Millions Flee Venezuela, But Maduro Is Going Nowhere

It will take outside intervention to remove Venezuela’s president.

President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela visits Quito, Ecuador, September 21, 2015
President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela visits Quito, Ecuador, September 21, 2015 (Prensa Miraflores)

Twenty years have passed since Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution began in Venezuela. Although the first decade halved unemployment and brought poverty levels down to 27 percent, under President Nicolás Maduro there has been a dramatic economic, political and social decline.

Inflation has skyrocketed and is expected to reach 1,000,000 percent this year. Shortages of basic goods have resulted in widespread malnutrition. The outbreak of previously forgotten diseases and violence has reached unprecedented levels. 73 lives are lost per day.

This, combined with a political system that has barred and arrested opposition presidential candidates, sidelined an opposition-dominated legislature and last year carried out an election marred by an opposition boycott and claims of vote-rigging, has led to an exodus of almost 10 percent of Venezuela’s 30 million population. 90 percent of those who remain live in poverty.

With such a parlous state of affairs, how has Maduro kept the show on the road?

And why haven’t Venezuela’s neighbors, who are sheltering most of its refugees, acted to end the misery?

External support

The most oil-rich nation in the world, Venezuela still possesses an asset of international interest. As the country has sunk deeper into the mire, it has had to cede control over its much-prized military-run oil reserves.

China has offered $62 billion in loans between 2005 and 2017 and in return obtained a geopolitical foothold in the region and a steady flow of oil that gives it bargaining power in negotiations with other oil providers.

Russia has increased its oil and military investments in Venezuela to close to $19 billion in the last five years, gaining controling stakes in oil distribution companies and reinforcing its position as ally to the anti-American axis in South America.

Turkey is the latest country to announce investment in, and an array of cooperation agreements with, Venezuela.

America’s backyard

America’s history of intervention in Latin America is one reason that their actions have not escalated beyond sanctions.

Colombia and Brazil, under newly elected right-wing leaders, are Donald Trump’s greatest admirers, but the extent to which the broader regional community is willing to go is exemplified by a thirteen-country declaration urging Maduro not to take office this month to commence his second presidential term.

President Trump himself has said military action is not off the table and his national security advisor, John Bolton, has referred to Venezuela as part of a “troika of terror”. Given Trump’s isolationist tendencies, however, and the absence of a direct threat to America, it seems unlikely he will intervene.

Where next?

In 2015, the hope was that with the opposition winning a majority in the National Assembly for the first time in sixteen years the end of Chavismo was nigh. But a divided opposition consisting of 27 parties has proved incapable of challenging Maduro’s grip on power.

So long as Maduro’s international allies are willing to stump up the cash he needs to pay off his internal military supporters, and so long as his neighbors are unwilling to stomach the fallout of converting disapproving words into actions, internal opposition will continue to flee the country and the Bolivarian nightmare will go on.