Black Gold. Oil. Petroleum. No matter what you call it, it has always been, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, a valuable resource. It has inebriated many nations with the staggering income it generates in times of boom, but equally cripples them in times of bust.
Consider the following picture in Venezuela: Civil unrest, commodity price hikes including gasoline and strict economic reforms in order to service foreign debt. To previous generations it may sound like déjà vu. Though this is an accurate representation of events currently unfolding, I was actually making reference to the mid to late 1980s: a period in history when oil prices fell, Venezuela’s economic growth slowed, and government spending had to be curtailed, the culmination of which resulted in The Caracazo, a series of violent demonstrations in early 1989, in response to the imposition of strict neoliberal reforms. Although it cannot be said that civil unrest has reached such levels, crime is out of control and it may just be a matter of time.
With oil-derived income accounting for 95 per cent of export earnings, the Chavez led government was sweetened by high oil prices, and amped up social spending targeted at the poor, a huge political base for la Revolución Bolivariana. A few years on, the charismatic leader has now passed and his successor, President Maduro, is having a much more difficult time. The tides have now turned and the industry that brought in most of Venezuela’s wealth over the years, has failed to churn out profits in keeping with the Chavez days. Not as great an orator as Chavez, populist support has predictably shifted away from the government and towards the opposition coalition, Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (MUD).
In the wake of falling oil prices in the mid to late 1980s, it was also becoming clear that tough measures would have to be adopted to keep the economy afloat. However, this did not stop candidate Perez from winning the Presidential race for a second time, on strong anti-neoliberal sentiment. (Weeks into his presidency, however, he accepted neoliberal economic reforms proposed by the IMF.).
In present day Venezuela, symptoms of Dutch Disease are still present, as they were in the past century, if not even more pronounced. The enormous wealth garnered by the oil industry choked other industries, as imports soared and local producers struggled to compete. The failure of other industries to keep up with the oil boom led to massive importation. Today food shortages have caused citizens to line up for hours at state owned grocery stores, unsure of what is on sale on any given day but prepared to purchase it anyway, out of necessity.
In what may be the smallest glimmer of hope, the crisis has prompted an increase in communal urban agriculture, a grassroots project implemented under Chavez, aimed at boosting food sovereignty. These agricultural projects also exist in rural areas, but lack of agricultural supplies and theft has strongly burdened their potential.
The opposition, emboldened by its majority win in recent Parliamentary elections, has strengthened its position of power and clarified its opposition to President Maduro. The President, in return has vowed not to work with the opposition. The problem of moving forward is marred by short-term concerns of maintaining political power. Already, 13 new pro-Maduro supreme court judges were hastily installed in December 2015, a desperate move to maintain political clout against growing anti-Maduro sentiment and all-out frustration. Such a move can only serve to embolden the duly elected MUD and further fuel the public’s anger.
However, even if both sides can somehow manage to bridge their political and ideological gaps, and agree to sweeping changes tomorrow, a great deal of suffering is still in store for the Venezuelan people in the foreseeable future.
For those who may hasten to declare an end to the Bolivarian Revolution, I would advise caution, as this manifestation of what I call ‘anti-Madurismo’ stems greatly from the discontentment in the state of the economy, and is not necessarily a rejection of Chavismo. Indeed, the opposition coalition majority may well find itself losing popularity with much of the support it had in the elections, as tough decisions have to be made in the near future that will inevitably and disproportionately affect the poor.
But whoever gains support or whoever loses support will not matter very much in the long run, as the international oil slump is not expected to improve in the immediate future. In this time of crisis, as in times of crises past, the need for economic diversification will be stressed, and attempts to achieve such may well take off.
While many may have already written off Venezuela as a failed state, opposition supporters are confident that positive change can come if Maduro steps aside, or calls fresh elections. Given Maduro’s many assertions that he intends to remain president, this may not happen. Without a doubt then, what is needed is bi-partisan support to put the interest of the Venezuelan people above own self-interest. Policies to counteract the volatility of oil, such as the communal agriculture project, and the recently announced small businesses bank will help the Venezuelans, in whatever small way, to rally through this crisis.
Jordan Maicoo is a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, and holds an Honours BA in International Studies and a minor in Hispanic Studies from York University’s Glendon College. His areas of interest include migration, international politics, North-South cooperation, and climate change. In addition to contributing to Freedom Observatory, he writes for the blog The South Side of Things. Jordan works as the International Relations Officer at the European Development Fund, Ministry of Planning and Development in Trinidad. He is fluent in Spanish and has a working knowledge of French.
This is a cross-post originally published on Observatory Media
Image courtesy of Wikimedia