Unraveled by 20 years of faulty fiscal policies and political instability induced by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Venezuela now finds itself in one of the worst humanitarian crises in the Western Hemisphere. With a collapsed economy, suffering and devastation, and skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, the situation has displaced 5.3 million refugees as of March 2020. The 28 million people remaining face undernourishment due to a lack of food, medicine, and medical equipment caused by a decline in imports by 70% since 2016. Venezuelans also face water and electricity shortages and violence carried out by government security forces.
Democracy in Venezuela is deteriorating internally as the Maduro regime continues to dismantle the state’s democratic institutions, infrastructure, and economy while setting attacks on civil action and human rights, further festering inequality. How did Venezuela come so close to the brink of collapse? The crisis comes twofold.
First, Venezuela’s economic model is deeply reliant on the export of oil, serving as its main source of government income since the 1920’s. With a lucrative resource that attracts large inflows of foreign investment, causing a deviation of labor away from other sectors of the economy, such as agriculture and manufacturing, oil dependency has led to currency inflation.
When oil earnings are used responsibly by educating laborers and, investing in public goods and infrastructure, states can diversify their economies. This was not the case for Venezuela. The focus on oil has deterred attention away from Venezuela’s food supply, leaving only 30% made domestically. This means the country relies on outside markets to feed its citizenry. However, as revenue from state owned oil industries has fallen, not only is domestic production inefficiently reaching Venezuela’s food needs, but the lack of means to import has led to food shortages.
With an unbalanced dependency on oil production, caught on the tailspin of “boom and bust” global energy price changes, Venezuela’s economic contraction was exacerbated by the second part of the crisis: political instability.
Beginning with the Bolivarian Revolution in 1998 led by elected president Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s oil wealth was allocated to reduce poverty and inequality through social services and land reform. However, Chavez levied his popularity amongst the working class to expand presidential powers, gutted the inflow of skilled workers who did not plead political alliance, and embraced cronyism as a means of managing the repair of oil infrastructure. Chavez tried to exert legislative control over prices that were no match for hyperinflation that was headed towards 10,000% in 2018, leading to shortages mirroring that of Soviet-style bread lines. When Nicolas Maduro assumed power after Chavez’s death in 2013, global oil prices continued to tumble and by 2018 he consolidated authoritarian power by banning protests indefinitely, jailing political dissenters, and proposing to rewrite the 1999 Venezuela Constitution as an alternative means to dissolve the National Assembly, Venezuela’s unicameral legislature.
After a highly contested and fraudulent presidential election in 2018, Maduro assumed power again. Yet in January 2019, the National Assembly President, Juan Guaido, declared himself the interim president until fair elections could be held, honoring Articles 233 and 333 of the country’s constitution.
While failing to assume a formal and swift victory in the presidential palace, Maduro still has the army, the judiciary, electoral authority, and reigns over the economy. However, Mr. Guiado is supported by most of the Western world and is embraced by thousands of Venezuelans. Despite this, being a mere alternate president comes with limited accessibility to governmental powers and influence. After Guiado’s endorsement by more than 50 countries, Maduro cut diplomatic ties with the U.S., slashed the flow of humanitarian aid, and closed the border to the neighboring countries of Colombia and Brazil.
Although Venezuelans are committed to social change and a desire for reform, they fear that any opposition to the government will lead to a termination of social services or exile. On the other hand, fleeing to a host nation poses a socio-economic risk, such as inadequate living conditions, discrimination, and human trafficking.
This contrasts a prominent difference between democracy and authoritarianism: citizens in the former are granted relative freedom of choice and thought, whereas in the latter citizens are expected to obey regime agenda through political oppression. A citizenry unequipped with the political instruments needed to produce political equality is unable to check elite power. Venezuelans may have a constitution and participate in elections, but rule is established under the whims of Maduro’s regime, and elections are anything but free and competitive. As Maduro tends to his supporters, the people of Venezuela are ultimately bearing the brunt of the government’s failure to competently intervene in areas demanding humanitarian aid.
A United Nations High Commisioner’s report demonstrates that access to food has left children and women the most malnourished and the lack of skilled personnel has forced pregnant women to give birth abroad. Venezuelan women in particular are vulnerable targets under Maduro as increasing levels of sexual violence and discrimination, collapse of social services, and lack of legislative protections, impel families to migrate.
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the humanitarian crisis as hospitals surge with covid patients, and the majority of the population has limited access to water and sanitation, relying heavily on external providers for medical supplies and knowledge about the disease. The pandemic has allowed Maduro to further concrete his authoritarian approach by imposing curfews on his citizenry and discouraging protests for health purposes.
In 2019, Maduro reached an agreement to allow international assistance, notably the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which are organizations tasked with preventing the collapse of the healthcare infrastructure amid the pandemic. As of September of this year, Venezuela has had 49,877 reported COVID-19 cases and 402 deaths. It is suspected that numbers published directly from the Office of Maduro are severely underreported, especially as migrants return home after the pandemic consequently shut down economies globally, thwarting employment opportunities abroad. In turn, Venezuelans are returning back to their home country facing the unpredictable repercussions of political instability and economic uncertainty. Humanitarian actors are tasked with playing hopscotch between (president’s) government and (figure heads) social favorability as a means to avoid political pitfalls, or circumventing political actors entirely.
While the EU funded a humanitarian air bridge to Venezuela, delivering 82.2 tons of life saving materials, and organizations such as the Pan American Health Organization are working to supply the health sector, the international community has yet to respond with an exhaustive response plan to curb the humanitarian and refugee crisis. A single solution or approach does not exist, but the sparring mobilization from the international community has further placed barriers for fleeing Venezuelans. The international community needs to double-down on their efforts to aid the Venezuelan people while intimately cooperating with local NGOs who have insightful perspectives on how to properly pilot the strategy needed to address the humanitarian crisis.