Venezuela is in the grip of an unprecedented humanitarian and economic crisis. Much of the population lives in poverty, masses are making do without even food and the most basic of supplies and the economy is in utter ruin. It is estimated that as many as 9 in 10 citizens do not have access to adequate amounts of food, and spend almost the equivalent of a standard working week each month queuing for food. Supermarket shelves are frequently empty of any kind of food, with scavenging for food scraps now a common practice in the country. Beset by a lack of opportunity or even basic supplies, the crime rate, particularly violent crimes, has skyrocketed. Venezuela currently has the second highest homicide rate in the world after El Salvador. At this point, it is almost inevitable that the country will either default or go into complete economic collapse within the next 12 to 24 months. The cause of this humanitarian crisis has been an economic collapse years in the making, which has been compounded exponentially in the last few years.
The chief cause of Venezuela’s remarkable collapse has been the staggering mismanagement of the economy firstly by authoritarian Socialist president Hugo Chavez and then by his successor, Nicolas Maduro. The state-controlled oil industry, which accounts for half the country’s revenue, is at the centre of the story of Venezuela’s economic collapse. For many years, the oil industry has been run incompetently by both Maduro and Chavez. The state-run system, which did not allow for private competitors, became inefficient as well as corrupt. In addition, price controls set by Chavez in 2003 reduced the industry’s global competitiveness and eventually rendered Venezuelan currency virtually obsolete, creating a black market. The profits of the industry, estimated at some $250 billion between 2001 and 2015 was spent entirely on social programs including the importation of food, often in a wasteful and ineffective manner. However, as the global oil price collapsed in the last few years, so too has Venezuela’s ability to take in revenue from oil. Worse still, oil production has reduced in recent years. Despite this, there has been no change to Venezuela’s ambitious social programs, nor any change to the Venezuelan oil industry, or indeed its economy in general. With inflation tipped to reach 700 per cent by the end of 2016 and the overall economy to contract between 8 and 10 per cent, drastic changes are needed immediately. However, there is virtually no chance of this occurring, at least while current president Nicolas Maduro remains in power.
The crisis is compounded by the authoritarian nature of Maduro’s rule. Despite his immense unpopularity (a recent poll indicated only around 15 percent of Venezuelans would vote for him in an election or recall referendum), Maduro is holding on to power through a series of increasingly unconstitutional and dictatorial moves. Maduro recently amended via decree the country’s Constitution to grant him more executive power at the expense of the country’s Congress. President Maduro has also recently sacked hundreds of public servants who signed a recall petition demanding a referendum on his presidency, as well as the majority of his economic team after scarcely a month in power. The opposition has recently gathered sufficient votes to force a recall referendum on Maduro’s presidency. Maduro, however, has delayed holding the referendum. In the meantime, the opposition leader Daniel Cebbalos has been imprisoned. This move comes as part of a broader crackdown on political opposition and dissent in the country.
Despite the seriousness of the crisis enveloping Venezuela, the international community’s response to the situation has been mild. There has been limited effort into managing the ongoing crisis, and when efforts have been made, little more has been produced than generic statements of concern about the situation. Yet, there is a real possibility that Venezuela could collapse as a nation completely, destabilising the entire region as well as having significant implications for the global oil market, causing ripples in the global economy. A much more concerted effort is needed to manage the ever-escalating Venezuelan crisis, and it is needed now. The Venezuelan state could collapse at any moment, and if so, the international community is inadequately prepared for the implications of this collapse.