Venezuela – If we compare South America to the Middle East, Africa, or South East Asia, the region seems idyllic. There have not been any major international conflicts in decades, and most civil struggles are contained to the sovereignty of its nations. Moreover, the area is populated with relatively stable governments, modest economic growth, free societies and active democracies.
Venezuela, however, is a major outlier in the region. Without ignoring the collapse of Dilma Roussef’s government in Brazil and the long-lasting presidencies of Rafael Correa and Evo Morales in Ecuador and Bolivia, it is fair to conclude that no other South American society is experiencing more oppression from its government than the people of Venezuela. No other country has deteriorated institutionally to the magnitude of the once-rich state; nor has another country seen its people be disenfranchised as rapidly and brusquely as Venezuela has. While the country is not yet considered a failed state, it is certainly approaching tyranny.
Given that I grew up in Cucuta, a Colombian city right on the border with Venezuela, I have observed the country´s vicissitudes for years. I have lived the deteriorating circumstances of a society praying for political implosion and felt the uncertainties of a state without the rule of law. In less than a decade, Venezuela transformed from a prosperous country with growing industries, large and well-maintained highways, and bustling airports to the pariah state with empty supermarket shelves and energy rations that it is today. The so-called “XXI Century Socialism,” ideology promoted by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stunted the country’s progress. Indeed, it has actively promoted its destruction.
Since Hugo Chavez’s death and the appointed transition to Nicolas Maduro, the sitting President, things have gotten worse. Even though the situation has been in decline for a while and corruption and organised crime have undermined the country´s institutions, the lack of a strong – instead, preposterous – leader has created a power vacuum. Despite Maduro’s efforts to legitimise his disastrous policies, a discontented population and a rising opposition has led to more oppression and power centralization. Amidst the cruelty of the situation, international powers have ignored and “watched from the bench” as Maduro takes action against civilians and basic freedoms.
Five to seven years ago, the government shut down opposition channels and radio stations in a deliberate attempt to limit and control access to information. Not long ago, newspapers ran out of paper in a Maduro-led charade. Freedom of the press since Chavez’s years has become a far-reaching goal in Venezuela.
If the power and protection of opposition leaders measure the health of a democracy, Venezuela shows signs of severe democratic disease. Along with the lack of toilet paper, food, and basic medicine, news regarding the political prisoners’ situations has reached the international stage. Leopoldo Lopez, former mayor of Caracas, surprised the world with a letter quite similar to Nelson Mandela’s reflections with a flavour of Gandhi-ism. With genuine pain in every word, he described what he wants for his country and the limitations he currently faces to reach this utopian future. Along with Lopez, Antonio Ledesma, Maria Corina Machado, and others have taken up the flag of martyrs and have fought harshly against the establishment. Maduro has prohibited legal representation for political prisoners, as he categorises opposition activists as agitators and U.S-backed government destabilizers. Attempts from international leaders to defend the prisoners have been shot down by gross acts of unilateralism.
Besides the institutional debacle, economic pressures are vivid in Venezuela’s current state. Companies have been nationalised and expropriated, driving international investment away and destabilising markets. Major airlines, for example, have stopped flying to Caracas for the lack of foreign currency. Factories have closed and multinationals have left the country. Migration waves of educated Venezuelans are fleeing to countries like Panama, Colombia, and the United States. Inflation is reaching sky-high levels and unemployment rates are in the two-digits.
The concentration of power in executive hands has no precedent. A concentrated leadership has extended presidential power to the state’s legislative and judiciary branches. Despite the fact that the opposition won a majority in Congress in the last election, Maduro quickly constrained the congress’s power, once again changing the rules of the game, in an attempt to counteract a potential referendum that would put its presidency in risk. Rule of law is fading, reminiscent of other dictatorships in the region’s history. The boundaries between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, built to reassure the balance of powers, are constantly violated and largely ignored.
With the steps to anarchy being accomplished one by one, what is expected for the future of Venezuela? The oil-driven economy is far from the powerful country it once was, and its people are craving for a radical shift away from a failed state-led socioeconomic plan.