for that matter), and the country can’t produce them because of the government’s previous confiscations from the private companies that made the food. The result is empty shelves at supermarkets and endless lines from the early morning to the markets’ closing hours, with most Venezuelans leaving the facilities without finding the most basic solutions for their daily needs — shampoo, deodorant and toilet paper are other items that are extremely rare to find in the country. Thousands have died because specialized, and standard, medicines have not been imported as well.
A starving population, frustrated with the government is the perfect recipe for social instability.
Paradoxically, most Venezuelans have a sense of humor so twisted that these types of situations are quickly turned into jokes of some form — mostly shared via social media. This coping mechanism is problematic because we have become cynics, normalizing every new disturbing situation until the point of insensibility — it seems as if nothing can shock us at this point. We have seen our country crumble to pieces, and we assume that in this situation it is better to laugh than to cry. And yet, the situation remains painfully unfunny.
However, not all Venezuelans express their frustrations in the same way. On Sept. 1, thousands of people from every corner of the country took to Caracas’ streets in a pacific march looking to put pressure on the failing government and to ask for a referendum in which Maduro could be recalled — looking to elect a new president.
Unfortunately, despite the vast majority of the population’s pressure, the only entity that can effectively call for a referendum is the Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council). Popularly known as the CNE, this branch of the government is also controlled by Maduro and his people.
Venezuela’s only hope at this point is for the government’s opposition to collect at least 20 percent of the entire population’s signatures asking for the referendum. However, this is a time sensitive matter. If the signatures are retrieved (and validated by the CNE, which is a whole other issue) as soon as possible, the referendum can be called for before Jan. 10 of next year. This would mean that new elections could take place, allowing for an opposition leader to take the role of president, if elected. If the referendum were to be held after that date, the current vice-president would merely take Maduro’s position and the opposition would be forced to wait until 2019 to try, once again, to take Chavism out of the country in a democratic manner.
With less than five months until Jan. 10, time is running out if Venezuela’s opposition leaders intend to make a change. And if things continue down this dark road, I shudder to imagine how things could get worse if Maduro were to remain in power for three more years.
And yet, many Venezuelans are still hopeful. As liberator Simón Bolivar once said, “it’s harder to maintain liberty’s equilibrium than to hold the weight of tyranny.” Still, it’s pretty hard to be under a tyrant’s weight, and Venezuela is unwilling to take it for much longer.