Now that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has finished his first year in power, it’s time to take a dispassionate look at what has happened in oil-rich Venezuela since he took office on April 19, 2013, and what lies ahead. Let’s start with the facts.
• Fact: Venezuela’s annual inflation rate has soared from 27.6 percent in 2012 to 56.7 percent — the world’s highest — in 2013, according to official figures of Venezuela’s Central Bank. Inflation has risen further to 57.3 percent in February this year, the Central Bank says.
The International Monetary Fund projects annual inflation will reach 75 percent by the end of this year, IMF Western Hemisphere division head Alejandro Werner said last week.
• Fact: Venezuela’s economy grew by only 0.7 percent in 2013 — the lowest growth rate in Latin America — and is expected to contract by 0.5 percent in 2014, according to the World Bank’s forecasts released earlier this month. Venezuela will once again be the worst performing Latin American country this year, the World Bank projections show.
• Fact: Food shortages have risen from 15.9 percent of essential food items in 2012 to 35.2 percent in 2013, according to a Datanálisis study reported by Venezuela’s daily El Universal on March 17. In the first two months of 2014, food shortages have increased further to 47.7 percent of essential foodstuffs, the study said.
Among other essential goods, there are shortages of milk, cheese, flower, sugar, meat, poultry, toilet paper and other products that are subject to government price controls. Venezuelans are forming long lines early in the morning in front of supermarkets where some of these goods are available.
• Fact: Venezuela’s homicide rate has risen from 73 murders per 100,000 people in 2012 to 79 murders per 100,000 people in 2013, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, and independent group. In the absence of reliable official figures, the Observatory’s figures estimate that crime rates have quadrupled since late President Hugo Chavez — Maduro’s political mentor — took office 15 years ago.
• Fact: Political violence has left 41 people dead since nationwide student protests against the Maduro government began Feb. 12, according to official figures. Students are protesting against inflation, rising crime and suppression of basic freedoms. In many cases, they demand Maduro’s resignation.
• Fact: The Maduro government has stepped up repression, arbitrary detentions, press censorship and other violations of basic freedoms, leading international human rights groups say.
Government forces “have used excessive and unlawful force against protesters,” including “beating detainees and shooting at crowds of unarmed people,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said. The Maduro government has also shut down Colombia’s international NTN-24 broadcasts, and it has threatened to censor Twitter and close down CNN broadcasts in the country.
• Fact: Maduro says he is the victim of a conspiracy by the “empire” — as he refers to the United States — to kill him, topple his government and grab Venezuela’s rich oil deposits, but he has not shown any evidence. Oppositionists say that Maduro, much like Chavez before him, is making up tales of alleged conspiracies to justify his abuses of power.
My opinion: Venezuela’s biggest problem — the key to resolving its current political crisis — is the unresolved question of Maduro’s legitimacy, stemming from his questionable 2013 election victory.
Maduro was proclaimed the winner of that election by only 1.4 percent of the vote after a dubious process in which he did not allow an independent electoral tribunal, nor international observers other than those from friendly countries, nor equal time on television for his rival. If Venezuela’s election process had been more credible, much of the current bloodshed could have been avoided.
Now, with the economy in shambles, Maduro is in a bind. The IMF and most economists agree that no country can maintain inflation rates of over 50 percent for several years without falling into hyper-inflation, or adopting massive austerity measures to bring down inflation.
In other words, Maduro faces either hyper-inflation, which usually leads to political chaos and revolutions, or adopting an IMF-styled free-market economic salvation program, which would amount to scrapping Venezuela’s narcissist-Leninist socialist model.
For his own good, Maduro should take advantage of the ongoing dialogue with the opposition — overseen by the UNASUR regional bloc and the Vatican — and appoint a neutral electoral tribunal that would be credible to all sides and ready to oversee the next elections. That’s the key to bring back some social peace — and hope — to Venezuela.