Venezuela: It's the people, not the military, who must rescue the country

(An edited version of this article appeared in The Daily Telegraph (31st Jan., 2019),15.)

As Venezuela’s crisis deepens there is a consensus that it can only be resolved if the Venezuelan Army drops its support for the embattled Socialist Nicolas Maduro.

A quick clean military coup is a seductively simple solution to the standoff between the Western-backed Juan Guaido and his supporters in the streets and the obdurate president. Yet toppling a bad guy at the top needs to be more than a political game of musical chairs.

The simultaneous crisis in Zimbabwe should remind us that relying on the security forces – in effect a well-armed mafia - to ease out Robert Mugabe produced only a reincarnation of his methods of rule without him at the helm. Egypt has seen a similar process. There the Army operates everything from munitions works to soft drinks plants .When the generals pulled the rug from under Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and then his elected but incompetent successor Mohammed Morsi in 2013, it protected its own interest rather than the country’s.

Venezuela’s economic and social tragedy has many sources, including US sanctions, but at its heart has been the corrosive interplay of dependence on oil and the seizure of control over it by politicians and their generals. Back in 1998 Hugo Chavez got himself elected on the back of the charge that Venezuela’s oil resources had been plundered by a greedy oligarchy. Share the wealth was his key appeal. Sadly, divvying up the oil revenue among the population at large proved easy to promise when oil prices were high. As they fell dramatically in 2014, Chavez’s successors decided that socialism for themselves took priority. They carved up a dwindling cake forgetting to prioritise the People.

When the cash was flowing Chavez failed to invest in local production of everyday essentials. Like any spendthrift heir to an unearned fortune, the Commandante thought making things to make money was beneath the dignity of his revolution. Venezuela’s oil would pay for everything. As oil revenue sank so the effective shrinkage of the non-oil economy became almost fatal. The country couldn’t afford essential imports and has no cash to invest in local production to replace them.

Natural resources are a curse to many societies stifling entrepreneurship. Putting them under military control as in Venezuela just multiplies the downsides of relying on them alone to feed a society.

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is the butt of much well-justified odium, but he has at least recognised that his subjects can only really secure a prosperous future by diversifying their economy away from dependence on oil revenues. The reason why resource-rich countries like Canada or the USA are prosperous is that their economies are very diverse with energy production as a bonus rather than the basis of the economy.

The Venezuelan opposition has focussed on reforming the way the oil monopoly, PDVSA, is run with the objective of privatising it. However even revitalised oil production bringing in foreign investment and new technology won’t be enough to drag Venezuela’s masses out of poverty, though it could stop hyper-inflation and the downward spiral.

Anyone who wishes Venezuela well needs to recognise that there is no quick fix for the country’s economic and social crisis. Persuading Maduro to leave office, even to take the Chavista political elite with him, won’t restructure how Venezuela is governed or revitalise the economy.

Political restructuring depends on Venezuelan citizens themselves, but outsiders can help diversify their economy by investing in new production to meet domestic demand and even find regional markets. A post-Maduro Marshall Plan should seek to reboot Venezuela’s economy away from dependence on oil.

That is a key way to cut back on the festering corruption which has infected Venezuela for decades climaxing in the grotesqueries of Chavismo. Put simply: parasites find it much easier to batten onto a mega-energy corporation than a hundred thousand individual enterprises. If the West can help liberate Venezuela from the domination of oil it will be laying the foundations for a better country.

The Venezuelan military might play a vital role by withdrawing from underpinning bad governance in the state and economy. But the men in uniform can’t be saviours. Letting them continue to play a role in Venezuelan politics or the economy is a recipe for a return to crisis once the fiesta celebrating the downfall of President Maduro is over. The hard work of putting Venezuela back to work will be done by civilians or by no-one at all.

Mark Almond is Director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford

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