Cry for Venezuela

The dream of a socialist Venezuela has turned into a nightmare.

It’s depressing to see the disintegration of President Hugo Chávez’s attempt at political reform. Chávez, elected in 1999, was part of the “pink tide” that swept Latin America in the 2000s. He was one of the three musketeers of leftist governments in South America which included Lula da Silva of Brazil and Evo Morales of Bolivia.

The three denounced the Washington consensus of the 1990s which saw neo-liberal policies implemented: privatization of public companies, cuts to public spending on education and health care, foreign investment, and free market strategies.

The Neo-liberal experiment in the Latin Americas collapsed by the end of the 1990’s, leaving unemployment, corruption, inflation and increased inequality. Strained relations with the U.S. left an opportunity for China to partner with leftist governments.

The seeds of Venezuela’s collapse were sown from the start of Chávez’s presidency. Part of it had to do with the ego of the populist president. He believed that he was the people’s true champion and to ensure that he remained in power, he abolished the legislature’s upper house. Despite his public rhetoric of democracy, Chávez was consolidating power in himself.

Chávez’s policies were popular as many were lifted out of poverty with food subsidies, education, and welfare; all funded by the state-run oil company. But things went downhill after the workers of the oil company went on strike in 2002. Chávez fired 18,000 of them and replaced them with 100,000 of his supporters. Since the new workers had few of the technical and managerial skills necessary to run the plant, production fell even as global oil prices boomed.

To make up for falling oil revenues, Chávez borrowed money to fund popular programs leaving Venezuela the most indebted country in the world.

Chávez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro, worsened the crisis. Unable to pay for subsidies and welfare programs, he printed money. This drove up inflation making basic goods unaffordable. He instituted price controls and fixed the currency exchange rate, so that imports became prohibitively expensive. Businesses shut down. Maduro printed more money, and inflation grew again. Food became scarce. Unrest deepened, and Maduro’s survival grew more contingent on handouts he could not afford.

In a country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, food has grown so scarce that three of four citizens reported a weight loss averaging 19 pounds in a year.

The collapse of Venezuela’s economy surpasses the Great Depression of the dirty thirties says Ricardo Hausmann, former minister of planning of Venezuela:

“Put another way, Venezuela’s economic catastrophe dwarfs any in the history of the U.S., Western Europe or the rest of Latin America.”

Where words fail to describe the calamity, numbers help. Instead of thinking of lost of wages in currency, think of them as measured in the cheapest source of calories. Minimum wage, so measured, declined to just 7,005 calories per day. This is insufficient to feed a family of five, assuming that all the income is spent to buy the cheapest calories. One-half of Venezuela works at minimum wages.

City streets are marked by black markets and violence. The last reported murder rate, in 2014, was equivalent to the civilian casualty rate in 2004 Iraq.

Venezuela’s heartbreaking fall leaves dreamers of a better world in mourning.

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Becoming friendly with U.S. President an oily question  

I notice, President George W. Bush, that you have canceled  your visit to Canada next month. That’s OK, we know how  busy you are.  We got preview of what your message might be  from your ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci.

leaflets

“There would be no debate. There would be no hesitation. We would be there for Canada as part of our family. And that is why so many in the United States are disappointed and upset that Canada is not fully supporting us now,” said Cellucci  on March 25, 2003.

I notice that your ambassador delivered your passionate appeal directly to Canadians,  via Economic Club of Toronto.  Diplomats usually give their dry, carefully worded, messages to host governments.

But what, Mr. President, do we owe this earnest attention?  In the past, you have scarcely noticed that we exist.

Excuse me if I seem petty, but it seems like you like Mexico best.  Mexico was the first country that you visited as president.  Mexico’s President Vincente Fox was the first leader invited to the U.S.  On Fox’s visit, you gushed “This is a recognition that the United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico.”

Did you forget, Mr. President, that our two countries share the world’s greatest trade ($1.4 billion a day) and the longest undefended boarder in the world (although I understand you have a problem with that.)

What do you want from Canada?   You know that all of our military resources are fighting the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and in the Persian Gulf.  It’s a commitment greater than most in your coalition.

If you are seeking our approval, I’m truly touched since your always seem to do things your own way.

I notice that you didn’t visit Iraq either.  Your message to Iraqis came in the form of 17 million leaflets dropped in advance of your invasion, and from a pop radio station aboard a converted C-130 cargo plane that flew over Iraq.

One of your leaflets read “The oil industry is your livelihood.  Your family depends on your livelihood.  If the oil industry is destroyed, your livelihood will be ruined.”

The American pop music from the flying radio station over Iraq was a nice touch.  We get a lot of that music here, too.  When the radio announcer flying over Iraq said that Saddam Hussein was corrupt and you wanted him out, you obviously meant what you said.

Three days after ambassador Cellucci’s impassioned speech in Toronto, he was the heart of B.C.’s oil patch in Fort St. John.  His message was that Canada is the biggest source of energy for the U.S. and without Canadian energy, the American way of life would die.

Wow, the survival of the American way of life is at stake.  But I’m beginning to get the feeling that you like us, not just because we are family, but for our oil.  The ambassador also says that you have a problem with our government.

He told the Economic Club of Toronto that you were “disappointed” with recent comments from members of the government of Canada.  Disappointed?  As you would be with a wayward brother, Mr. President?

I notice that you have also been disappointed with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez Frias ever since he was elected in 1999.  Is that why you tried to get him out office and privatize Venezuela’s publicly owned refineries?   I can understand why you are concerned – – it’s the second largest output of oil in the world, and the fifth largest in terms of exports.

And Venezuela’s membership in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries is certainly irritating.  Don’t you hate the way OPEC controls world oil prices by limiting oil production?

I thought President Chavez’s reaction to your concern was uncalled for when he said that “Venezuela is a sovereign nation … we are nobody’s colony.”

Come to think of it, that’s almost exactly what our Canadian prime minister said in response to the remarks from your ambassador.  Or was he responding to your senior adviser Richard Perle who called Prime Minister Chrétien a “lame duck”?

Anyway, I’m sure that you’ll make it clear to us.  You can just put your message on American TV channels.  We all watch them.