A History of Venezuelan Politics

The crisis in Venezuela is a socio-economic and political crisis that rose to prominence under the leadership of former President Hugo Chàvez and has been exacerbated under the presidency of Nicolás Maduro. Massive increases in hyperinflation, as well as escalating starvation, disease, and crime rates, have resulted in mass emigration from the country. According to economists interviewed by The New York Times, the situation is by far the worst economic crisis in Venezuela’s history and is also the worst facing a country in peacetime since the mid-20th century — more severe than that of the United States during the Great Depression. In order to understand this crisis, it is important to be familiar with the history of Venezuela and its political environment.

Photo by Leonardo Munoz via The Conversation Journal.

Early History and Colonization

Prior to colonization, there were as many as 400,000 indigenous people living in the nation now known as Venezuela, including Arawak, Carib, Caquetio, Auaké, Mariche, and Timoto-Cuicas indigenous groups. Though Columbus arrived in 1498, the first Spanish colonial settlement was not established until 1523. In the latter half of the 16th century, Spanish agriculturalists began to colonize the region by using semifeudal grants of land and indigenous laborers. By 1600, more than 20 settlements dotted the Venezuelan Andes and the Caribbean coast. The 16th century also brought the introduction of slavery of indigenous and African people under Spanish colonial rule.

The Spanish government ruled until the early 1800s, when political discontent began to grow in the colony. In 1810, the revolution to gain independence from Spain began, and Venezuela declared its independence a year later on July 5, 1811. This independence, however, was not decisively won until Simón Bolívar’s clear victory over the Spanish royalist army in 1821. It was also in 1821 that slavery was abolished, and Bolívar successfully integrated the ancient Spanish colonies that were in present-day Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador into Gran Colombia; however, this integration was short-lived as Venezuela seceded in 1830.

La Batalla de Carabobo as painted by Martín Tovar y Tovar

Venezuela’s early history was marked by revolutions, counterrevolutions, and dictatorships. A period of civil war began in 1846 and ended in 1870, when caudillo Antonio Guzmán assumed power until his overthrow in 1888. Other notable dictators included Cipriano Castro, who ruled between 1899 and 1908 — he caused Venezuela to incur large amounts of debt owed to European countries. In 1908, Juan Vicente Gómez usurped control from Castro and remained in power until his 1935 death. Under Gómez, Venezuela developed its agricultural industry and discovered oil, making it one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America; by 1927, oil was Venezuela’s most valuable export and by 1929, Venezuela was the leading global oil exporter.

Venezuela continued to be beset by dictatorships during the 20th century. Although political parties with Communist and Reformist agendas had been established, the history of Marxism in Venezuela remained complex, but a brief overview is that communism never sunk roots in Venezuela and its impact on mainstream politics was minimal. Venezuela capitalized on the international oil demand, especially on the oil boom in the early 1970s, during which the material standard of living for all classes in Venezuela improved. It eventually became a petrostate, in which the government is highly dependent on fossil fuel income, power is concentrated, and corruption is widespread.

The Chávez Presidency

In 1999, Col. Hugo Chávez was elected president. He launched the Bolivarian Revolution and established a new constitution, social policies funded by high oil prices, and an increasingly anti-American foreign policy. The nation was renamed República Bolivariana de Venezuela at his request. Chávez was reelected in 2001, and in November 2001, Chávez put into place a set of 49 laws central to the implementation of his programs. At first, using the large oil incomes, he was able to implement a free, government-funded healthcare system and free education up to the university level, but his social programs were not sustainable with the rising levels of inflation.

The inauguration of Hugo Chávez in 1999 via C-Span.

When April 2002 coup briefly ousted him from office, military leaders appointed Pedro Carmona as Venezuela’s interim president; Carmona immediately issued a decree to void the constitution, revert the country’s name to República de Venezuela, and reversed Chávez’s main social and economic policies. Chávez resumed his presidency shortly after. In 2003 and 2004, Chávez launched a number of social and economic campaigns focusing on education, which had become possible as for the first time he had a good economy and the oil industry. Nevertheless, there were also significant setbacks, notably, the inflation rate rocketed to 22% in 2002 and 31% in 2003.

In the aftermath of his 2004 referendum victory, Chávez’s primary objectives of fundamental social and economic redistribution accelerated dramatically; sharp increases in global oil prices gave Chávez access to billions of dollars in extra foreign exchange reserves. In 2006, Chávez was elected to a six-year presidential term and initiated a program of nationalization. In 2011 it was revealed that Chávez was battling cancer which required an operation in Cuba and repeated visits there for follow-up care. Many wondered how Chávez’s illness would affect his reelection, but his 2012 campaign was successful; however, on March 3rd, 2013 he succumbed to his battle with cancer.

The funeral of President Hugo Chávez. Photo by Carlos Garcia Rawlins via CNN.

The Maduro Presidency

The death of President Chávez elevated Vice President Nicolás Maduro to the presidency; he was sworn in as president on April 19, 2013. Maduro tried to emulate the political tactics of his successor but failed because he lacked Chávez’s most exceptional asset: the good fortune of an unprecedented oil boom, which poured close to a trillion dollars into Venezuela’s treasury during Chávez’s tenure. After oil prices crashed in late 2014, Venezuela’s economy crashed with it: economic growth slowed to a crawl as inflation climbed above 50%. Discontent with the Maduro government’s handling of the economy and with the growing crime rate led to protests, which quickly escalated.

The Supreme Court, dominated by Maduro partisans, marginalized the National Assembly by repeatedly invalidating laws enacted by it, and when Maduro delivered his annual address on the state of the country in January 2017, it was in the presence of the Supreme Court rather than before the legislature as dictated by tradition. Maduro’s authoritarian power grab intensified at the end of March when the Supreme Court dissolved the National Assembly legislature and assumed its functions. As the opposition’s defiance escalated, violent clashes between protesters and security forces resulted in more than 60 deaths and injured more than 1,200 people by early June. Maduro’s response included a call to draft a new constitution, an action many of his opponents viewed as yet another authoritarian power grab.

Nicolas Maduro and wife Cilia Flores Photo by Ariana Cubillos via USA Today.

As 2018 dawned, the Venezuelan economy was in shambles. European sanctions in response to Maduro’s increasingly autocratic rule had joined those imposed by the United States, Venezuelan oil production had plummeted, Venezuela’s GDP had experienced another year of crippling decline in 2017, and shortages of food and medicine were endemic. With hyperinflation at 2,400%, the national currency, the bolivar, was nearly worthless. In an attempt to overcome the sanctions and restart the economy, the Maduro government introduced the petro, a cryptocurrency whose value was tied to the price of one barrel of Venezuelan crude oil and backed by the country’s reserves of gold, diamonds, gas, and oil. Maduro claimed that the first day of petro sales had netted $735 million, but skeptics viewed the world’s first state-backed digital currency as a sign of desperation.

In Venezuela Today

The process and results of the May 2018 Venezuelan presidential election were widely disputed. The opposition-majority National Assembly declared Maduro’s presidency illegitimate on the day of his second inauguration, and even the pro-Maduro Supreme Tribunal of Justice said the National Assembly’s declaration was unconstitutional. Despite the widespread opposition, Maduro was inaugurated on 10 January 2019.

Maduro at his second inauguration in 2019. Photo by Zurimar Campos via BBC.

Maduro’s expanding control of Venezuela’s institutions should not be mistaken for an expansion of power. As the country’s economic crisis deepens and he becomes more tyrannical, he is alienating his own political base; his increasing reliance on appointing members of the military to power in his administration also demonstrates that he doesn’t have unilateral sway over the government. As Venezuela’s economy has collapsed, Maduro’s popularity has also plummeted, and protest movements have rocked the country: while the protests are led by a relentless opposition movement, their increased size and ferocity reveals that they’re motivated by something more than perpetual partisan vitriol.

Presidential elections in Venezuela are scheduled for next year, and a number of outcomes are possible. If they are managed to be held even somewhat fairly and the opposition unites in their participation, experts say it could be the end for Maduro — and a massive blow to the political revolution that brought him into power. However, in the face of a united opposition, Maduro could double down on his authoritarian repression, and push Venezuela even closer to dictatorship.

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