In 1992, Lt. Col. Hugo ChÃ¡vez sought to capitalize on a period of political and economic crisis with an attempted military coup.
Most of the U.S. discussion of Venezuela centers on Hugo ChÃ¡vez’s highest-profile actions. His rhetorical bluster. His efforts to get himself re-elected indefinitely. His consolidation of executive power. His relationships with Russia and Iran.
Are these concerns well-placed? Several issues that ChÃ¡vez’s government is not attending to – or is addressing poorly – are perhaps even more worrisome for Venezuela’s stability, as well as the region’s security.
- Public security. Venezuela’s crime rates have worsened to some of the worst levels in Latin America, and by extension the world. The December 3 Christian Science Monitor reported, “Since president ChÃ¡vez was elected in 1998, the homicide rate in the capital has more than doubled from 63 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants to 130 today. The country has experienced a parallel spike: from 20 to 48. That compares with a homicide rate in the US of 5.6.” Venezuela’s murder rate has exceeded Colombia’s since 2004. According to official data, meanwhile, the number of kidnappings increased from 44 in 1999 to 382 in 2007. Most are in states that border Colombia.
- Narco and organized crime. Though Venezuela says it has destroyed 230 clandestine airstrips last year and increased seizures 60 percent since 2005, a huge amount of Colombian cocaine is being transshipped through Venezuelan national territory. Even if one disputes the U.S. government’s claims that as much as one-third of Andean cocaine passes through Venezuela, even a lower figure like 20 or 25 percent should be cause for great worry about the presence and power of wealthy organized-crime syndicates. While drug-related violence has not reached northern-Mexico levels, Venezuela is now seeing troubling incidents like the January 2008 gangland-style murder of Wilber Varela (alias “JabÃ³n”), one of Colombia’s top narcotraffickers, in the resort town of MÃ©rida.
- Insecure borders. Several journalistic accounts over the past year have detailed the ease which which Colombian armed groups, particularly guerrillas, operate on Venezuela’s side of the two countries’ common border. Debate continues about whether the presence of groups like the FARC owes to (1) the difficulty of policing the borderlands, (2) corruption in the security forces, or (3) active help from President ChÃ¡vez. Whatever the reason, the armed-group activity is a major factor of insecurity that the Venezuelan government is not sufficiently addressing.
- Civil-military relations. Speculation about discontent within the Venezuelan armed forces increased in 2007 and 2008 when President ChÃ¡vez’s longtime defense minister, Gen. RaÃºl Baduel, moved to the opposition, and when officers bristled at a requirement that they salute with the words “fatherland, Socialism or death.” In the middle of last year, AP reported that one-seventh of Venezuela’s officer corps had either requested early retirement or had been relieved of formal duties as a result of their dissent. Relations with the military were further complicated by an April 2008 decree creating a “National Reserve” outside the chain of command, reporting directly to the president.
- Chaotic politics. In recent years, the only constant in Venezuelan politics has been the President himself. At all other levels, in both the government and the opposition, shakeups and realignments have been common and frequent. Neither state institutions nor political parties have been able to consolidate themselves. RamÃ³n Carrizales is ChÃ¡vez’s sixth vice-president since the 1999 constitution created the office. The President carried out far-reaching cabinet shakeups in each of the last two Januaries. And Venezuela’s constellation of political parties – both pro-government and opposition – is gigantic, complex and constantly shifting. (See Wikipedia’s enormous list of active Venezuelan political parties.) This ever-shifting, uncertain leadership situation is cause for concern about whether Venezuela’s institutions are able to carry out their assigned roles, especially in a crisis.
- Inflation. “Inflation is running at 36% in the last 12 months, the highest in Latin America,” the BBC noted in November. The exchange rate of Venezuela’s bolÃvar is fixed at about 2,150 (2.15 “bolÃvares fuertes“) to the dollar. On the black market, however, a dollar routinely goes for much more.
- Oil. Venezuela now gets 93 percent of its total export revenue from oil, making it the absolute cornerstone of the country’s economy. An October Washington Post story included a dire prediction from a Washington-based consulting firm, PFC Energy: “oil must be at least $94 a barrel to ensure Venezuela’s macroeconomic stability this year and generate enough money to pay for imports.” In December, though, a barrel of Venezuelan crude sold for an average of $32.66. While OPEC cutbacks and the Gaza fighting appear to be reversing the slide, Venezuela’s economy is undoubtedly hitting a rough patch along with the rest of the world, as evidenced by yesterday’s cancellation of CITGO’s program offering cheap heating oil to poor U.S. families.
A steep decline in oil prices in 1986 sent Venezuela’s economy into a severe tailspin. A 1989 attempt by President Carlos AndrÃ©s PÃ©rez to implement neoliberal economic “shock treatment” policies triggered days of intense rioting in Caracas. The official death toll of the so-called Caracazo was 276, but is widely believed to have been several times higher. Within three years, Lt. Col. Hugo ChÃ¡vez carried out a coup attempt that sought to capitalize on popular anger at the continued decline in living standards.
A replay of anything like the Caracazo is an outcome to be avoided. But the list of concerns laid out here calls seriously into question whether the ChÃ¡vez government would be able to manage a period of severe economic hardship and instability, especially after several years of rapidly rising expectations among the poorest Venezuelans. A breakdown in Venezuela – or even just a period of social disorder – is not in anyone’s interest, not even those of Hugo ChÃ¡vez’s most implacable opponents. And it would of course have dire consequences for the entire Andean region.
For the United States, the conclusion to draw from this is plain. Instead of putting all the focus on ChÃ¡vez’s outbursts, Ahmadinejad’s visits, or ambassadorial expulsions, the next administration had also better be prepared to help Venezuela. And to do so at a moment’s notice.