Guest Opinion: Venezuela is now a casualty
“Venezuela Saudita.” Saudi Venezuela. That was the country’s nickname in the 1970s, halcyon years when the oil boom filled the streets of Caracas with Cadillacs and Buicks. Free-spending Venezuelans routinely jetted off on shopping sprees to Miami, where in malls they were known for their catch phrase, “Dame dos!” (“Give me two of those!”)
Today, Caracas is starving, violent and desperate. Venezuelans scrounge through trash heaps for scraps. At stores, lines for food wend around city blocks. With crime rampant and police overwhelmed, vigilante justice has become commonplace. In May, a mob mistook a 42-year-old man for a thief because he had $5 in his pocket. They poured gasoline over his head and burned him alive.
Venezuela, once South America’s wealthiest nation, is on the precipice — arguably a failed state in the throes of economic collapse. It boasts having the world’s largest oil reserves. And yet, inflation has reached 700 percent. Three-fourths of the country lives in poverty. Foreign debt stands at $130 billion. In much of the country, electricity and water are rationed.
Failed states exist in varying degrees of dysfunction all over the Third World. The implosion of Venezuela, however, has shocked us in part because of what the country used to be — a South American success story. It had its share of warts, of course, but up until the 1980s, Venezuela had a reputation as a stable democracy buoyed by a robust, growing economy.
The socialism and bombast of Hugo Chavez, president from 1999 until his death in 2013, changed all that. Chavez nationalized major industries and shipped subsidized oil to allied leftist Latin American regimes, policies that rattled the economy. By the time he died, inflation was soaring, violent crime was rampant and shortages of basic goods set in. Chavez’s protege and replacement, Nicolas Maduro, accelerated the country on a Chavista course toward despair.
We have no sympathy for Maduro, who not only put his people into the cesspool they must slog through, but makes decisions daily that keep them there. But we do ardently believe Venezuelans deserve a much better life than this. They’re an educated, proud people. Their country can once again become a democratic and economic force in a region that, in many instances, has been under the thumb of leftist authoritarians for too long.
We’ve previously written of the waning of the so-called pink tide of leftist regimes in Latin America — and a swing toward the right. In Venezuela, that about-face could take place if the opposition, which controls the parliament, is able to push forward a referendum to recall Maduro. That would set the stage for early elections. But Maduro is fighting for his political life, and he’s putting up every roadblock he can find to keep that referendum from happening this year. If Maduro can stall a vote until after mid-January, under Venezuelan law, his successor would be his like-minded vice president.
The Obama administration should rally other Latin American states to put pressure on Maduro to allow the recall referendum on the ballot this year. The Organization of American States, a confederation of 35 Western Hemisphere nations, has some leverage against Maduro; it could suspend Venezuela, further isolating a regime that already has seen its bonds with other Latin American nations wither.
Washington also needs to find a way to get humanitarian aid to starving Venezuelans. So far, Maduro has shut out that aid, claiming the relief is a guise for foreign intervention. He’s keeping his country mired in misery and hunger.
It’s time for Maduro to let Venezuelans choose their course, and time for the U.S. and its Latin American allies to make that choice possible.