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Running on Empty

Tom Hennigan writes from Cúcuta: Ask Venezuelans crossing the border into the Colombian city of Cúcuta what conditions are like back home and their first response is consistent, regardless of where in the country they have come from, their age, gender or class, though the overwhelming majority are poor. It is as if the answer has been agreed and rehearsed beforehand: “No hay nada.”

There is nothing.

There is no food. There is no medicine. There is no petrol at the pump. There is no electricity much of the time. Often there is no running water. There are no teachers in the schools. Or doctors in the hospitals. There is no longer any sense of public security. No hay. No hay. No hay. No matter what the question, no hay is the answer.

The Venezuelans coming across the Simón Bolívar International Bridge can roughly be divided into three categories.

The majority come, often after hours of travel, to buy food and medicine which they then bring back to family and friends in Venezuela. Given that the country’s bolívar is now worthless thanks to hyperinflation they need access to hard currency to buy these provisions. When the current exodus started in 2015 many still could, as like many Latin Americans across the region inured to periodic inflationary and currency crises, they were able to access a stash of dollars kept under the mattress for just such a moment.

Or they hawked what they could sell across the bridge. Many young men drive around Cúcuta in Chinese-designed, Venezuelan-assembled Socialista motorbikes, bought at bargain prices from desperate Venezuelans who among other items also flogged off laptops the Bolivarian Revolution once handed out to children in one of the populist gestures than won the revolution’s founder, Hugo Chávez, so much admiration abroad during the golden middle period of his fourteen years in power.

But having burnt through this portable wealth most of those heading back to Venezuela today with sacks of beans and rice and other staples have paid for them with funds sent by relatives now living abroad. The estimated three million Venezuelans who have fled the country ‑ almost one in ten of the population ‑ now help sustain several million more back home.

The second category to cross the bridge quickly move on from Cúcuta. They have family or other connections elsewhere waiting to help them start their life in exile. The travel agencies at the border do a brisk trade in selling bus tickets to Bogotá, Quito, Lima and as far away as Buenos Aires, almost 8,000 kilometres down the Andes and across the pampa. Not all can afford the bus fare. Among those walking the twelve kilometres from the bridge into Cúcuta proper are groups of young people already exhausted after hours of travel just to reach the border, some having begged their way onto a bus they could not afford. Their lack of funds means some will have to continue walking to reach friends and family elsewhere in Colombia, even as far away as Cali, a city 950 kilometres distant with some of the steepest cordilleras in the Andes in between.

The poorest category crossing the bridge are those who arrive in Cúcuta and cannot go any further. They sleep in the streets and squares of La Parada, the ramshackle paramilitary-controlled neighbourhood right by the bridge where they rely on relief agencies for food. Many others beg, hawk trinkets and wash windscreens at downtown traffic lights. Their children often arrive malnourished. The first aid stations receive patients with cancer, diabetes, AIDS and other complex medical conditions who have been abandoned by Venezuela’s disintegrated health system. To ask them how they ended up there is to be told they came to find food and medicine, because back in Venezuela no hay nada.

A significant portion of Venezuela’s exile community is drawn from the country’s middle class. But most of them could afford a plane out. Nearly all the people crossing into Cúcuta are drawn from Venezuela’s poorer classes, the sort of people the Bolivarian Revolution set out to lift up. Instead it has transformed them into refugees forced to flee their own country in order to eat.

Many of those coming across the bridge say they have jobs or left one to flee. Unemployment is not the critical problem in Venezuela. But salaries are, because they are now worthless. Inflation is running at around 100,000 per cent and on course to hit 10,000,000 per cent this year according to the IMF. The monthly minimum wage is worth nothing, unable to properly feed a family of five for a day.

Those with the fewest assets, the most dependent on a salary to survive, that is to say the poor, are the ones who suffer most from hyperinflation. In chavismo’s 21st Century Socialism there is still food and medicine to be bought but to do so you need access to hard currency. The well-off can still just about pursue strategies to survive hyperinflation, often by tapping into the black market, which is dominated by corrupt regime elements. But the poor, with no material insulation, have been thrown to the wolves. The devastating impact of worthless money means work is now pointless. Many doctors, nurses and teachers no longer turn up because their salaries are an irrelevance when it comes to feeding their families. The country’s social scaffolding is collapsing amidst the scramble for food in which powerful violent gangs, some linked to the regime, some tolerated by it, increasingly hold sway in a Hobbesian state of nature that has come about not through a lack of the state but because of it.

Many of the features of the crisis in Venezuela are familiar to anyone across South American history. The once popular populist movement turned dictatorship. Rampant corruption. Violent, often state-linked criminality. Hyperinflation. But the scale of the disaster in Venezuela now approaches a level the region has never witnessed in its modern history, at least in a country not undergoing the trauma of civil war. While it is not there yet Venezuela is on a trajectory that resembles that traced in the past by countries like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Mobutu’s Zaire. Already industrial and agricultural production have collapsed even as the chavista elite has transformed their nation into the most corrupt in the whole Western hemisphere, in itself a dark achievement.

Since 2015 the last vestiges of popular legitimacy have been stripped from chavismo, which has debased its own revolution into a dictatorship that appears willing to sacrifice the country it professes to love and the people it came to save in order to retain its grip on power. The ruthlessness with which it is willing to pursue this strategy can be gauged from the imposition of a national hunger policy in order to ensure debts to geopolitical patrons are repaid on time. Servicing the huge loans Chávez and then Maduro took out, principally from China but also Russia, is seen as vital to ensuring their continued geopolitical backing. The loans were squandered on the sort of populist give-aways that helped ensure electoral success even after it became clear the Bolivarian Revolution had jumped the rails. But despite public declarations of solidarity, Beijing and Moscow still demand to be repaid and to do so Venezuelans have been subjected to the most brutal experiment in austerity the Western hemisphere has witnessed in modern times.


This is because, having crushed the country’s industrial and agricultural capacity through epic mismanagement and corruption, the regime must now source nearly all its food and medicines abroad. But these can only be paid for by oil exports which due to (and apologies for the repetition) epic mismanagement and corruption are in freefall as chavismo’s ruinous incompetence means it has throttled the one goose it owned which laid golden eggs. And this much reduced production earns far less cash. The revolution’s glory years, not coincidently, coincided with high oil prices when there was money for everything, which was spent recklessly. Now the regime must make painful choices as oil stumbles around at $60 a barrel.

And so Caracas has defaulted on most of its internationally issued bonds and slashed imports by up to 80 per cent in favour of repaying China and Russia. The result has been exile from the global financial system and a near 50 per cent contraction in the economy in just five years which has left 90 per cent of the population in poverty. In 2017 it was calculated that the average Venezuelan involuntarily lost 11 kilos in weight due to this hunger policy. When commentators call Maduro the defender of Venezuela’s sovereignty in the face of foreign threats what they are defending is the sovereignty of a dictator who has opted to starve his population in order to appease foreign creditors.

As a result of these brutal moves to insulate itself in power all of the gains made by the revolution have now been wiped out. When Chávez died in 2013 it was still possible to weigh up the costs and benefits. In that sense the timing of his death was advantageous for his reputation. But under Maduro that is no longer the case. The slide into the abyss is almost complete. Looking at indicators from infant mortality to homicide rates and every other social metric in between we can now say the country is in a far deeper hole than the one it found itself in during the 1990s, which explained the rise of Chávez himself. The twenty lost years under chavismo, during which the country blew one of history’s great commodity booms, an estimated one trillion dollar oil bonanza for a country with a population smaller than Poland’s, have left it a broken mafia state.

It is the fear that many millions more Venezuelans will join the three million who have already fled this failed entity that has finally snapped the region’s patience with Maduro and explains its support for opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself interim president in January. Gone is the policy of seeking to mollify or ignore the histrionic revolutionaries in Caracas. The revolution no longer just threatens the social and civic rights of Venezuelans alone. It is now perceived to pose a risk to regional stability.

But in a testament to left-wing solidarity and the depths of anti-American sentiment, Maduro and chavismo still have defenders in Western Europe and North America. Their motives appear to be a sorry mix of wilful ignorance and sectarian malevolence. An illustration of this was offered up by Ken Livingstone who insisted, in an interview with Andrew Neil, that US sanctions were responsible for the collapse of the Venezuelan oil industry. When Neil pointed out to him that until January 28th the US maintained no sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry Livingstone refused to concede the point. Pressed on the phantom sanctions he blamed for the crisis the former London mayor was unable to provide any details except to say they existed because Venezuela’s foreign minister had told him about them.

His explanation displays either extreme gullibility or malicious disingenuousness in the service of ideology. Chavista officials now lie like they breathe in defence of their failed revolution. Caracas has been a skilful producer of propaganda targeting the international left, especially adept at tickling its anti-American bone. It has invested heavily in cable, online and social media news with an impressive international reach, often paying for friendly journalists and activists to visit and report on the revolution. Many of those who do take chavismo at its own word, willingly parroting the regime line, regardless of the fact that much of it is self-serving lies.

In this era of fake news and willed ignorance it should not be that surprising that many of the international left are unaware that there were no US or EU sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector until Washington imposed measures last month, long after the industry entered its current catastrophic condition. In fact the US was keeping the sector on life support, being the last major customer to pay cash for oil imports and providing vital inputs of light crude, petrol, diesel and naphtha to keep it running. In the same way there was no economic “blockade” against the island as other regime supporters claim, just targeted sanctions against named regime officials accused of human rights abuses and corruption. Venezuela is not prevented by any nation from importing food and medicines. It just cannot afford to do so, having decided to spend what little revenue it can still generate from oil on servicing Chinese and Russian debts instead.

The willingness to take chavismo at its own word is partially due to the lingering perception that it remains a democratically sanctioned movement. And indeed it was, enjoying popular mandates while its internal opponents were less wedded to democratic principles. But 2002’s failed coup attempt against Chávez did not fix for all time the democratic credentials of Venezuela’s various political actors. Much water has since passed under the bridge. In fact the roles have now reversed. The last election widely seen as free if not fair delivered a crushing opposition victory, despite the enormous institutional odds stacked against it. The regime’s response was to definitively break with democracy in favour of sham elections in order to void the opposition’s gains.

This authoritarianism always lurked within chavismo, a conspiratorial movement that first attempted to come to power via a coup in 1992. It later boasted about its democratic credentials when it won victories at the ballot box. But once it started to rack up occasional losses it demonstrated contempt for voters who failed to deliver the correct verdict. This was first seen clearly in 2007 when voters rejected a proposal to amend sixty-nine articles of chavismo’s own eight-year-old constitution. The goal was ostensibly to accelerate the transition to full socialism. But voters were suspicious of the proposal to abolish presidential term limits and voted down the package. A fuming Chávez said his opponents had won a victoria de mierda ‑ a shitty victory ‑ and immediately set about implementing the changes voters had expressly rejected. The subsequent decline in quality of Venezuelan democracy accelerated until no body internationally respected as a guarantor of free and fair elections was willing to observe or endorse votes in Venezuela because of the absence of the necessary conditions. Chavismo responded by inviting global supporters to sign off on its increasingly discredited polls.

Despite the extra-constitutional manoeuvring to nullify the opposition’s 2015 victory, the complete lack of credibility of subsequent votes, the fact that even the company charged with running the electronic voting system was bundled out of the country after it denounced manipulation by chavista officials to inflate turnout, the London Review of Books could still dryly write of last year’s presidential election: “Maduro won 68 per cent of the vote, on a turnout of 46 per cent – more or less par for the democratic course in the US, but low by Venezuelan standards” with all the studied seriousness of the Korean Central News Agency discussing the latest triumph of the country’s Workers Party.

Why are so many still willing to plead for a regime that has killed hundreds of its opponents, jailed hundreds more and subjected the population to a brutal hunger policy even as its senior officials accumulate huge fortunes thanks to an orgy of corruption? What lies behind the left’s lingering defence of chavismo? It cannot be the defence of revolutionary gains. These are all lost. There are no social rights left standing in Venezuela to justify the repression of civil ones. There is just epic ruin, presided over by a repressive dictatorship that has privatised public wealth through rampant corruption.

In 2016 Chávez’s former finance minister, along with a former cabinet colleague, formally alleged that $300 billion in public wealth had been embezzled by regime insiders manipulating chavismo’s byzantine currency control system. For years economists warned that the system was vulnerable to abuse and was harming the economy and were perplexed at the refusal to abandon it. But if one views the Bolivarian Revolution as a mafia enterprise the system makes perfect sense, allowing those who operate it to accumulate huge fortunes which are naturally stashed offshore. The level of corruption is astonishing even by the low standards of Latin America. Last year the country’s former national treasurer was sentenced to ten years in jail after being convicted in a US court of amassing $1 billion in bribes during just four years in his post.

So if the Bolivarian Revolution’s social gains (lost) or concern for Venezuelan democracy (crushed) cannot explain continued international support for Maduro the suspicion increases it is either a gullible refusal to confront reality or else naked sectarian anti-Americanism. Washington’s threat of military intervention in Venezuela has sparked a series of lectures on the principle of non-interference in international law from the same quarters that only a few years ago found arguments to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And yet, of all the reasons to be suspicious of Guaidó’s move against Maduro the most compelling is the support he is receiving from the Trump administration. Its Venezuelan policy team is staffed by hard-line hawks for whom the crisis seems a chance to finally achieve a definitive victory against old socialist foes from the dirty wars in Central America in the 1980s. What to make of a group supposedly dedicated to returning liberty to Venezuela whose point man, Elliott Abrams, defended the US clients responsible for genocide in Guatemala in the 1980s? Given its military power and financial muscle it was a given that Guaidó and his team would accept whatever help the US administration was offering. But it is arguable that the international effort to drive Maduro from power has been undermined by Washington’s support. Its nefarious role in Latin American history means its backing of Guaidó inevitably and necessarily invites suspicion. If the US role in the present crisis has rallied some support on the global left to Maduro then the US has only its own past history in the region to blame.

Washington’s role also deflects attention away from the efforts of other states to bring about the return of free and fair elections in Venezuela without threatening military action. South America, suspicious of US intentions and sensitive to the disparities in size and power among its own states, has long been a region wedded to the principle of non-interference. The question now is not why the US would once again seek to be the region’s policeman but rather why so many of these other states, in a break with tradition, are openly backing Guaidó in his struggle with Maduro, working in tandem with those notorious neo-con threats to global peace Justin Trudeau and his foreign minister Chrystia Freeland.

But the most perplexing thing about lingering international solidarity with chavismo is the fact that it is a political phenomenon that has only a shaky claim to be of the left, instead being better classified as another spectacularly disastrous rerun of ruinous commodity-driven Latin populism. Strip away the empty rhetoric of 21st Century Socialism and ignore the ruinous (for Venezuela) alliance with Cuba (which profited handsomely from Fidel Castro’s ability to dominate the impressionable Chávez) and the regime shares much in common with many of its Latin predecessors of both left and right.

Many Venezuelan leftists agreed to work with Chávez because after decades in the wilderness he offered them a taste of power. Others refused and spit at the notion the Bolivarian Revolution is socialist. What socialism it did contain was just one current in a revolution that also included a pantomime nationalism, hollow Pan-Americanism, crony capitalism and old-fashioned Latin populism. There is no need for the international left to defend this dog’s dinner of a revolution, and doing so only allows political opponents to tar it as unfit for office, as Podemos is now discovering in Spain.

Chavismo is just the latest authoritarian, military-dominated regime in Venezuela, where the cult of the army runs deep in politics. It is just the latest to have surfed on a wave of popularity when oil prices were high only to see the population turn on it when circumstances change and the cash ran out. Just another irresponsible caudillo squandering another commodities boom. Surely it is possible to denounce Washington’s threats of military intervention but simultaneously acknowledge that Maduro is a failed dictator and support diplomatic and economic measures that force him into stepping aside in order to allow free and fair elections before chavismo completes the ruin of Venezuela? Or does anti-Americanism mean some will support any regime opposed by Washington, even if it otherwise offends everything they claim to stand for?

At the Red Cross station by the Simón Bolívar bridge I spoke with a man in his mid-forties from a small town across the border. He was accompanying a neighbour who had crossed over to seek medical attention for her toddler. He had spent most of his adult life living with the Bolivarian Revolution but claims he never voted chavista. I asked why not. He recounted a history lesson he had received back in 1998 when Chávez has swapped his fatigues for sober suits. “When he first ran for president the old men in our town said that he might have taken off his uniform but he was still a military man and when the military are in power it never ends well.”

Military uniform. Political repression. Pharaonic public works projects. Debts accumulated against future oil revenues. Initial popular support turned to loathing. All as true of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in the 1950s as of chavismo today, except that Jiménez was a close ally of Washington rather than an antagonist.

Chávez was once himself wary of repeating his country’s previous errors. In his inauguration address in 1999 he did not look back to Jiménez but rather to the “ethical crisis” that gripped the country as a result of the unprecedented gush of dollars into its economy following 1973’s oil shock, which saw Venezuela’s oil revenues quadruple in five years. Chávez sourced the crisis which helped elevate him to power in 1998 back to that previous oil bonanza which led to “that most terrible cancer which we still have here present in the whole body of the Republic”.

Speaking at a time when Venezuela’s economy had once again slumped after oil’s epic price slide during the 1990s, which left Brent trading around $10 a barrel, he continued:

... while we do not cure this evil we will continue drowning in catastrophe, even if oil once again reaches ‑ hopefully not! ‑ $40 a barrel, which we don’t want, we don’t want it back at $40 a barrel, but even if it reaches it and even if it rains petrodollars and much money, it will be only momentary relief, but we will all the same continue drowning a little more in an ethical and moral swamp.

Sadly for his revolution and the Venezuelans doomed to live under it, Chávez spoke as the price of oil touched bottom. It was about to go on a heroic climb, shooting way past $40 a barrel, thus allowing the revolution to provide some “momentary relief” but at the cost of scrambling the heads of another generation of leaders who have now left Venezuela stuck deeper than ever in its ethical and moral swamp.

5/3/2019