Once one of Latin America’s richest countries and with the second-largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela is now on the brink of an economic and political meltdown. The International Monetary Fund estimates that inflation will hit 720% in 2016 and that the country’s economy will drop by a further 8%, having shrunk 10% in 2015. A default on its national debt is imminent, effectively making the country bankrupt.
The global drop in oil prices has hit the Venezuelan economy hard with more than 90% of exports being based on oil. Last month, President Nicolas Maduro blaming an ‘international financial war’ against Venezuela, hiked domestic petrol prices by 6,000% in an attempt to stop the rot. Nevertheless, heavily subsidised at roughly 60 pence per gallon, fuel is still cheaper than a bottle of water. Generous government subsidies for the poor such as this have been central tenets of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution. However, alarming mismanagement, huge oil pay-outs to political allies, lack of investment in basic infrastructure and corruption have left the economy in ruins.
To get itself out of the economic mess, Venezuela urgently needs strong political unity and leadership. Last December, there was a window for some kind of political reconciliation following parliamentary elections in which the opposition gained control of the National Assembly. However, just before the inauguration of the newly composed legislature, the Government unlawfully packed the Supreme Court with political appointees through specially expedited procedures, resulting in a constitutional deadlock. Following the appointments, the Supreme Court, in January 2016, used its power to overrule the National Assembly’s rejection of a decree granting President Maduro emergency economic powers. The Court is also likely to strike down a recently passed amnesty law for the release of Venezuela’s many political prisoners, causing yet another political crisis which the country can ill-afford.
Since former President Chavez came to power in 1999, it is this brazen disregard for the rule of law that has characterised the Government’s attempts to push through its policies and bulldoze any opposition. Independent institutions such as the judiciary have been systematically dismantled and as exemplified by the Kafkaesque trial of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, judges fear prison or worse for returning unpopular decisions. Impunity is rife and Venezuela’s justice system is simply unable to ensure accountability. According to the Attorney-General Office’s own statistics, 99% of human rights complaints did not make it to trial phase.
The premise that, when there is no rule of law people are more likely to take the law into their own hands, is starkly demonstrated by the alarmingly high levels of violence on the streets of Caracas, which was recently rated as the most dangerous city in the world, with a higher homicide rate than many conflict zones. The acute shortages of goods and services, empty supermarket shelves and huge queues for basic commodities makes the situation for Venezuelans look increasingly grim.
As one university professor told me on a recent visit to Caracas: “It is as if we are living in wartime conditions, but there is no war”. Whilst President Maduro continues to use anti-capitalist rhetoric to blame unspecified ‘warmongers’ for sabotaging the economy, it is clear that Venezuela’s real battle is for the rule of law and public confidence in the fair administration of justice. Only then can it have a chance of political reconciliation, better public security and perhaps, an economic recovery.