Venezuela is in crisis.  There is not enough food, let alone other goods.  Hospitals are crumbling and the health care system is completely broken.  Electricity blackouts have become routine and crime is rampant.  Join Active Minds as we explore how this once promising economy and evolving democracy has wound up in shambles.  We will look at how the price of oil, the policies of the late President Hugo Chavez, and other factors converged to create this perfect storm and explore what the future holds for this important South American country.

Key Lecture Points

  • In 1811 Venezuela declared its independence from Spanish colonial control.   Although it would only last one year, the Venezuelan Republic of 1811 set the stage for full independence of the South and Central American Spanish colonies.
  • Simon Bolivar led the South American wars of independence, finally defeating the Spanish in 1821.  Bolivar aspired to free and unify all of the former Spanish colonies.  After liberating the areas including Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from Spanish rule, Bolivar ruled briefly as a dictator over the vast region.
  • By 1829, Bolivar’s efforts had failed, and the various elements of his state split off into separate states.  Venezuela became an independent country in 1829 when elites in Caracas deposed and exiled Bolivar.
  • Since 1829, Venezuela has had a long history of caudillos, strongmen dictators.  Additionally, Venezuelan history has been influenced by US involvement in the hemisphere.  In 1895, the US intervened directly, negotiating a border dispute between Britain and Venezuela.  At the time, the US Secretary of State, Richard Olney stated “Today the US is practically sovereign on this continent.”
  • Venezuela was controlled by President Hugo Chavez from 1999 until his death in 2013.  Chavez’s vision of “21st Century Socialism” included alleviating the social ills of his people while attacking capitalism and globalization.  He nationalized many of Venezuela’s key economic sectors and industries, including oil.   He labeled the United States as a dangerous force, with imperialistic designs on controlling Venezuela and Latin America.  Chavez used oil income to consolidate his power at home by providing the poor with subsidized goods and services and to buy influence abroad (e.g. subsidized oil to Cuba). While Chavez was re-elected twice and survived a recall referendum, he was also criticized for anti-democratic efforts, including the nationalization of media and his use of rule by decree.  Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’ hand-picked successor, was elected president after Chavez’s death and has continued the socialist programs of Chavez.
  • In 2016, Venezuela faces a serious economic and political crisis caused by the collapse of oil prices in combination with the maintenance of Chavista economic policies.  The result has been widespread shortages of food, medicine and electricity.  High inflation has triggered riots in the streets and a spike in violent crime and a political crisis for President Maduro.

Exploration Questions

  • Describe the current economic and political situation in Venezuela.
  • What are the causes of the current Venezuelan economic crisis?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think Chavez was a man of the people, doing good for Venezuela’s poor or just another caudillo?
  • Have you ever lived under food rationing and serious food shortages?    What was most difficult about the experience?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Tinker-Salas, Miguel.  Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.  Oxford University Press, USA, 2015. 264 pages.  The author provides a concise history of Venezuela to include the role oil has played in the country’s history and the legacy of the Chavez years.
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  • Corrales, Javier, Michael Penfold. Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chavez. Brookings Institute Press, 2015. 224 pages.  The authors describe how Chavez revamped Venezuela’s political and economic systems, the current economic crisis and the new realities of Venezuelan politics.
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