The dictatorship of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela is imploding.
Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, was hell bent on undermining democracy in Venezuela. But since Chavez’s death in 2013, and since the opposition won two-thirds of the seats in the legislative elections last December, the Maduro government has become a full-blown dictatorship, ruling now by means of emergency powers, thus bypassing the Constitution, putting an end to the Congress’ oversight and censure powers, and waging an all-out assault on the media and the opposition.
Maduro has also reduced the Venezuelan economy to shambles.
Democracy is more than having a popular mandate. It is exercising that mandate within the rule of law with respect for fundamental rights and freedoms. Neither Chavez nor Maduro showed any respect for those freedoms.
After leading a failed coup attempt in 1992 and being jailed, Chavez was elected president in 1998 in a landslide by a populace fed up with the corruption and incompetence of the traditional political parties. He was the classic populist outsider strong man who promised to put things right. He was a fraud just like Trump, even to his buffoonery, though using “socialist” rhetoric to propel his candidacy.
The sad truth is that successive governments of Venezuela prior to Chavez were unable to effect a social and economic transformation of the country that would see the wealth from oil go to creating widespread social wellbeing. The elites grew rich and corrupt while the masses suffered.
Chavez was elected with high expectations, but achieved little. He rode roughshod over any opposition to his authoritarian rule. He alienated the media, the middle class, the labour movement, the Catholic Church, and many of his supporters on the left. Maduro has exacerbated the mess left by Chavez.
Worse still, Chavez and Maduro, despite their leftist bombast, have proved to be even more corrupt than the previous elites. They have ruined the economy and torn apart the society. Members of Maduro’s family and cronies have been implicated in drug smuggling, and hundreds of billions of dollars have been siphoned out of the economy.
Venezuela is now a social and economic catastrophe.
Over half a million Venezuelans took to the streets of Caracas on September 1 to accelerate a “recall referendum” which could oust Mr Maduro, and which the pro-government electoral authorities are deliberately stalling. The masses were also protesting the economic mess: the economy shrunk by over five per cent in 2015; inflation may reach 700 per cent this year; supermarket shelves are almost empty; there were massive food riots in June; people have to queue for hours and sometimes overnight on their assigned days to buy necessities like rice, cooking oil and toilet paper. More and more factories are closing and investors are fleeing in droves.
All this in a country that has more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia.
Many economists now believe that a default on the country’s debt, about $125 billion, $10 billion of which is due this year –– or an economic collapse –– might be inevitable. Maduro recently had to flee from an angry mob of women in Margarita banging pots and pans.
The Maduro regime, of course, blames the crisis on the US, the international media and a vast rightwing conspiracy.
So what have we in the Caribbean been doing as Maduro strengthened his dictatorial powers and pushed the poor Venezuelan people to the brink of the abyss? Nothing.
The independent members of CARICOM, except Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, are the supposed beneficiaries of the Chavez-inspired Petro Caribe scam, and six of them are members of the Chavez-inspired revolutionary foolishness called ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America). Barbados, once the most vocal of human rights defenders in the hemisphere, has remained deafeningly silent.
Within the wider region of Latin America, the situation is no better.
First, countries like Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina under the Kirchners led an attack aimed at undermining hemispheric institutions such as the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.
Second, in the Organization of American States (OAS), member states have refused to press for invoking the Inter-American Democratic Charter over the crushing of democratic rights and the arrest of political opponents in Venezuela. Such efforts could have helped enforce limits to the deterioration of democracy.
It is the silence of the lambs.
The least Barbados can do now is close down its embassy in Caracas right away. There is absolutely no reason to have one there. If, after our own economic situation improves, Barbados is interested in having representation elsewhere in Latin America, it might well think of Colombia, which offers far better prospects for trade, investment and tourism.
We already have direct air links between Bridgetown and Bogota.
Dr Peter Laurie is a former head of the Barbados Foreign Service, retired permanent secretary and former ambassador to the United States and Organization of American States