On Saturday, Venezuelans crossed over into neighboring Colombia by the tens of thousands to buy food, medicine and staples as the border was opened just briefly after being closed for nearly a year.
The economy in Venezuela has been deteriorating rapidly in the past few years. President Nicolás Maduro blames the economic freefall on his opponents. However, it’s obvious that his socialist regime’s economic missteps are largely at fault.
— EagleStar.NET (@EagleStarNET) July 12, 2016
In the turbulent atmosphere of the 1990s, many in Venezuela resented the governing parties not only for their fiscal austerity but also for political elites’ entrenched corruption. When a charismatic Lieutenant Colonel named Hugo Chávez staged a failed coup d’état in 1992, he represented a spirit of discontented radicalism that was in ascendance in Venezuelan politics. That wave of discontent would eventually sweep a populist brand of socialism into power in the person of Chávez who, released from jail after serving only two years, created the Fifth Republic Movement and was elected president in 1998.
For most of the Venezuelan socialist experiment, high oil prices have enabled lavish social spending programs. Oil prices entered a bull market the year Chávez was first elected, steadily rising from a low of $10.65 per barrel in 1998 to over $100 a decade later. Chávez governed as ideologically leftist and demonstrated tenacity in his pursuit of enacting socialism. Like many leftists in Latin America, he forced through fundamental changes to the Constitution to institutionalize his socialist program. An increasingly wealthy leftist regime also become a regional hegemon and counter balance to Washington’s influence in Latin America, especially during a time of discontent with controversial U.S. foreign policies.
Like so many commodity-dependent countries, however, the boom was followed by a spectacular bust. Chávez died in 2013 and left the socialist reins to Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver. While oil prices remained high, Maduro and his fellow Chavistas held a tenuous legacy together. But starting in the summer of 2014, the price of crude oil per barrel tanked from near $100 to a low of $26 by January of 2016. The Venezuela of today struggles to keep lights on, suffers from shortages to basic household goods, and has rolled back its once lavish social spending. And Maduro lacks the charisma that always helped the former army colonel rally support for his radical agenda. The question is: Will the socialist experiment finally come to an end?
There are some hopeful signs. Congressional elections on December 6th of 2015 were characterized by a historic occurrence. For the first time since 1999, the opposition Democratic Unity alliance (MUD) prevailed over the ruling PSUV coalition. What’s more, despite restricting freedom of the press and curtailing civil liberties, current socialist President Maduro remains widely unpopular. A mid-June poll of Venezuelans found that 63% would vote to kick Maduro out of office, while only 21% would have the socialist president remain. Maduro’s approval numbers have been consistently in the low 20s for months, reflecting the potential for monumental changes to Venezuela’s decades-long experiment with radical socialism.
From a regional perspective, the era of leftism in Latin America seems to be coming to an end. In Argentina, center-right President Mauricio Marci was elected in 2015, bringing to an end the long reign of left-wing populism under the Kirchners. Brazil’s left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) is losing its grip on power, with scandals embroiling nearly all of its top politicians, including the recently impeached President Dilma Rousseff. Yet the socialists maintain a grip on Venezuela, owing largely to the fundamental transformations enacted by Chávez. Although it is still too early to tell whether Venezuela can transcend the divisive era of Chavismo, what seems increasingly clear is that the something has to give.