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Explainer: A journey to the origins of Venezuela's crisis

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

By Antonija Diković-

A group of Venezuelan's make the journey to Colombia by foot. Source:, Photo by Jon Warren

Throughout the last decade, the country of Venezuela and its woes have been reported on internationally and made headlines around the world. However, it would be a mistake to think that all of Venezuela's problems began with the death of Hugo Chávez (1954-2013), with the US sanctions that many countries later joined, or with the arrival of interim president Juan Guaidó on the country's political scene. In fact, this South American country was already suffering from serious problems for many years before 2013. The recent history of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, named after the great Simón Bolivar, is a tumultuous history and has a very uncertain future.

In order to understand the crisis in Venezuela, there are a couple of key names to remember: Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013; Nicolás Maduro, the president-elect in the presidential elections in 2018 and who, since December 2020, also has full control of Parliament; Juan Guaidó, the interim president recognized by 58 countries and Leopoldo López, the leader of the political party Voluntad Popular (VP) and the most visible face of the opposition in the last decade, who had been imprisoned for about 5 years in Caracas and at the moment is living in Spain, where he went clandestinely.

So how did it all start? To summarise, let's start with the beginning of the 1990s. After a prosperous decade in the 1970s based on the global rise in the price of oil, in the 1980s the country already started to centre the economy mostly on oil exportation. This proved to be a huge mistake because after the oil price went down in the 1980s, the country found itself in a financial crisis. At the beginning of the 1990s, as the result of the previous decade, Venezuela underwent a social crisis spurred on by the economic situation. Certain parts of society began to revolt, led by, at that time, a young officer (with the rank of lieutenant colonel) of the Armed Forces, Hugo Chávez, the man who built the Chavista ideology and whose shadow remains over Venezuela almost a decade after his death. In 1992, Chávez was jailed because the ruling party accused him and three other officials of staging a coup, although Chávez said he was trying to liberate the country. He was released from jail in 1994 and in 1999 became president-elect of Venezuela, promising that he would end inequalities and corruption, introducing an ideology today known as Chavismo, a markedly socialist and leftist ideology, also based on the idea of ​​Bolivarian philosophy and a more united Latin America.

Indeed, Chávez improved infrastructure in the country, as well as education and public health. Many people strongly supported him in the first years, they felt that they finally had a strong leader who loved his country and who was going to do the impossible to advance the country and society.

To promote the Bolivarian legacy, Chávez lent (or gave away) money to countries like Argentina, Cuba and Bolivia, that is to say, to the Latin American countries that at that time were also led by extreme-left policies. On the other hand, relations with the United States of America soured and from Chavista circles, you could often hear words and phrases such as “imperialism”, and they called the US the enemies of the Bolivarian revolution.

Hugo Chávez had the money to invest not only in his country but also in other Latin American countries, partly because Venezuela is the country with the most oil reserves in the world and the price of oil in the first decade of the 2000s was fairly high. The price increased mostly due to different political crises on the world scene, especially in the Middle East, and Venezuela, as a stable country at that time, could directly benefit financially from that situation.

At the political and civic level, President Chávez began to take over the media with the clear intention of spreading his own political ideas that he wanted to see reflected throughout the population. Criticism of his regime was not welcome, and the country was moving towards a cult of personality where what the leader said was law. Also, there was a large dependence on oil and a tendency to nationalise private companies and to interfere, if necessary, in private businesses in order to control companies' profits and to diminish the influence of entrepreneurs on the economic policy of the country.

Entrepreneurs were the first to turn their backs on the president, something that culminated in an event in 2002 when some of them asked the Armed Forces for help to remove Chávez. But the president, besides being charismatic, was also a military man by profession, which meant that from day one he maintained his leadership and support from military circles.

Meanwhile, the judicial system became slow and corrupt, and therefore cases of impunity for crimes began to rise, which increased the percentage of robberies, assaults and even kidnappings. This contributed to the year on year increase in discontent amongst the Venezuelan population.

2014 was the key year for Venezuela. The country is still digesting the unexpected death of its leader Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 from cancer, and appointed the president, Nicolás Maduro, who from the beginning did not have the same support as Chávez. That year (2014), Venezuela entered a still ongoing recession and the student protests began. It was the funeral of actress, Mónica Spear, whose murder, in early January 2014, followed by an assault on the highway, sparked the first major protest against the government of Nicolás Maduro and against Chavismo ideology in general. The protests culminated that same year with the voluntary surrender of the opposition leader, Leopoldo López, to the police, on charges of inciting disorder and violence in the country.

The result of all this is a fractured society in which there are those who believe in strong entrepreneurship and in the strength of individual ideas, decisions and ambitions and limited government interventions, and on the other side those who fully trust the ruling party and are in favour of a government with a single leader, who has control of the entire country in order to reduce its weakness either due to an economic crisis, a lack of internal leadership or foreign interference.

Since January 2019, Venezuela has had two presidents, one is Nicolás Maduro, who became president after Chávez died and whom the majority of the international community does not recognize as president-elect. This is because there are suspicions that the elections of 2018 were not conducted fairly, and the UN published several reports in the last two years detailing the violation of human rights by the Venezuelan government. Furthermore, the more recent December 2020 elections saw Maduro take complete control of Parliament but only 31% of Venezuelans showed up to vote. The other president is Juan Guaidó (who comes from the same party as Leopoldo López), elected as president of the National Assembly and is self-proclaimed president of the republic. He wants a transition period to later hold fair elections that are approved by the international community.

Currently, the minimum wage, and the one that many receive in Venezuela, is around 3 US dollars per month. The local and official currency is the Bolivar, but due to hyperinflation, people trust the US dollar much more than their own currency. Everything is counted in Dollars and Bolivars become more and more useless every day. There are retirees who, after their entire professional career, survive in precarious conditions on just over a dollar a month. The country has the most severe inflation and currency devaluation in the world, there are foods that you have to queue for and some that can only be obtained on the black market. The level of insecurity is higher than ever.

There are some people who still live well, but 5 or 10 years ago lived much better, there are people who were left with nothing and emigrated, there are people who emigrated a long time ago and who are already settled in other countries, sending some money every week to their family in Venezuela. Of course, now not even the ruling party denies the serious economic crisis. It is a big change from so many years ago when the massive protests against the regime began.

Still, it would be wrong to think that in today's Venezuela all industry and production has stopped. There is still the production of, for example, rum, cocoa or flour. However, what is missing is gasoline. Paradoxically, the country with the most oil reserves in the world is not capable of supplying citizens with their own gasoline needs, and much less of exporting. There are also power and water outages that make Venezuelans’ day to day life even more difficult. Many citizens have been left without electrical appliances, which have broken down and people have no money to repair them or buy new ones.

The most recent history of Venezuela is indeed a painful history. I personally have heard it many times, from hundreds of Venezuelans that I met in Europe and South America. I lived it through their stories, and I can conclude that, in addition to a story of pain, it is also a story of persistence. This piece was not written only to explain how and when things happened, but to give an additional voice to all Venezuelans who feel ignored by international politics. All of them, regardless of their political orientation, want a better Venezuela, not the one they had before but the one they deserve. Some of them told me that they no longer plan to return, that they are not going to sacrifice years and years of hard work in a foreign country, and then return to a country that will have to be built again. Others told me that those who left the country are lazy and that those who love their country stay there forever and do not abandon it. Most do not like to discuss the situation in Venezuela because they say that it does not make sense, that nothing will change by doing so. Some are loyal to the Nicolas Maduro regime while others carry a photo of Leopoldo López in their wallet. Many make jokes about the whole situation and, although they have to work two or even three shifts to support themselves and the family there, they are in good spirits and do not get carried away by negative feelings. Of course, most Venezuelans remember their country with pride, highlighting the Venezuelan flag and putting on a hat with the colours of the flag so that everyone can see where they are from.

Photo by the author of a Venezuelan flag in a Venezuelan restaurant: "Venezuelan restaurants always have huge flags to show they are proud of where they come from"

Bibliography :

Meza Alfredo : «El funeral de la miss venezolana se convierte en un acto de masas»

Wilpert, Gregory : «La lucha de Venezuela contra la pobreza»

Conferencia «El colapso económico de Venezuela: análisis y soluciones», a cargo de José Manuel Puente, profesor titular del Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administración (IESA).

Comisión interamericana de derechos humanos resolución 11/7 : «Medida cautelar No. 475-15

Miembros del partido Voluntad Popular respecto de Venezuela»

Naciones Unidas, consejo de derechos humanos: «Venezuela: Informe de la ONU insta a la rendición de cuentas por crímenes de lesa humanidad»


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