VENEZUELAN social media is a curious thing. There are few pictures of parents proudly showing off their kids, or people buzzing with their hazy pictures of a boozy Friday night out littered with endless ‘LMAO’ and ‘LOLS’. Instead, the social web in this troubled corner of South America is largely punctuated with desperate requests for widely unavailable meds.
Amid all the obvious signs of a nation jumping up and down on the trapdoor of inevitable collapse, Venezuela is awash with little barometers like social media which offer up plenty of clues of impending implosion. And, if it wasn’t considered insensitive to use a small meteorological instrument as an analogy against the backdrop of this once proud country’s catastrophic downfall, you might be forgiven for pointing out that the needle looks interminably motionless over the corner of the dial that reads ‘stormy’.
Seasoned observers of the inner workings of South America might think they’ve seen all this before, and indeed they’ve witnessed similar lamentable breakdowns across a continent which has so often been the main stage for dramatically botched political systems which promised much then delivered less than nothing. But this is different. Venezuela has fallen, and it risks taking the assets of other countries with it.
What sets Venezuela’s ruin aside is the excruciatingly slow burn of the lengthy fuse that is nonchalantly creeping its way towards a grotesque combustion.
Public services are falling apart, out-of-control inflation has plunged three quarters of the population into poverty, crime has soared to the point where it can neither be policed nor recorded, people are queueing for hours for food, and mortality rates – particularly for the young and old for whom vital medicines are simply no longer available – have gone through the roof. In short, Venezuela is on the brink. On the brink of what, exactly, is anyone’s guess.
Widespread unrest? Already happening. A referendum to remove the socialist president – Nicolas Maduro – from office? The opposition have launched this approach several times in recent months. Military coup? It’s a wonder this hasn’t already happened. Civil war? Entirely feasible.
When Maduro was ushered into power in 2013 following the death of the controversial figure Hugo Chavez, the population was optimistic for a change in fortunes. Some, however, felt ushering Chavez’s own vice-president in rather than resisting calls for a free election could only lead to a further extension of ‘Chavismo’ – the political and ideological system established by the country’s 64th president.
Despite the optimism, there was a certain inevitability about the further demise of a nation on its knees. What few could have predicted though, was the depths into which Maduro would blindly stumble with a white-knuckle grip on the country’s reins.
Before declaring a state of emergency in mid-May, Maduro was faced with widespread drought. Water shortages hit the whole country and brought power stations (almost all are hydropower) to a grinding halt. In turn, electricity simply dwindled into short bursts leaving much of Venezuela dealing with regular blackouts. His solution was to impose a two-day week for government workers in a measure to curb the use of electricity. It did little to abate the problem. Nor did his near-comical (it would have been funny, had it not been so shockingly troubling) TV appearance, personally urging Venezuelan women to stop using hair dryers.
Before that, his attempts to boost the economy by raising tax on petrol saw prices at the fuel pumps leap by some 6,000%.
In some degree of fairness to Maduro, the sink-hole that appeared beneath his country’s moribund economy was not entirely of his own making. Venezuela is one of the most oil-rich lands on the planet. Unfortunately, oil is also the basket where it keeps 95% of its eggs. As the price of oil fluctuates around the world, its effects have not been felt anywhere more keenly than here – one of the five founder members of OPEC. Tragically, the glory days of wealthy industry are gone. Yet, the time when Venezuela was the world’s largest exporter of oil is still a living memory for much of its 30 million people.
The fate of Venezuela and indeed its billions of dollars of outside international investment will, undoubtedly, become clear before long. Its already-shrinking economy is on course to contract by a further 8% this year in tandem with inflation that, even at the most conservative guess, will hit an unprecedented 750%. Should that occur, which is widely anticipated, it will leave the government’s coffers so short that the country would not be able to cover the costs of printing fresh money.
China is likely to be the biggest loser when the inevitable does eventually happen. Beijing has invested massively in Venezuela. Construction of a bullet train – set to be a lavish symbol of solidarity between two socialist giants – has shuddered to halt. Thousands of Chinese workers have simply upped and left, deserting the sites and route through the heart of Venezuela for the safety of their homeland. Their abandoned buildings, tools and equipment have long-since been raided. The symbolic has become the shambolic.
As matters reach a head, mass protests, looting and rioting are now the accepted norm around Caracas, prompting calls for outside intervention. Sadly, and this is the reason behind much of the world being reduced the role of idle bystander, politics may have already created a barrier to external help.
While the begging bowls reach out to America, eyes shift to the history books which dictate little can be done for one of the world’s most beautiful countries. Washington has previous form and a chequered past with intervention in several of its Latin neighbours’ affairs, including support – both open and covert – for an ineffectual coup against Hugo Chavez some 14 years ago.
Unless China produces a magical blank cheque, or the demand and price of Venezuelan oil suddenly surges, then the world is about to witness the complete disintegration of a country once described as the template for South American success.