by Andrew Jackson
There’s a well-known scene in an episode of The Twilight Zone – the world is struck by nuclear apocalypse, with a sole survivor: a reclusive bookworm who sees his newfound solitude as an opportunity to read through, without interruption, all the world’s library-held knowledge. He bends down to pick up his first book, but in doing so his eyeglasses fall and shatter, and he is left, in a final shot, cursing his fate, the endless knowledge surrounding him inaccessible, within touching distance but forever beyond reach.
Transport yourself now to modern-day Venezuela - a nation, even a region, prone to apt comparisons to classic dystopian fiction. Sitting on the largest proven oil reserves in the world, not to mention plentiful quantities of gold, bauxite, diamond and natural gas, Venezuela should have a booming economy, and indeed did for a short period in the 1970s. Yet nowadays, ordinary Venezuelans can spend most of their day queuing up at empty petrol stations, waiting for the tanker (which comes weekly, if at all), before collecting as much fuel as possible from the unpaid government-employed station attendants, who do not charge but instead rely on tips for their efforts.
It is a plight echoed, if not to the same extreme, across a lot of Latin America: the social unrest in Chile, strikes against right-wing incursions in Colombia, even a coup d’état against the illegally-extended Morales presidency in Bolivia. Yet while these examples present an image of flux and change (if volatile and unpredictable), Venezuela’s is one of despair yet stagnation: change must surely come, although no one can see it on the horizon yet. In light of this, we will look at various aspects of everyday Venezuelan life: a state of affairs where the bizarre has often become the normal, where every alternative seems to carry its own problems.
Many typify the economic collapse in Venezuela as the failure of socialism. Indeed, the precedent to the current situation is bound in a wider historical chronology of Chavismo (the ideology of Hugo Chavez, the influential leader whose death in 2013 led to the current power struggle and political turmoil). From the Bolivarian revolution to overthrow Spanish colonial rule and establish an independent Gran Colombia (in which Venezuela was the core state), the nation has frequently sought to resist Western - particularly US American - political and economic intervention, nationalising industries such as oil at a time when the expansion of US companies into Latin America was commonplace.
Such protectionism, or increasingly isolationism, is clearly at the forefront of even current president Nicolás Maduro’s economic policy. Writing in an article published in the Spanish newspaper El País entitled “Venezuela: our democracy is about protecting”, Maduro frequently connotes a legacy under his administration of both Chavez and Bolivar. “Our democracy is unlike any other”, he begins - a quote replete with irony - before justifying his tenure by evoking typically socialist provisions such as universal healthcare, education, home ownership and high employment, as well as other developments, including (bizarrely) women’s rights and electoral transparency. The fact that many of Maduro’s supposed advancements occurred under the Chavez administration and not the 5 years of Madurismo that followed is a telling one: the resulting status quo is full of self-contradiction – a nation supposedly “moving forward” yet bound up in historical idealism, a ‘democracy’ “for the people” that is decidedly anti-populist, a multicultural society “Latin American, African and indigenous” that resists any influence from outside its own borders.
For all its ideological confusion, it is the economy that - just as for people worldwide - has a marked, tangible effect on the everyday lives of Venezuelan people. It is also here that things start to verge into the surreal, the hyper-modern yet nonsensical. For a start, there are the frankly absurd levels of inflation: According to the National Assembly, inflation in Venezuela reached an estimated 1,300,000% in November 2018, rising at a rate of 3% per day - by contrast, Belgium’s annual rate of inflation is 2%.
In other words, Venezuela’s inflation rate rises higher in a day than it does for Belgium over the course of a full year.
Such unprecedented levels of inflation have been addressed in a variety of ways: the bolivar fuerte, devalued by 99.6%, was replaced by the Bolivar soberano in 2018, which merely cut a few zeroes from the equation (100,000 fuertes = 1 soberano) and hoped the problem of hyperinflation would go away by itself. The fact that the fuerte itself was introduced in 2008 to cut the inflation of the original bolivar is one that we will brush over. But there was also the introduction of the petro, the first state-sponsored cryptocurrency in the world – supposedly at 1 petro to 3,600 soberanos (are we keeping up?), but there has been no evidence of actual use of the petro, and the whole affair has been deemed a government-concocted scam for those who bought into it. Yet beyond the Kafkaesque labyrinth of figures, the effect of this hyperinflation on everyday life has been dramatic, as we will go on to explore.
Many reports have even been made of Venezuelans taking to online multiplayer videogames to make money, as these virtual worlds have economies more stable than Venezuela’s.
Venezuelan banknotes of 500 bolívars scattered in the street during the Venezuelan presidential crisis of 2019.
The most basic tenet of a state is that it will provide its people the ability to sustain themselves – in Marxist theory, the need to eat is the fundamental reason behind the development of economic transaction out of a hunter-gatherer society. In Venezuela, however, there has been a dramatic polarised shift: in the avowedly anti-elitist people’s democracy, the wealthy subsist largely off of imported goods in expensive private supermarkets (a 2016 BBC report put the average price of a 300g jar of Nutella at one of these supermarkets at around €13.50), while the urban working-class have been increasingly forced to pick through trash to eat.
While many supermarkets in Caracas have empty shelves, poor and working-class Venezuelans have been forced to pick through litter to find discarded food. At the same time, private “bodegones” have flourished, serving the rich, often government elites, as part of what the Financial Times has called an “oasis” for wealthy Venezuelans.
Perhaps the most easily observable manifestation of political instability is crime. Venezuela then, does not hide its problems – in the most recent study, Caracas, the nation’s capital, has the third-highest murder rate in the world, and the highest of any city outside of Mexico. More worrying is how this rate continues to rise. While most other South American countries – notably Colombia – have seen their murder rates steadily, sometimes dramatically, fall, Venezuela’s has been steadily rising since 2005; the only factor of decline so far has been as a result of the mass emigration of Venezuelans fleeing the country.
Similarly, in a lawless environment where salaries are often unpaid, kidnappings have been on a dramatic increase since 2008.
A notable aspect of this has been the suspected involvement of the Venezuelan police force in cases of kidnapping and torture. Speaking in 2014 about perceived human rights abuses by police officers, founder of Human Rights Watch Thor Halvorssen stated that for a government that “want[s] only loyalty”, impunity and vigilantism increases as policing becomes “not about whether you're doing your job, [but] about whether you're a revolutionary”.
A reader of this article, putting themselves in the position of a Venezuelan, may well ask – why not leave? Many do: an estimated 2.3 million have left the country since 2015, often to neighbouring Latin American countries (often by foot), but Spain and the United States are also common destinations. Many are pregnant mothers. But crucially, many could but don’t – according to El País, more than 60% of those born in Venezuela hold Spanish nationality.
Leaving friends and family, a lack of foreign opportunities, and the difficulty of finding the basic means to leave are common obstacles to emigration.
On this latter point, an Independent report notes many Venezuelans don’t possess a valid passport, and following the procedure to apply for one (without paying a bribe to speed up the process, minimum $1000) can take months, although applications are usually deleted or forgotten.
Those that do leave faced mixed fortunes. Emigrants to Spain, often previously middle or upper-class in Venezuela, integrate easily, though often face a major socioeconomic step-down and find themselves far away from friends and family. It can be a different story in South America, however. Anti-Venezuelan sentiment in the adopted nations of migrants has been on the rise – it can manifest as arbitrary deportations, xenophobic discourse and targeted attacks; in Pacaraima, Brazil, one Venezuelan refugee camp was set on fire and destroyed.
Many have looked to political opposition and the possible solution to the political crisis. In this, Juan Guaidó stands above every other contender in terms of popularity, international exposure and resources. The elected President of the National Assembly, recognised by much of the Western world and Latin America, Guaidó has pushed for free elections and humanitarian aid to be allowed into Venezuela.
Calls to protest, often through social media, have been frequent, scattered, and not particularly effective, unlike the large-scale recent protests seen in countries like Bolivia and Chile. An attempted military uprising supported by Guaidó in April was also small-scale and unsuccessful.
Further questions have been raised over Juan Guaidó himself, and the wider political opposition of Venezuela. Guaidó is often seen as uncharismatic and far from the figurehead needed to dramatically solve all of Venezuela’s problems. A corruption scandal involving Guaidó’s aides has had a marked effect on his public image both domestically and abroad. Recent political infighting - with dramatic scenes recently showing political rival Luis Parra using police forces to bar Guaidó’s entry to the parliament building - have called into question the Venezuelan political opposition’s ability to present a united front against Maduro. There have also been accusations of foreign collusion to oust Maduro and install a puppet state that serves the interests of the West over the Venezuelan people, and indeed, much of Guaidó’s proposed Plan País to transform the nation was drafted in secret meetings with the US government. Some even argue that Guaidó seeks to open the doors to US military intervention.
Juan Guaidó speaking at a protest in Caracas on the 2nd of February 2019. He is sometimes described as the ‘Latin American Obama’ under his slogan ‘¡Sí se puede!’ (‘Yes we can!’). It is perhaps another layer of political surrealism that this Obama-like figure finds his greatest international advocate in the form of US president Donald Trump.
So where does this leave us, and what is to be done? As we have seen, the situation in Venezuela is complex, unpredictable, and sometimes hard to believe. Yet life still goes on. Whereas many in the West can rely on the state to provide food, income and medicine, Venezuelans must take it upon themselves to look elsewhere. An internal solution to the problem seems far away, and recent developments seem to reflect a situation that is only getting worse rather than better.
Far from being a “democracy for the people”, Venezuela under Maduro has become a society which can only survive through cooperation, people for the people, acting for each other in spite of - rather than with the aid of - the state.
Perhaps we, watching from a distance, can learn to follow from this lead. Modern-day Venezuela often inhabits a Twilight Zone beyond reach or comprehension, yet the other major actors have shown little in the way of such cooperation, or even empathy. Whether it is the Trump administration proposing military deployment or neighbours closing borders and changing visa requirements, the international political world has chosen either to sow the seeds of division or distance themselves from the entire situation and hope it goes away by itself. It stands to Europeans then, as individuals and as governments who have seen both the benefits and challenges of international and intercultural dialogue and integration, freedom of movement and economic support, to rally behind those in the Latin American world who seek a peaceful, diplomatic solution, who aim to welcome refugees rather than ostracise them, who promote a geopolitical platform that crosses borders rather than closing or hiding behind them.