Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Disaster Repeats in Venezuela

Coming again soon? 1989 'Caracazo' riots in Caracas, Venezuela.
Venezuelans wait for hours outside a supermarket.
The supermarket shelves are bare - and yet customers sleep overnight outside stores hoping to find something to buy. Inflation is nearing three digits. Civil rights are being suffocated. And things will only get worse.

Government arrogance and incompetence has turned Venezuela into an economic and political disaster area, causing great hardship for Venezuela's 24 million people. And if Venezuela implodes, it'll mean great hardship for Colombia as well.

Last year, Venezuela already boasted the world's highest inflation rate, and widespread shortages of basic goods like coffee, milk, diapers and toilet paper. Then, the price of petroleum, which provides 95% of Venezuela's foreign revenue, nosedived. Today, Venezuela looks increasingly likely to default on payments to both international lenders and to Venezuelans themselves.

Empty shelves in a Venezuelan supermarket.
Pres. Maduro, whose public support is below 28% percent and dropping, has no solutions. His recent begging trip to China and the Middle East produced scant results, and he appears to lack confidence to apply the hard medicine the economy needs to staunch the financial hemorrhaging - devaluing the currency, lifting price controls and eliminating gasoline subsidies, among other measures - because he knows they'd fuel protests. But the alternative - letting things get worse and worse - is setting the stage for a monumental economic implosion and social explosion.

Paralyzed, Maduro has already postponed his annual state-of-the-nation speech twice, because he has nothing to offer.

Maduro, the hand-picked successor of Hugo Chavez, fears making necessary economic adjustments for another reason: Because they would call into question the legitimacy of his so-called 'socialist revolution.' Chavismo traces its roots to the 1989 Caracazo - huge riots triggered by government removal of subsidies on gasoline and other goods. Thousands of people were killed, some by government forces. The discontent fueled the movement which swept Chavez to the presidency a decade later.

Today, Maduro's government is setting the nation up to repeat 1989's catastrophe - but on a larger scale. Gasoline is even more heavily subsidized, and the country is almost completely dependent on oil income, which is dropping precipitously. (Of course, when it all comes crashing down, Maduro & Co. will blame the disaster they created on the United States and neoliberalism.)

When Venezuela implodes, the victims will include Colombia. Venezuela is historically Colombia's second-largest trade partner after the U.S., but a collapsed economy doesn't buy much stuff. And Venezuelan refugees will rush across the border, fleeing lawlessness and desperate for livelihoods. Amid the chaos, narcotrafficking and other crimes will flourish.

Is there a way for Caracas to avoid this calamity? It's hard to see it.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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