With Venezuela at the cusp of a full-blown revolution, many questions are still left unanswered. Allegations of media bias abound, with people accusing major news outlets of perpetuating Pro-US sentiments and capitalist agendas, while other people are rallying in support of what is being billed as a “liberation” of sorts of Venezuela from a decades-long corrupt government. Somewhere in between, I think, lies the truth.
But to fully understand what is happening in Venezuela, it’s important to look at its history, a larger context that could inform people on what to believe, and to help people come to their own conclusions on what could potentially be a world-changing event.
20th Century Boom and Decline
The discovery of massive oil deposits under Lake Maracaibo prompted Venezuela to transform from an agricultural nation, to an oil power. By 1908, Venezuela had started tapping into its vast oil reserves. As the world started shifting all of its major industries to become oil-dependent, Venezuela took advantage of this and became the world’s largest exporter of oil. During this time, Juan Vicente Gomez, Venezuela’s dictator, governed the regulation, sale, export, and distribution of oil. Through his granting concessions to foreign oil companies in 1918, Venezuela was able to massively decrease its foreign debt and earned the friendship of the United States and Europe. From 1908 to 1935, he was able to launch numerous public works programs that modernized Venezuela. However, he also gained notoriety for his brutal tactics of silencing dissenters and for receiving massive kickbacks from oil companies.
After his death in 1935, a military junta took over, which was then overthrown in 1945. 2 years later, Romulo Gallegos was voted in as President and as Venezuela’s first-ever democratically-elected leader. However, 8 months into his reign, a military coup led by General Marcos Perez Jimenez overthrew Gallegos and reinstated military rule.
The Government Junta, as it was known, would be overthrown 10 years later in 1958, when Admiral Wolfgang Larrazabal leads a coup that ousts the government. Elections are held again, and leftist Romulo Betancourt is installed as President.
The oil crisis of 1973 helped the Venezuelan economy boom, which led the government to nationalize all oil industries. This led to massive public spending by the government that led to the completion of multiple infrastructure projects. However, this, coupled with increases in external debt, put the Venezuelan economy at risk. Sure enough, by the 1980’s, the Venezuelan economy was crippled by the worldwide collapse of oil prices, which then led to a severe decline in the Venezuelan standard of living.
In between economic depression, political instability, unchecked corruption, and growing cases of extreme poverty prompted the Venezuelan government in the 80’s to try and diversify its economy and decentralize its political system.
In 1992, then-Colonel Hugo Chavez launched 2 unsuccessful coups that leads the government to kill over 100 people to suppress dissidents. Chavez is jailed, but pardoned in 1994. However, in 1998, Hugo Chavez launches the successful “Bolivarian Revolution” that sought to create a new Venezuelan constitution based on populist and socialist thinking. During this time, Chavez ramps up his anti-US rhetoric, blaming the Americans for his country’s continued dependence on oil and the US’s constant involvement in South American politics for the sake of its own gain.
21st Century Breakdown
By 2001, Hugo Chavez had passed multiple laws aimed at redistributing land and wealth away from corporations and back to the masses. Many poor farmers hailed this as a welcome move that will benefit all. However, many businesses, particularly ranchers and factory owners, and even some labor parties, grew concerned, as they believe it was Chavez’ way of centralizing political and economic power, and ultimately, the start of the abolition of private property.
This leads armed forces in April of 2002 to launch a coup, following a violent clash between the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela and the government. Chavez is briefly ousted, but the interim government quickly collapses after 2 days following popular demonstrations and protests by Chavez supporters.
Throughout most of the 2000’s, Venezuela’s currency continued to devaluate, thanks in large part to internal corruption by the government as well as sanctions by foreign governments. In 2006, Hugo Chavez inks an arms deal with Russia, partly to modernize the Venezuelan armed forces, but also, as some analysts believe, a way of showing Venezuela’s move away from, and defiance against, the American sphere of political and economic influence.
By 2008, Venezuela deepens its ties with Russia by signing a Oil and Gas Cooperation Accord, and allowed Russian warplanes and warships to the country, the first time that the Russian Navy had traversed the Americas since the 60’s and 70’s. This leads the US to sign a deal with Colombia for use of the latter’s military bases, as well as further economic sanctions against Venezuela.
These sanctions, as well as unchecked corruption and failing oil prices, leads to Venezuela’s economy to further shrink, which prompts the government to devalue the bolivar. This devaluation leads to massive inflation, and by 2012, the government imposes price controls on basic goods.
The Death of Chavez
On March 5th, 2013, Hugo Chavez succumbs to cancer. Prior to his death, Chavez names Nicolas Maduro as his official successor. Maduro wins the elections following Chavez’ death by a narrow margin, despite many Venezuelans, media outlets, and international watchdog organizations, decrying the election for its blatant vote rigging and corruption.
President Maduro then continues the nationalization of most of Venezuela’s industries, including oil, gas, agriculture, finance, and many more. This prompts many international media outlets, world leaders, and the Venezuelan opposition to accuse Maduro of being a dictator. Further sanctions from the international community, along with continued corruption and social instability, drives the Venezuelan economy into hyperinflation. By 2014, Venezuela enters a recession. One year later, the Venezuelan economy had the world’s largest inflation rate at 100%.
In 2017, the Trump administration further sanctioned Venezuela, calling Maduro’s government an “illegitimate dictatorship”. This leads to a constitutional crisis that prompts the Venezuelan National Assembly to call for another election, which Maduro wins again. However, many media outlets, international organizations, and world leaders, refused to recognize the legitimacy of Maduro’s win, and are instead backing opposition leader Juan Guaido. Despite this, hundreds of thousands of people are rallying in support of Nicolas Maduro, proclaiming him as the real leader of Venezuela and decrying Guaido as a US-backed and controlled politician.
The situation in Venezuela is a delicate one: on one hand, it’s hard to deny that the actions of the government have had extremely negative effects on the economy and on its people; on the other, it’s also hard to ignore the hundreds of thousands of people rallying on the streets of Caracas in defense of the government. Where is the lie? I guess we’ll have to wait and see to find out.