A Brief History
On February 4, 1992, Hugo Chavez, leader of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200, headed an attempted coup against the lawful government of Venezuela. While the coup attempt failed, another attempt in November of 1992 was also staged, even though Chavez was in prison at the time. The second attempt also failed, but Chavez was later released from prison after only 2 years and was elected President of Venezuela in 1998, a post he held until his death in 2013. The Chavez years were no less tumultuous than the political chaos he and his cohorts replaced, and today the government (we use the term loosely) of Venezuela is undergoing a crisis of nearly civil war proportions.
Why would we care about what is going on in Venezuela, other than the humanitarian aspects? Because of OIL! In fact, Venezuela has the largest known oil reserves of all nations on the Earth. THAT makes the otherwise medium sized country (31 million people, 354,000 square miles, 32nd in the world among countries by square miles and 44th by population) of extreme interest to the United States and other industrialized nations.
Hugo Chavez and his allies were virulently anti-American, espousing socialist ideals and nationalizing many industries and companies. Unfortunately for the people of Venezuela, the Chavez led economy was a disaster, and has left the country in a terrible bind financially. Deficit spending, price controls, and inflation sparked many shortages of food and goods, and while the social turmoil got worse, so did the public peace as the murder rate soared.
Chavez identified with and aligned his country with communist countries such as Cuba and Nicaragua, as well as the socialist regimes in Ecuador and Bolivia. Not surprisingly, Russia and China have stepped up to be “friends” with Venezuela at the expense of normal relations between Venezuela and the United States. A fast forward to 2017 finds Venezuela in a political crisis due to default on government bonds and loans. Years of lavish social programs without adequate funding ruined the Venezuelan economy. By 2018, the rate of inflation exceeded a MILLION percent! Hunger and malnutrition have reached crisis proportions, and American offers of food and medical assistance are stubbornly refused.
President Nicolas Maduro has cemented his position of power in Venezuela by declaring all opposition parties were not allowed to participate in the 2018 Presidential election. (Please do not give Americans any ideas…) Thus, his “re-election” in 2018 is seen by many, including the opposition and the government of the United States as illegal and illegitimate. Even the Organization of American States (OAS) has voted to not recognize the Maduro government.
Meanwhile, countries with a current tradition of disregarding fair elections and the democratic process have joined in support of Maduro’s government, including China, Russia, Cuba, Turkey and Iran. Most “normal” countries, including most South and Central American (such as Argentina and Brazil) nations publicly deplore the actions of Maduro and his brutal repression of dissent.
Venezuela and its vast reserves of oil are an international tinderbox at this time. The country may suffer a great humanitarian crisis if something does not settle the political landscape, either due to widespread hunger and illness or war. The United States government has hinted at the possibility of armed intervention, and such hints have been answered by the predictable condemnation from China and Russia. Meanwhile, opposition leader Juan Guaido claims to be the legitimate President of Venezuela and is recognized as such by most of the European Union and Western aligned nations.
What will become of the situation in Venezuela? We should find out pretty soon, probably before the end of 2019 as the status quo cannot go on much longer until open warfare breaks out or outside countries intervene. To paraphrase the late singer Rick James, “Oil is a powerful drug.”
Questions for Students (and others): Does the United States have a “right” to intervene in Venezuela? Does the United States have a right to exclude China and Russia from interfering based on the Monroe Doctrine? Which side do you predict will win in Venezuela?
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For more information, please see…
Carroll, Rory. Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Penguin Books, 2014.
Gallegos, Raul. Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela. Potomac Books, 2016.
Salas, Miguel. Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a screen capture by Prensa Presidencial – Government of Venezuela of Chávez speaking to media networks following his arrest from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LCAtQewtNE, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.