Maduro’s last gasp
Nicolas Maduro became president of Venezuela on the death of the redoubtable Hugo Chavez who succumbed to cancer. He inherited an economy that had already started to show all the strains of “Chavismo”, the political philosophy embarked on by his predecessor to transform Venezuela into an egalitarian, progressive, socialist society.
By the time Chavez died, Venezuelan society had started to show the troubling signs of a society in political and economic ennui. Even beneficiaries of his socialist experimentation had started to question the legitimacy of his Government and the sustainability of many of his policies towards the poor and oppressed.
Chavez had laid his plans for transforming Venezuelan society squarely on the vast reserves of oil that Venezuela was blessed with. But then misfortune struck as oil-exporting countries across the world suffered an oil shock as prices fell from over US$100 per barrel to below US$40 per barrel. Thanks to US shale production the world experienced an oil glut for which weak economies like Venezuela was ill prepared. Suddenly, the big socialist giveaway indulged by Chavez became an albatross around the neck of the Venezuelan economy.
So Maduro inherited an emerging mess, an unsustainable economy that had made little or no preparation for a rainy day. The net result is that Venezuela today is a basket case. Many of its citizens survive on the rubbish dump. There are shortages of basic food and medicines. All around the poor have not had it harder. In a country flush with oil there are fuel shortages as the country lacks the necessary resources to have the precious commodity delivered to the people on a sustainable basis.
To be fair to Maduro, he inherited from his predecessor a society that was already in free fall. But he has exacerbated the problems by taking a hard-fisted approach to the problems of the country. He has proven to be no Chavez, and possesses none of the charisma that has bailed out Chavez numerous times as president. But Chavez never had to contend with the massive fallout in oil. Confronted with this dilemma, Maduro has handled it abysmally, and has proceeded to use strong-arm tactics to shore up his Administration.
Then truth is that Venezuelans are living in fear, crippling poverty and for many, near death. Whatever is left of democracy in Venezuela is rapidly being whittled away, as Maduro has brought immense pressure to bear on the Opposition and has arrogated more political power to himself. Through some spurious charges, he has sought to cripple the Opposition by banning its leader, Henrique Capriles, from participating in the political life of the country.
Maduro has used the State’s secret police to harass dissidents and those who would seek to oppose him. The bottom line is that Nicolas Maduro is fast becoming a pariah, not only in Venezuela but also in Latin America, where impatience with his mercurial behaviour is growing. He is behaving like a man experiencing the last gasps of political power.
Despite this seeming impatience, one has to call into question the deafening silence and apparent support that Maduro continues to enjoy from many of his “friends” in Latin America and the Caribbean. Like Chavez before him, Maduro uses the United States as a scapegoat for all that ails Venezuela. But even that tactic no longer works, now that the crippling incompetence of Maduro’s regime has been exposed for what it is. He will, of course, still blame America but this will fall short, for people know better, and even the poor have begun to suspect that Maduro does not cut it.
The silence of Latin American and Caribbean leaders is very disconcerting. This can only be due to one thing and one thing only: PetroCaribe. Through the PetroCaribe arrangement, Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Jamaica, have been able to access Venezuelan oil at generous bargains. We in Jamaica know that PetroCaribe has been especially good to us. It had its genesis in Jamaica at a time when oil prices were very high and the Venezuelans have seemed to be well-disposed to Jamaica in its negotiations. In fact, it is fair to say that Venezuela has been a friend of Jamaica to a degree that many other countries have not been.
One can well understand then the seeming reluctance of the Jamaican Government to criticise Maduro. The rationale may be that when a friend is in the ditch you do not leave him there to die, you help him out the best you can, even though you may not agree with him for the reasons he ended up in the ditch. This may be a fair rationale for friendship on a personal level, but is unsustainable when it comes to relations between countries. In fact, our relationship with Venezuela under PetroCaribe was not predicated on friendship between persons — though this is helpful — but between two sovereign nations. We have received concessionary terms for oil from that country which have helped the Jamaican economy substantially, but we still have to pay our dues.
More importantly, Jamaica must seek to line up on the right side of history where Maduro’s assault on the democratic freedoms of the Venezuelan people is concerned. One of the hallmarks of good friendship is to be able to speak truth, however hurtful it may be, to the one you consider a friend. It is well time that the Government addresses the Venezuelan dilemma and present the people of Jamaica with a clear statement of where it stands on the slow death of a country under the vice grip of a dictator drunk on power. History will not absolve us for our silence.
— Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or