Scott B. MacDonald
Politics, South America
For change to occur in Venezuela, it will have to come from within the ranks of its armed forces.
Venezuela is totally out of sync with most of Latin America and the Caribbean as it has headed in an increasingly autocratic direction politically, marked by stunningly inept economic mismanagement, reminiscent of Zimbabwe under Mugabe and the Congo under Mobuto. The problem is that as Venezuela sinks deeper into socioeconomic misery, many of its citizens are opting to leave. At the same time, the authoritarian regime continues to function as major conduit for illicit drugs in Latin America and the Caribbean, such is the need for cash among the Chavismo political elite. In a sense, the Venezuelan house is on fire and the neighbors are increasingly nervous of the spread of its problems into the region.
Venezuela is a mess. It clings on the edge of total debt default only thanks to the timely recent assistance of Russian money. At the same time, the economy has imploded—oil production and exports are struggling, inflation has zipped well above 2,000 percent (into the realm of hyperinflation), unemployment is in excess of 20 percent, and there are growing numbers of outbreaks of looting in the face of widespread shortages of food and basic goods. By one estimate, Venezuela’s economy has contracted by 40 percent in per capita terms from 2013 to 2017, while the country has one of the world’s highest homicide rates.
President Nicolas Maduro survives by the graces of military support, Cuban advisers, a shrinking base of socialists and communist diehards in the Chavismo movement, help from criminal organizations, a base of voters dependent on food from the state, and external support from China and Russia. The regime is active in suppressing dissent, using institutions that have been coerced and, when necessary, willing to use lethal force as exemplified by the January killing of the charismatic rebel leader, Oscar Perez, a former police officer and movie actor. Last year more than one hundred people were killed in popular opposition to the regime. Maduro is also helped by an opposition that has been unable to unify on a lasting basis.