BY: DR. DAVID BASSIOUNI
Venezuela’s problems go back to 1999 when the charismatic and ebullient late President Hugo Chavez established a socialist government, at a time when Venezuela was against the backdrop of vast wealth but had huge inequality. That is the government his predecessor President Nicolas Maduro took over in 2013.Venezuela has been caught in a downward spiral for years with growing political discontent further fueled by skyrocketing hyperinflation, power cuts and shortages of food and medicine. Arguably the biggest problem facing Venezuelans in their day-to-day lives is hyperinflation. The annual inflation rate reached 1,300,000% in the 12 months leading up to November 2018, according to a study by the opposition-controlled National Assembly. By the end of 2018, prices were doubling every 19 days on average. This has left many Venezuelans struggling to afford basic items such as food and toiletries. The price of a cup of coffee in the capital Caracas doubled to 400 bolivars ($0.62; £0.50) in the space of just a week last December, according to Bloomberg.
But the socialist policies brought in, which aimed to help the poor, backfired. Take price controls, for example. They were introduced by President Chávez to make basic goods more affordable to the poor by capping the price of flour, cooking oil and toiletries. But this meant that the few Venezuelan businesses producing these items no longer found it profitable to make them. Critics also blame the foreign currency controls brought in by President Chávez in 2003 for a flourishing black market in dollars. Since then, Venezuelans wanting to exchange bolivars for dollars have had to apply to a government-run currency agency. Only those deemed to have valid reasons to buy dollars, for example to import goods, have been allowed to change their bolivars at a fixed rate set by the government. With many Venezuelans unable to freely buy dollars, they turned to the black market.
Faced with severe hardship, to survive, many people have been voting with their feet and leaving Venezuela. According to United Nations figures, three million Venezuelans have left the country since 2014 when the economic crisis started to bite. The country’s mass migration is one of the largest forced displacements in the western hemisphere. The country has become a beachhead of millions of desperate people frantically reaching out for a bridge of desperation and hope out of Venezuela!
In the meantime, the government introduced several measures aimed at arresting the hyperinflation by lopping five zeros off the old “strong bolivar” currency and giving it a new name – the “sovereign bolivar.” This meant people no longer had to carry such huge amounts of cash. It also began circulating eight new banknotes worth 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 sovereign bolivars and two new coins.
The new currency is part of an “economic package” of measures which the government says is the “magic formula” to help Venezuela’s battered economy recover. Among the measures were:
- Raising the minimum wage to 34 times its previous level from 1 September;
- Anchoring the sovereign bolivar to the petro, a virtual currency the government says is linked to Venezuela’s oil reserves;
- Curbing Venezuela’s generous fuel subsidies for those not in possession of a “Fatherland ID;” and,
- Raising VAT by 4% to 16%.
However, the currency has continued to fall since its introduction, and a further minimum wage increase has had to be introduced, leading to questions over how effective the move was.
Venezuela’s political crisis reached a boiling point in January 2019 amid growing efforts by the Opposition to unseat the socialist president, Nicolás Maduro. After being re-elected to a second term in early elections in May 2018, Mr. Maduro announced he would serve out his remaining first term and only then be sworn in for a second term on 10 January. The Opposition strongly opposed this move arguing that Nicolás Maduro is clinging on to power through fraudulent elections. Maduro’s swearing-in ceremony gave the opposition to his government a fresh boost. The National Assembly argued that because the election was not fair, Maduro is a “usurper” and the presidency is vacant. This is a line that is being pushed by the 35-year-old, new President of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó. Citing articles 233 and 333 of Venezuela’s Constitution, the legislature provides that in such cases, the head of the National Assembly takes over as acting president. Mr. Guaidó declared himself acting President on 23 January. US President Donald Trump officially recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela just minutes after the latter had said he would take over the executive powers. Predictably, this was met with a swift response from Nicolás Maduro, who has long said that the US is behind attempts to drive him from office. Maduro broke off relations with the US and gave US diplomats 72 hours to leave Venezuela. Within Venezuela, those opposed to the government celebrated Mr. Guaidó’s move, while government officials said they would defend the president from “imperialist threats.” Juan Guaidó called on all of those opposed to President Maduro and his government to continue protesting “until Venezuela is liberated.” While Mr. Guaidó counts on the support of the US, several Latin American countries and other international leaders, he does not have much power in practical terms. Russia and Cuba, long-standing allies of Venezuela, have sided with Maduro. Several of Maduro
Juan Guaidó is the President of the National Assembly, but this legislative body was largely rendered powerless by the creation of the National Constituent Assembly in 2017, which is exclusively made up of government-loyalists. The Opposition-controlled National Assembly has continued to meet, but its decisions have been ignored by President Maduro in favor of those made by the National Constituent Assembly. The security forces are seen as the key player in this crisis. So far, they have been loyal to Mr. Maduro, who has rewarded them with frequent pay raises and placed high-ranking military men in control of key posts and industries. Following the events of 23 January, top military commanders tweeted their support for Mr. Maduro, but videos posted on social media showed National Guard members stepping aside at one opposition protest to let those marching through. Guaidó has promised all security forces personnel an amnesty if they break with President Maduro.
With everything that is going on one may wonder why Maduro’s government has not fallen amidst the impasse! The USA opposition remains only a threat. Russia, Cuba and some Latin American countries continue to shore up the government of Maduro with much needed financial assistance. The way to break this impasse will depend greatly on a negotiated Peaceful Agreement. The challenge is to place the crisis in the hands of a neutral internationally recognized and respected institution such as the Organization of American States (OAS) to lead the search for peace. OAS can identify an experienced, respected high caliber mediator with clout who enjoys the mutual acceptance and trust of both sides in the conflict. Because of the special position of Venezuela in the Americas, one of the former Latin American Presidents or Leaders can be appointed as the Special Envoy of Organization of American States to lead the mediation effort. He/she can be backed by the United Nations and should enjoy the full support and cooperation of the US, the Russian Federation and Cuba who should participate fully in the peace process leading to a final Peace Agreement. They should together, with OAS, also be guarantors to any agreement reached. The focus of the conflict resolution should be on establishing a Cessation of Hostilities between the parties in conflict and finding common ground for the Venezuelan Government and Opposition to agree to establish an Interim Government of National Unity equipped with an equitable formula for the sharing of power and resources. Venezuela should immediately receive massive humanitarian assistance under the joint leadership of the United Nations and OAS. The government should utilize the Transitional Interim Period not extending further than 3-4 years to reconstruct and rebuild the country and hold internationally-supervised elections at the end of the period. Only then will it be possible for Venezuela to find peace and restore hope for their citizens.
Dr. David S. Bassiouni is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Bassiouni Group, where he leads the company’s mission to empower global institutions and communities in the developing world through Sustainable Development, Strategic Public/Private Partnerships and Socially Responsible Investment. Dr. Bassiouni is also a United Nations Veteran, having served in the UN system for over twenty years in leadership roles with UNICEF, OCHA, DHA, UNDGO.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.
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