Perspectives on Geopolitics, History, and Political Economy

Country Profile: Venezuela

Originally published on New Internationalist

Tamara Pearson profiles this South American country, from the November issue of New Internationalist magazine.

People protest asking for food in the district of Catia in Caracas, Venezuela, 14 June 2016. New protests and looting attempts happened in several states of the country due to severe scarcity of food and medicines. EPA/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ

People protest asking for food in the district of Catia in Caracas, Venezuela, 14 June 2016. New protests and looting attempts happened in several states of the country due to severe scarcity of food and medicines. EPA/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ

It was the day before the violence started – the violence that would later be known as guarimbas, where rightwing street blockades saw 43 people killed and hundreds injured over a period of three months. It was 13 February 2014, and I was down the road from my home in Merida, taking photos of young men in balaclavas stopping buses at gunpoint. Three of them came up to me, and each put a gun to my head and said they would kill me if I didn’t give them my camera. The next day, two other journalists in Merida received gunshot injuries at that intersection.

The violence was part of the chapter that followed the death of President Hugo Chávez in March 2013. Chávez had been in power since 1999 and had utterly transformed the country, using oil revenues to pursue what he called the Bolivarian Revolution (after Latin America’s 19th-century liberator, Simón Bolívar) – taking state control of the oil, electricity and telecommunications industries and pursuing pro-poor policies, including key healthcare and literacy initiatives. Despite a rightwing coup attempt in 2002, Chávez maintained his electoral dominance right through to his death from cancer.

Venezuelan Flag = Source: New Internationalist

Venezuelan Flag = Source: New Internationalist

Having seen Chávez as unbeatable, the rightwingers saw their chance at last, but were surprised when former foreign minister and vice-president Nicolas Maduro won the presidential election in April 2013. Then, in December regional elections, the Chavista alliance won most municipalities.

The violence, food scarcity and inflation that have followed Chávez’s death over the past three years have in part been caused by a rightwing offensive against 14 years of avowedly socialist policies – policies which have seen increasing participation of excluded sectors of society in political and economic decision-making.

Slum area in Venezuela, neighborhood - Source: Shutterstock.com - Copyright: TravelStrategy

Slum area in Venezuela, neighborhood – Source: Shutterstock.com – Copyright: TravelStrategy

But the problems have also been spurred on by a massive drop in the price of oil, which is Venezuela’s main export, and many people blame the government for not having succeeded in diversifying the country’s production away from oil. The government’s reluctance to tackle exchange rate, import and price speculation issues has also played an important role.

Now, people’s wages are barely enough to cover groceries. Queues for regulated food start in the dark hours of the morning, there are periodic cuts in the supply of water and the internet, and some hospitals aren’t working as well as they used to. As a result, some of the millions of people involved in community councils and in Bolivarian movements may, finally, be starting to get a bit tired and fed up. The previously close relationship between these people and the national government is weakening. The government, attacked on economic and political fronts, is resorting too much to rhetoric rather than action, and forgetting how politically intelligent the Venezuelan poor have become. This decline in support was reflected in Venezuela’s most recent election in December 2015, when the right wing won a majority in parliament.

SANTA ELENA DE UAIREN, VENEZUELA - AUGUST 12, 2015: Empty shelves in a supermarket. Shortages of basic supplies are common in Venezuela. - Editorial Credit: Matyas Rehak / Shutterstock.com

SANTA ELENA DE UAIREN, VENEZUELA – AUGUST 12, 2015: Empty shelves in a supermarket. Shortages of basic supplies are common in Venezuela. – Editorial Credit: Matyas Rehak / Shutterstock.com

Meanwhile, in order to deal with food scarcity and prices, communities are turning to urban agriculture and to direct relationships with rural producers. They are coming to understand the importance of who controls the distribution of products, including food.

The Right is currently focusing its efforts on a recall referendum aimed at bringing down President Maduro. The constitution stipulates that, at the end of October, they must collect signatures from 20 per cent of registered voters, in order for the recall vote to go ahead. But many believe the Right, and the elites that support it, is profiting from the current crisis, and wouldn’t actually want to form a government.

Country Profile: Venezuela Fact File
Leader President Nicolas Maduro
Economy GNI per capita US$11,780 (Colombia $7,970, United States $55,200).
Monetary unit Bolivar
Main exports Oil (90.6%), gems, organic chemicals, iron and steel. Venezuela has three exchange rates: a protected exchange rate of 10Bs/US$1, an official floating exchange rate currently at 650Bs/US$1, and a black market rate of 1000Bs/US$1. The country is vulnerable to fluctuating oil prices, which fell by 50% in 2015. With increased purchasing power, household consumption has doubled over the past 15 years.
People 31.1 million. People per square kilometre: 35.7 (UK 267). Population growth rate of 1.5%. 89% of the population live in urban areas.
Health Infant mortality rate 13 per 1,000 live births (Colombia 14, US 6). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 420 (US 1 in 3,800). HIV prevalence rate 0.6%.
Environment 55% of venezuela is protected land – the highest proportion in Latin America. Pollution and deforestation remain significant problems, however, and large areas of forest were flooded by the Guri Dam, one of the world’s largest. CO2 emissions: 6.1 tonnes per capita.
Culture Most venezuelans are a mix of Spanish, Indigenous and African heritage, with 8% identifying as African-descendants and 1.5% identifying as indigenous. There are also 4 million Colombians.
Religion 71% Roman Catholic, 17% Evangelical Protestant.
Language Spanish, with indigenous universities and schools also providing instruction in indigenous languages such as Wayuu, Warao and Pemon.
Human development index 0.76, 71st of 188 countries (Colombia 0.720, US 0.915).
Country Profile: Venezuela ratings in detail
Income distribution Inequality has significantly decreased in venezuela over the past 15 years. Poverty has dropped from 50% in 1998 to 30% in 2013. But with the bolivar hugely devalued over the past three years, those with access to foreign currency now have much more purchasing power than those who don’t. 2005 ★★
Life expectancy 74 years (Colombia 74, US 79). 2005 ★★★★
Literacy 95%, though UNESCO declared venezuela illiteracy free in 2005. Education through to university is free, with meals often provided. venezuelans are highly politically literate and cultural expression is diverse. 2005 ★★★★
Position of women While the Bolivarian Revolution has seen the number of women participating in political and public life increase massively, women are still expected to be the main carers of children, abortion is still illegal and objectification of women remains common. 2005 ★★★★
Freedom There is a diversity of private, public, and community and alternative media available, with each largely representing their own interests. Marches by those in support of and in opposition to the government take place regularly. 2005 ★★
Sexual minorities Public figures are increasingly more supportive of sexual diversity, marches are more common, and discrimination is now illegal. But conservative and Church culture means verbal intolerance is normalized. 2005 ★★★
NI Assessment (Politics) Politics ★★★

The national government’s prioritizing of the poor and working majority over business elites remains consistent, if less effective – lately with more talk than action. Nationally, participatory democracy and inclusion have become somewhat tokenistic or symbolic. The rightwing-dominated parliament, meanwhile, has focused on attacking Chavismo and freeing those imprisoned for causing violence and deaths during rightwing street actions, and has made no attempt to help the majority of Venezuelans. 2005 ★★★

★★★★★ Excellent

★★★★ GOOD

★★★ FAIR

★★ POOR

★ APPALLING

This column was published in the November 2016 issue of New Internationalist. To read more,
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