4 December 2015

Is Venezuela about to vote out socialism?


Whatever complaints we have about the shortcomings of the NHS – waiting times are too long, management isn’t slick enough – Venezuela’s counterpart could teach us all a lesson in grace and gratitude. Plenty of countries have damaged or failing health systems but few are like the Venezuelan. Here, in a country with oil reserves exceeding that of Saudi Arabia’s, the state-run healthcare system cannot even guarantee the provision of oxygen, antibiotics, syringes or food let alone administration and operational procedures.

Although there is no official data, as the Venezuelan Central Bank has stopped reporting its own economic figures, the IMF forecasts that the country’s economy will contract 10% this year, 6% next. Those are the worst figures in the world, excluding Syria (and there’s no data for Syria either).

Inflation in Venezuela is estimated to be 159% this year and 204% next year as, unlike Saudi Arabia, the country had no back up plan or reserve funds for when oil prices dropped from nearly $70 a barrel to $40 in a year. Given that Venezuela depends on oil for 96% of its foreign currency export earnings, this collapse in prices is extremely serious. The country’s ability to pay for imports has been crippled, causing severe shortages of basic household goods, from rice to shampoo.

Despite four minimum wage rises this year, 81.3% of those surveyed by Datanalisis confirm that the hike was not enough to cover the spiralling price rises – the triple digit inflation is destroying any social gains from government action. For perspective, minimum monthly wages now stand at 9,649 bolívars – worth about $10 at the black market exchange rate – which is less than in Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally. For a country so wealthy in natural resources, its people are devastatingly poor.

Yet even with social services grinding to a halt, loyalty to President Nicolas Maduro runs deep in the veins of Venezuelan communities. Much of this is owed to his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, who is hailed as a liberator of the poor.

The so-called ‘Chavista’ movement has whipped up support for Maduro by targeting resources to key areas, such as the town of Mariche just outside of the capital, where thousands of apartments were handed out to down-on-their-luck Venezuelans in 2012. Free education, housing, medicine, and subsidized food are still seen as major achievements of the United Socialist Party, regardless of the gaping difference between the claim and the reality. Yes, medicine is theoretically provided for free, but there isn’t any to provide.

Maduro has been quick to remind the electorate that, should the party lose its majority after they go to the polls this Sunday, the opposition would undo Chavez-era welfare policies. But the Democratic Unity coalition (which encompasses all main opposition parties) can point out that this is not an entirely bad thing.

Maduro’s government has steadfastly refused to come up with even the most rudimentary policy response to its struggling economy, failing to print larger bill denominations, leaving the highest note at a minute $0.15. Reuters now estimate that 55.6% of the public plan to back the opposition thanks to the dire economic conditions.

Corruption is also rife and human rights concerns are mounting with increasing gang and police violence. Maduro himself has warned that he would “not hand over the revolution” and was willing to do “whatever it takes” to ensure victory, including bypassing the assembly and governing in a military-civic alliance in the “name of the people”, effectively, rendering the legislative branch of government powerless. Indeed, , Venezuela’s deputy president, Jorge Arreaza, called Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López, this weekend to warn her she was being targeted by hitmen.

Polls in Venezuela are notoriously difficult to corroborate but several commentators are confirming that the parliamentary elections this Sunday 6th December, in which some 20 million Venezuelans are expected to participate, are the first real opportunity in seventeen years that the opposition have to topple the socialist reign.

Even then, redressing the situation in Venezuela will be hard work. Violence is increasing in the run-up to the election. Only last week, opposition politician Luis Manuel Diaz was shot dead at a rally. A bricklayer, was shot and killed two weeks ago on his way to work because he had no money on him. “This revolution was supposed to take care of us. Instead it is killing us, impoverishing us,” his wife laments. “I will vote for the opposition because this government is useless, and dangerous.”

It is unclear from the graffiti adorning Caracas’ walls whether Maduro or the opposition will come out on top, or whether the public have any real faith in either side. What is clear, is that if aggressive reform policies are not adopted, Venezuela is well on its way to becoming a failed state.

Olivia Archdeacon is CapX Assistant Editor