A Venezuelan tragedy

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 23, 2016


The biggest news from Latin America as the year comes to an end is the unprecedented worsening of the social, political and economic crisis in Venezuela as the government shows record-breaking ineptitude and the opposition proves unable to form a unified front to offer an alternative to desperate Venezuelans. More than Donald Trump’s election or the peace process in Colombia, the breakdown of social order in Venezuela is unfortunately the most important and deplorable development of 2016.


Venezuelans started 2016 in a hopeful mood. The democratic opposition had overwhelmingly won the legislative elections on December 7 and, contrary to expectations, the administration of Nicolás Maduro accepted defeat. Having received 56.2 percent of the vote, the opposition secured 109 of the 167 seats in the unicameral Congress. Though it was a clear majority, it fell just short of the tow thirds majority threshold required to override President Maduro’s veto power. Despite accusations of vote-tampering on the part of the government to prevent the opposition from securing a veto-proof two-thirds majority, the election — held under unfavourable conditions for the opposition — was a victory for democracy in that troubled country. The fact that the government admitted defeat was a ray of hope for those advocating for a democratic and orderly transition out of Chavismo in Venezuela.


A year later, hopes for a peaceful change of government have vanished. The opposition is deeply divided as to how to bring about political chance and restore sanity in the economic policies. After constant disagreements on how to deal with the unpopular government, the opposition ended up doing little to capitalise on popular discontent against Maduro. While the most radical wing unsuccessfully sought to remove Maduro from power, immediately after gaining control of the Legislature — a move that would have required them to bypass the Constitution — the moderate wing bet on securing a recall referendum vote that, if held in 2016, would have forced Maduro out and paved the way for fresh presidential elections. Neither side succeeded, as Maduro used his control over the Supreme Court to block the opposition’s efforts to use administrative procedures to remove him from power and delayed the process that would have forced a recall vote long enough to make it constitutionally impossible to trigger new presidential elections before his term ends in 2019.


From despair to where

Twelve months after the electoral result led many Venezuelans to see a light at the end of the tunnel, hope has turned into despair. Few see a peaceful transition of power as a viable option. If held in 2017, the recall referendum might force Maduro out. But, according to the constitutional rules, he would be replaced by his Vice-President Aristóbulo Istúriz — not by a newly elected president.


The government has continued to mismanage the economy. Inflation is out of control, hitting close to 500 percent a year. Unemployment and poverty are widespread. Food and electricity shortages are common occurrences and crime is rampant. The country is on the verge of chaos. To make things worse, the government continues to prove that it is uncapable of steering the country in the right direction.


The policies adopted by the government have worsened matters. In an alleged effort to combat mafias who move contraband and much needed goods into Venezuela, the government announced that it would take out of circulation the 100-bolivar-bill, the largest in value — worth just two cents of a US dollar in the black market — within a week. The announcement, made 10 days before Christmas, wrought havoc on an already depressed economy. Thousands waited for hours outside banks to exchange their bills for lower denomination bills. Stores stopped accepting 100 bolivar bills and people had an even harder time to buy the goods they so desperately need. (Maduro later postponed the elimination of the notes until January 2, further complicating matters). Venezuelans will have a depressing Christmas, with little to celebrate and with dark clouds looming on the horizon. As if to illustrate its desperation, the government chose to pick a fight with the members of the Mercosur. After being suspended from the trade bloc in early December, the Venezuelan government sent its Minister of Foreign Affairs Delcy Rodríguez to crash a regular meeting in Buenos Aires. Rodríguez eventually forced her way into an empty conference room and denounced the isolation her government is being subjected to by the new centre-right governments that preside over Argentina and Brazil. In the middle of the worst economic crisis that country has seen in more than five decades, the Venezuelan government has chosen to underline its incompetence by trying to crash a party without an invitation.


As the year comes to an end, the demise of social order in Venezuela is the chronicle of a foretold death. Though 2016 began with high expectations of a peaceful change in government, neither the Maduro administration nor the opposition have shown the courage and leadership needed to find common ground and to pull the country out of the deep hole it finds itself in. Unfortunately for Venezuelans, who are deeply suffering from the economic, social and political chaos, they have little to look forward to in 2017.