Defender tu derecho: The Rise of Maduro’s Dictatorship
“A people that loves freedom will in the end be free.” – Simon Bolivar
The Bolivarian Revolution
On December 6, 1998, over 3.5 million Venezuelans showed up to polls across the country to elect Hugo Chávez of the Movimiento Quinta República Party (MVR) as the 45th President of Venezuela. With the message of taking from the rich and giving to the poor, Chávez quickly enacted socialist policies and programs which became known as the Bolivarian Revolution. This ideology created a keen focus on encouraging both nationalism and government control over the country’s economy. In the early stages, Chávez’s vision proved fruitful for the average Venezuelan; his social welfare policies subsidized food, improved the educational system, and built an enviable healthcare system. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Carribean (ECLAC), Chávez's policies cut Venezuela’s poverty rates in half.
Nicolás Maduro’s Impact on Venezuela
When Nicolás Maduro was elected as the 46th President of Venezuela in 2013, he echoed the sentiments of the late Hugo Chávez and promised the continuation of those same policies. Yet, in just six years, we have seen the meteoric rise of Venezuela crumble to the ground, evident by a widespread lack of food and medical supplies, constant riots, and the nosedive of both its economy and democratic institutions. Between 2013 and 2017, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports that Venezuela’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has fallen by over 35 percent. To put that into perspective, it’s a sharper drop than the one seen during the Great Depression in the United States. So what went wrong?
PDVSA’s Role in the Venezuelan Crisis
For a country in crisis, it’s interesting to note that Venezuela is home to the largest oil reserves in the world, specifically in the Orinoco Belt. The Orinoco oil reserves, however, consists of extra-heavy crude oil that is challenging to produce. This dilemma incentivized the Venezuelan government to reach out to international companies such as ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips for help with extracting the oil. But when oil prices started to skyrocket, the Venezuelan government under the Chávez administration began expropriating assets from these companies (usually illegally). With near control of all oil exports, Venezuela consolidated their assets into Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), the state-owned oil and natural gas company. This flood of revenue is what allowed Hugo Chávez to invest heavily in his socialist policies. The problem was that with Chávez’s unwavering ability to scale back on Venezuela’s dependence towards oil meant that these programs would come tumbling down if oil prices began to fall.
Hyperinflation and Mismanagement
Shortly a year after Maduro was elected as President, this concern became a reality; oil prices rapidly fell in 2014, and Maduro failed to adjust. With his mismanagement of the PDVSA and acts of cronyism that left his close friends in charge of the company, hyperinflation rocked Venezuela. The IMF notes that inflation has hit a shocking 800,000 percent in 2019 compared to just 19 percent before Nicolás Maduro took office. With food and medical supplies that were once subsidized and offered to the poorest of the Venezuelans now gone, most of the population suffered, creating a massive human rights crisis. In 2017, the Encuesta Nacional de Condiciones de Vida Venezuela (National Survey of Living Conditions of Venezuelan Life) noted that nine out of 10 Venezuelans can’t afford to buy food and over 60 percent of the country reported going to bed hungry.
First Steps Towards a Dictatorship
So if Maduro is the cause of these major problems, why not just wait out his term limit and then vote in someone else? In fact, many local polls in 2016 showed that around 80 percent of Venezuelans want him removed from office. However, Maduro has taken numerous steps in the past few years to consolidate his power. Maduro’s political ambitions became apparent in December of 2015 after the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly which put Maduro’s rule at risk. With the Supreme Court and the National Assembly as the two biggest checks against his power, Maduro quickly began amalgamating his rule; he forced out Supreme Court justices and replaced them with governmental loyalists and political allies.
The Creation of a National Constituent Assembly
In July of 2017, Maduro took another major controversial step by invoking Article 347 of the Venezuelan Constitution which allowed him to hold a vote to create what is now known as the National Constituent Assembly; a body that would have the power to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution, subsequently replacing the current National Assembly. This action would leave virtually no opposition to Maduro’s rule. July 30, 2017 was set as the date of the vote but Venezuelans were only given the choice to vote for its members, not whether there should be a National Constituent Assembly in the first place. All opposition groups boycotted the vote calling it illegitimate which lead to the National Constituent Assembly consisting of a pro-Maduro majority being elected. One of the first moves it took as an Assembly was to remove Luis Ortega, leader of the opposition, from his position as Attorney General.
Controlling the Currency
The final step that Maduro took was to ensure that close military allies would remain loyal to him and not attempt a coup d’état. To do this, Maduro used a convoluted currency system that he carried over from the Chávez regime. He exploited the system by setting the official exchange rate of 10 bolivars to 1 US dollar which he only gave access to his friends and military allies. With the mismanagement of the economy, hyperinflation had rapidly devalued the currency, making the exchange rate 12,163 bolivars to 1 US dollar which is what the rest of the Venezuelan people were given access to. Moreover, Maduro gave full access of the food supply in Venezuela to military officials. This action allowed them to import food at the 10:1 exchange rate and then sell it on the black market at the 12,163:1 exchange rate wielding major profits and keeping them loyal to the Maduro administration.
Food for Vote Schemes
With the military on his side and all other opposition nearly gone, Nicolás Maduro took the final step to maintain his rule in May of 2018 in which he was re-elected as President of Venezuela in what many call a massively fraudulent election. Venezuela’s National Election Council, unsurprisingly run by pro-Maduro sympathizers, reported that over 67 percent of the nine million people that went to the polls that day voted for Nicolás Maduro. The result of the 2018 election came as a shock to none as the pro-Maduro National Election Council barred many of Maduro’s opponents from running. Maduro himself enacted an “I Give and You Give” voting strategy in which he dangled food boxes for votes. With more than 5 million Venezuelans undernourished, according to the United Nations, Maduro wielded food as a political tool to either buy votes or intimidate hungry people. After Venezuelans voted, they were promptly brought to a so-called Red Spot. At these locations, they presented their special identity cards, that they had to use to vote for the election, which was used to receive their food. Maduro had figured out how to manipulate the local people into doing his bidding.
The Rise of Juan Guaidó
It wasn’t until the start of 2019 that any sort of opposition to Maduro began to make its presence felt on the streets of Caracas. On January 5 of 2019, a little known lawmaker by the name of Juan Guaidó was appointed the head of the National Assembly (not to be confused with the pro-Maduro National Constituent Assembly). After just 18 days as head of the National Assembly, sparked by the nation-wide riots and protests, Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself Venezuela’s interim president, dismissing the 2018 Presidential Election as illegitimate. In the next few months, many countries began showing their support for either Nicolás Maduro or Juan Guaidó. More than 50 countries including the United States, Canada, Brazil, Colombia and almost all the countries in Latin America expressed their support for Juan Guaidó and currently recognize him as Venezuela’s President. On the other hand, left-wing governments like Cuba and Bolivia, as well as Turkey and Iran, refused to recognize Guaidó. The most notable backer of Maduro is Russia, a country that always enjoys supporting anti-US allies.
Operacion Libertad: The Fight for a Free Future
The most recent action by Juan Guaidó was called Operacion Libertad (Operation Freedom) in which he called upon the military to switch sides and fight with him. Seen as those most crucial in breaking the impasse, Guaidó has promised amnesty if these military officials break away from Nicolás Maduro. With the murder rate in Venezuela surpassing that of the most dangerous cities in the world, swift action must be taken. Whether Maduro postpones the next presidential election or re-writes the entire constitution remains to be seen. For now, he has unprecedented power over a country that continues to spiral out of control.