By Amanda Mattingly
Sitting across from Nicolás Maduro in a meeting at the National Assembly in Caracas in 2002, I never could have guessed that the same man would one day, as president, run his country into the ground. In fact, it would have been easier to imagine him running Venezuela to ruin than the possibility he would ever be given the chance. That is how incompetent Nicolás Maduro seemed over a decade ago. If Venezuela’s current situation is any indication, clearly nothing has changed.
Venezuela is in deeper crisis than I could have ever foreseen when I lived in Caracas in 2002 and 2003, during what was then considered a time of great instability. The political crisis following the attempted coup against President Hugo Chávez, the oil strike, and the mass protests of those years were considered unprecedented. In fact, my U.S. Embassy colleagues and I were evacuated from the country in January 2003 as a result of its instability. Those events, however, pale in comparison to what Venezuelans are experiencing today under President Maduro.
Today, Venezuela is in a roiling state of chaos by every standard. Its economy is in shambles. The country’s GDP contracted by 5.7 percent in 2015 and is expected to contract a further 8 percent in 2016. Inflation is predicted to reach a staggering 700 percent this year, and the Venezuelan bolivar is currently worth just 10 cents in U.S. dollars. Basic needs continue to go unmet, and shortages of household goods are widespread. The food riots and mob-style looting we have seen in recent weeks could become increasingly common as people grow more and more desperate.
Venezuela’s political system is in a state of continued dysfunction as well, with Maduro stacking the courts and National Electoral Council in his favor and declaring a national state of emergency to tamp down protests and calls for a 2016 referendum against him. Though the political opposition scored victories in the December legislative elections, it still needs to mount a significant signature collection effort to trigger a recall referendum, which Maduro seems intent on sabotaging or at least delaying until 2017.
Political activists from the opposition, like Leopoldo Lopez, have been jailed. Just days ago, Harvard-educated student organizer Francisco Marquez and his colleague Gabriel San Miguel were arbitrarily detained and arrested, adding to the growing number of political prisoners among Venezuela’s list of human rights abuses.
The country’s security situation is deteriorating as well. Its homicide rate continues to be among the worst in the world, with Caracas considered the most dangerous city outside an undeclared warzone. The government reported 18,000 murders last year, while the Venezuelan Violence Observatory says that number is closer to 28,000. Corrupt police, drug gangs, vigilante groups, and weapons are pervasive.
On a humanitarian level, Maduro is refusing international assistance even as Venezuelan citizens are dying of starvation. Due to the government’s mismanagement of resources and disastrously implemented socialist policies, Venezuela now has to import food it once produced. Venezuelans seeking medical attention are forced to go without, since doctors are unable to perform basic procedures for lack of supplies and equipment. A drastic public health crisis is unfolding.
Some of Venezuela’s ills can be blamed on the low price of oil in recent years. Even oil prices reaching up to $50 a barrel are still too low for Venezuela, which relies on oil exports and spent its boom-year petrodollars on populist programs rather than saving, diversifying the economy, or reinvesting in the oil industry. The repercussions of these choices, combined with a series of unorthodox macroeconomic policies, are coming home to roost. Maduro has attempted to blame the country’s economic failures on “imperialism,” claiming that the influence of U.S. interests is undermining him and his people. The sad truth is that Maduro has managed to do that already on his own.
Another irony is that Maduro, like Chávez before him, is a vocal admirer of the socialist system in Cuba—a country that is now making alterations to its economic and political structures, taking measures to boost growth and development, and opening up a dialogue with the United States. Maduro might ignore these shifts, but the socialist policies that he has sought to emulate will not work: not in Cuba and not in Venezuela.
Despite this grim outlook, Venezuela can still find a way out of its current crisis. With a combination of assistance from the international community, pressure from Latin American neighbors and member states of the Organization of American States, and continued efforts by the Venezuelan opposition to unify and seek a peaceful, democratic, and constitutional change of power, it may still be possible for the country to course correct.
But the jig is up, Mr. Maduro. It is time to accept humanitarian assistance and release political prisoners like Francisco Márquez and Gabriel San Miguel. It is time to allow the opposition to gather and verify the signatures necessary for a recall referendum this year. It is time to bring Venezuela out of crisis.
Amanda Mattingly is a senior director at The Arkin Group and a Truman National Security Fellow. She previously served as a foreign affairs officer at the State Department.
[Photo courtesy of Joka Madruga]