“The only way to save the world is through socialism, but a socialism that exists within a democracy; there’s no dictatorship here.” Hugo Chavez (President of Venezuela 1999-2013)
Hugo Chavéz, despite his confrontational stance before the ‘neoliberal’ world, had a sense of the limits of his power. He confessed to planning a coup against the then government in 1992, and paid for it. His ‘socialism of the 21st century’ was based on strong conviction and was bolstered by crude oil prices, which peaked around the time of his death in 2013.
His anointed successor, Nicolás Maduro, who barely won the presidential election that year, cannot claim any of Chavéz’s qualities. Under his blighted watch, Venezuela has crashed into horrendous recession, with runaway inflation, a devalued currency, a private sector that is under constant threat and an economy incapable of recovering without a substantial increase in oil prices under the present circumstances.
Maduro has emasculated all the institutions that would qualify Venezuela as a democracy. The judiciary and the electoral tribunal are at the beck and call of the chavista forces, while the military is corrupt and co-opted. The unicameral 167-member national assembly (parliament) – the only ray of hope – swore in 109 opposition parliamentarians in December 2015. The 32-judge Supreme Court – which, just before the elections, was stuffed with 13 more judges loyal to the regime by the outgoing chavista-dominated parliament – barely allowed the assembly to function. The most recent clash was over a move by the assembly to block Maduro from pursuing oil ventures without legislative approval as per the constitution.
On March 29, the Supreme Court held the lawmakers “in a situation of contempt” for swearing in three more legislators whose election it had countermanded. This put the opposition over the two-thirds threshold, with 112 seats. The justices decided to “ensure that parliamentary powers were exercised directly by this chamber, or by the body that the chamber chooses.” After, four Latin American countries recalled their ambassadors from Caracas, and Venezuela’s attorney general herself denounced the court’s move. The Supreme Court rescinded the order on April 2, at Maduro’s insistence.
International pressure has mounted. The Organisation of American States (OAS), which had been debating the situation in Venezuela, passed a hard-hitting resolution on April 3, with 17 votes and 4 abstentions, condemning the “serious unconstitutional alteration of the democratic order” in Venezuela and demanding the restoration of “the full authority” of the national assembly. Venezuela counted on its Bolivarian allies; Bolivia (chairing) and Nicaragua left the session after denouncing it as “illegal” and an “institutional coup d’etat”. Ecuador, heading into the second round of a presidential election, did not want to take any steps that may cost votes for the left-wing official candidate, who won with 51% of the vote.
The four-nation MERCOSUR, to which Chavéz’s Venezuela was admitted in happier times, is considering expelling the country under a clause that enjoins all members to maintain democratic order. Venezuela already stands suspended for not conforming to principles established for its membership in 2012. The move involves not just the right-wing governments of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, but even left-wing Uruguay, whose government has protested Maduro’s recent insult to its foreign minister.
The events of early April in Caracas would have been laughable, if not for the serious implications they have for the long-suffering people of that country. Much more than the fate of the largest national oil reserves in the world is at stake. Policies instituted by Chavéz have resulted in genuine redistribution of the nation’s wealth. Venezuela stands out with a score of 0.767, leading the region in the United Nations Development Programme’s 2016 Human Development Report, which ranks countries on a human development index that measures advances in life expectancy, literacy and the quality of life of the population.
These achievements, however, have dwindled and seem invisible to a population facing humanitarian catastrophe. Three quarters of Venezuelans have lost weight under the “Maduro diet”; more than two-thirds of basic goods are scarce. Even a modest increase in oil prices — predicted this year — may be insufficient to repay national debt. Around $50 billion of Venezuela’s oil reserves are hypothecated to settle debt with China. Russia’s Rosneft loaned $1.5 billion for a lien on half of Venezuela’s holding in CITGO – the second largest refining company in the US. This may be challenged on grounds of US energy security.
The regime seems determined to hang on, ignoring or suppressing protests by an increasingly exhausted electorate. Last year, the opposition collected about two million signatures demanding a referendum to recall Maduro. A pliant National Electoral Council stretched out the process and eventually stymied it. Several elections for state governors and other elected posts, due in 2016, have simply not been held. Maduro replaced his vice president with a loyalist, Tareck el Aissami, who has been formally charged by the US as a drug trafficker.
Last July, defence minister General Vladimir Padriño was put in charge of the economic cabinet and in August General Nestor Reverol – who was also indicted by the US for drug trafficking – was made interior and justice minister. On April 7, the Venezuelan comptroller disqualified leading opposition figure Henrique Capriles from holding public office for 15 years. A serving state governor, who lost the 2015 presidential election to Maduro by a slim margin, Capriles is accused of accepting donations, awarding contracts without bidding and not submitting the budget bill on his governance in 2013.
India has invested almost a billion dollars in Venezuelan oilfields and imports several billion dollars of crude oil annually from Venezuela, making the country India’s largest trade partner till 2015-16 in Latin America. Debts owed to Indian oil and pharma companies have been held back by a bankrupt government that has shown little interest in settling. Small, tentative payments have been released in exchange for a promise of more Indian investment in oil extraction after years of official Indian pressure.
Venezuela’s tragedy has turned into farce. A patently illegitimate regime is hanging on to power with the brute support of a complicit military, and other, darker forces. Its belligerence is a cover for its guilt. The Indian establishment may well stick to its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of another state, but it should take cognisance of the situation and minimise exposure to prevent further damage.
Deepak Bhojwani is a retired Indian diplomat who was ambassador to Venezuela from 2003 to 2006.