It’s so wrong to simplify a complex reality, a whole country, but pardon me, reading a bit of the history of Venezuela up to the present day, this place is, and seemingly always has been mostly about 2 things ego and money.
By ego, I mean Venezuelans have always had a very strong national identity. They pride themselves on being part of the original anti-colonial rebellion in South America, when they separated from Spain in 1811, then separated again from what was called Gran Colombia, and in 1830 set up as its own state of Venezuela.
Where for most of the next 128 years the government was ineptly and corruptly run by a series of caudillos, dictators, who gained not only power, but, great wealth, after the world’s largest deposits of oil were discovered in Lake Maracaibo during World War 1..
It was after World War 2 that democratic government was established, and Venezuelans elected leaders who differed in sincerity and ability, corruptibility and greed, but all could have played tennis or golf at the same country club. And egos! For 20 years, 1973-93 Venezuela was dominated by the emphatic President Carlos Andres Perez. Reckless greed did him in, and 5 years after he was impeached President Hugo Chavez took power and turned Venezuela from a capitalist to a socialist democracy.
Huge egos worked best when they were backed by huge oil revenues. Both Carlos Andres Perez and Hugo Chavez did great things for Venezuela when they had petro-dollars to spend. But when oil prices crashed, both these charismatic leaders overspent like the oil cushion was still there. In Perez’s case he also over-stole, while Chavez seems to have simply enabled many crony-thieves who cost Venezuelans billions.
It was also on Chavez’ watch that the oil industry started literally to fall apart. Negligent, underfunded maintenance damaged infrastructure. Crooked, stupid mismanagement left PDVSA, the Venezuelan National Oil company with a global reputation for a low-production workforce, outmoded technology and heavy corruption.
In 1998, when he was first elected, Chavez planned to double Venezuela’s oil output. Today, under his designated successor President Nicolas Maduro, PDVSA sells half the oil it did 20 years ago. And oil earns 95% of Venezuela’s national income from exports.
Oil money and unbridled ego, as out of phase as ever in Venezuela’s troubled political history. Low output and still low global prices have left Venezuela with sharply reduced revenues and a fast-growing national debt that is held largely by Russia and China..
And the ego of Maduro reaches out for Presidency-for-life even as his economy dissolves and people fear for their survival.
Joshua Goodman is the Associated Press (AP) Bureau Chief for the Andean region of South America, based in Bogota. His responsibilities have him frequently in Caracas, where he has covered Venezuela’s ongoing political and economic crisis.
Joshua Goodman’s previous reports on Venezuela