By Gautam Hathi.
One of the unfortunate things about major news organizations is that their bandwidth is limited. They can only choose one story, or at best two or three, to cover in depth and promote at once. For the past couple weeks, the world news stories that have occupied the spotlight are the tumultuous ongoing clashes between demonstrators and police in Ukraine and, of course, the Olympics. But it turns out that the world is a big place, and there are important things going on elsewhere. In Venezuela, people are out on the streets and dozens have died, but there has been almost no reaction. Perhaps the world should pay attention before this crisis has broader reaching and potentially painful consequences.
For more than a decade, the face that Venezuela put to the world was that of Hugo Chavez, the larger than life, self-proclaimed socialist revolutionary who became increasingly authoritarian during the 14 years he ruled the country. He gained international notoriety after publicly demonizing the United States (infamously calling George W. Bush “the devil” during an address to the United Nations General Assembly) and his opponents. If that wasn’t enough to get people angry, Chavez was always eager to nationalize industries, discouraging investment and undermining the free market. Chavez also pushed through multiple constitutional amendments extending his ability to stay in office. However, Chavez’s popularity among the poor and the working classes remained an intractable force within Venezuela, due in large part to his social policies. As oil prices rose, Chavez used the wave of wealth accumulated by Venezuela’s massive oil reserves to fund massive subsidy and public investment programs. With ironclad support from the poor, he was re-elected multiple times with large majorities.
However, both Chavez and his revolutionary socialist agenda eventually broke down. In 2011, Chavez secretly traveled to Cuba to be treated for cancer, and then declared himself cured in 2012 before once again falling ill and eventually dying of cancer in 2013. Meanwhile, his radical socialist policies led to high inflation and a chronic recession during the latter years of Chavez’s reign, even as the government used oil money to prop up the economy. Companies watched as property was seized and industries were nationalized, and grew increasingly reluctant to do business with Venezuela. Violent crime rose steadily as an increase in police corruption accompanied a breakdown of the judicial system, and by 2013 there were more murders in Venezuela than in Mexico or even in Iraq.
This was the legacy inherited in 2013 by the current president Nicolas Maduro, a former union truck driver and fiercely loyal Chavista. Unfortunately, things have only deteriorated under Maduro’s watch. From the very beginning, opposition leaders accused Maduro of rigging an April election against governor Henrique Capriles Radonski in which he squeaked to victory. Since taking office, inflation has climbed rapidly, leading to empty store shelves and acute shortages of basic necessities. Maduro’s decisions to force stores to sell inventories and to devalue the country’s currency exacerbated the economic woes. In an ultimate showing of decreasing faith, ratings agencies eventually downgraded Venezuelan bonds.
All this set the stage for a backlash against Maduro and the socialist system for which he is the torchbearer. The spark that set off protests across the country was the murder of former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear along with her ex-husband in front of their five-year-old daughter. While there had been sporadic pushback against Maduro’s rule since his election victory in April, this was the first time that a sustained movement emerged. Protests escalated as police responded with water cannons and tear gas. Eventually, bands of gangsters and militants with suspected ties to the regime began to rove the streets of major cities, attacking protesters. Maduro declared the protests an attempted coup, and responded by blaming the United States for stirring up trouble and holding large-scale pro-government demonstrations of his own.
Over the past week events have come to a head. The government has cracked down on opposition parties and has arrested one key opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez. Protesters were also enraged by the death of beauty queen Genesis Carmona, who was shot in the head while protesting. The government has insisted that it was not responsible for her death, but protesters never had much faith in government claims to begin with. Maduro has declared that Venezuela “is not Ukraine,” but the protests show no signs of abating.
The chaos in Venezuela may have a significant impact on the outside world as well. The uncertainty in Venezuela has put pressure on oil prices, given that Venezuela has some of the world’s largest oil reserves and is a major oil exporter to the United States. While the effect has been contained so far, a disruption in supply from Venezuela could lead to major spikes in the price of crude on the world market, which has already been escalating steadily for weeks. Cuba in particular will feel the pain, since much of its oil supply comes is given to it highly discounted or free from Venezuela.
All of this makes it increasingly puzzling why media organizations aren’t spending more time on Venezuela. The outcome of protests there are arguable more important than the outcome of those in Ukraine (frankly, we’ve already been through a round of Ukrainian protests in the past few years without much trouble). Latin American countries have remained relatively silent, perhaps due to the good relations that Chavez had with many of their leaders. The United States has also been reluctant to respond, only doing so when Maduro forced the issue by blaming the US for inciting violent protests and expelling three US diplomats in response. Perhaps with the Olympics winding down news organizations across the world will find a little more time to take a look at Venezuela. The rapid progress of events there may soon leave them no choice.