How populism helped wreck Venezuela
“We are all stakeholders in the Venezuelan crisis and few countries more so than Colombia,” Francisco Santos, the Colombian ambassador to the United States, said last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank. “If we do not collectively address possible ways in which we stop the downward spiral in our neighboring country, there will be no other agenda to discuss with the White House or with anybody else.”
Santos, whose country of 48 million people is now home to 1 million Venezuelans, likened the situation to the European migrant crisis. “Germany received 1 million refugees from Syria in three years,” he said. “We received that in one year. … Imagine what this flow is going to do to Latin America, … [which] hasn't had those types of problems.”
The roots of the Venezuelan crisis lie in the economic policies of Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor and political mentor. In the 2000s, Chavez instituted generous social-welfare programs, nationalized many industries, and offered free, or highly discounted, oil to countries like Cuba in exchange for doctors and political support. This was possible because the price of oil—the lifeblood of Venezuela’s economy—was near record highs, filling the country’s coffers with billions in export revenues.
Following Chavez’s death in 2013, Maduro followed many of his mentor’s policies. But the sharp drop in global oil prices, along with the dramatic decline in Venezuela’s oil production, ensured that its economy, which is also highly reliant on imports, ran out of export revenue to pay for foreign goods. U.S.-led economic sanctions imposed on the country in response to the precipitous democratic decline under Maduro exacerbated the crisis.
Maduro’s economic policies essentially created a situation in which Venezuelans can’t buy goods, even if they have the money to do so. Chronic shortages force many people drive over the border to Colombia to buy supplies. Those who can leave, do. Under Chavez, “we had access to medicine—even if it was Cuban medicine,” Garcia said. But under Maduro, “I couldn’t give my children food, medical attention, anything at all. I was having trouble with my husband, and that’s when I decided that with everything happening, I had to get away.” Her mother already lived in Cucuta. Every time they talked, she said, her “mom used to say that food was easy to sell here.” So she left. “I saw an opportunity to generate an income for my family.”
Today, Garcia sells juice and cake in Cucuta, earning about $50 a week. “It’s not enough,” she said, “because I still have to pay for utilities, rent, and food.” But it’s more than what she was earning in Venezuela selling chips. “It’s been wonderful,” she said of Cucuta where she now lives with her mother, her mother’s partner, her 24-year-old sister, and 17-year-old brother. “I cannot really complain. I feel like I’ve received more support here than at home.”