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On Point

Venezuela: Can A Powder Keg Implode?


by Austin Bay
September 20, 2016

Despite the touts that it would "be remembered for centuries," Venezuelan socialist dictator Nicolas Maduro's non-aligned summit proved to be a less-than-memorable bust.

The non-aligned nation summit, held in Caracas from September 16-18, was supposed to showcase Maduro as a radical and resilient socialist leader. Instead, it revealed Venezuela's weakness and exposed Maduro as delusional.

Summit attendee Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe lauded Maduro and Venezuela's great "Bolivarian" revolution, but when Mugabe sings your praises, the praise is thin indeed.

Zimbabwe and Venezuela have much in common: violence, turmoil and poverty. As The Economist noted earlier this year, the arc of Venezuela's economic decline mimics Zimbabwe's. Venezuela's inflation rate in 2016 is around 700 percent; Zimbabwe experienced 700 percent in 2006.

Zimbabwe was once an agricultural breadbasket. Mugabe's corrupt and violent regime turned Zimbabwe is a basketcase.

Oil-producing Venezuela was truly wealthy. Then 1999 rolled around and Maduro's predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez became president. The ex-paratrooper combined the rhetorical flair of Benito Mussolini with the anti-Americanism of Fidel Castro. He had the economic savvy of both dictators -- meaning he had none whatsoever. Instead, he squandered Venezuela's oil windfall on populist political schemes and self-aggrandizement.

Chavez also enlarged the Venezuelan military and armed it with Russian weapons purchased with petro-dollars. He said Venezuela needed a large and powerful military to protect its socialist revolution. Military power would also help extend the revolution. Chavez had a grandiose plan. He would create the South American "super-state" envisioned by 19th century South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar. This Bolivarian state would include Venezuela, Colombia, Surinam and parts of Ecuador.

However, Chavez' political and economic mismanagement had consequences. The economy sputtered. As domestic opposition increased, Chavez intimidated and brutalized his critics. Conditions in Venezuela declined.

Chavez died of cancer in March 2013. In April 2013, Maduro, the designated heir, won a disputed election. Oil prices dropped and the economic sputter became an economic collapse. The economy is now in its third year of deep recession. I mentioned the 700 percent inflation rate. Earlier this year food shortages began.

In 2007, Chavez flexed his military muscles and publicly toyed with invading the island of Curacao, a Dutch-protected territory just off the Venezuelan coast. At least two serious studies concluded a Venezuelan quick strike could seize the weakly-defended island before Dutch, British and U.S. forces could respond.

In 2016, Curacao is being invaded by Venezuelan refugees. The island cannot handle the refugee influx. Refugees had fled to Colombia as well. A recent poll in Venezuela indicated between 40 and 50 percent of Venezuelans would flee their country if they had the chance. Why? Shortages. Long lines for food and next to no medicine. Once prosperous Venezuelans complain they now spend their days hunting for food.

For decades, Venezuela has relied on food imports to meet domestic needs. Oil revenues supplied the cash. Now that money is gone. In July, Maduro militarized food distribution, or tried to. He ordered the Venezuelan military to monitor food production and oversee the distribution of food supplies.

Though Venezuelans are angry and disenchanted, political opposition remains fragmented and ineffective.

The opposition coalition, Democratic Unity, wants to remove Maduro from office but its call for a referendum has encountered bureaucratic resistance. Venezuelan law governing recall elections and removal from office are also quirky. The national election board also says its members have been threatened, presumably by Maduro's supporters.

For the moment, Maduro has stymied and cowed his opponents. Maduro has the guns and he controls the food. Repression, however, doesn't prevent starvation. Civil wars typically explode with a spasm of violence. Instead, Venezuela is imploding into civil chaos. The next year will be dangerous and difficult.

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