Brian Garrett-Glaser is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Venezuela is experiencing a protracted political and economic crisis that is likely to worsen in the next twelve to eighteen months. Nicolás Maduro, the hand-picked successor of former President Hugo Chávez, inherited leadership of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela—the party of the Bolivarian Revolution—in 2013 after Chávez succumbed to cancer. Maduro narrowly won the presidency in a special election that year, campaigning with the slogan “we are all Chávez” and referring to himself as the “son of Chávez.” But as his predecessor’s economic policies are increasingly blamed for Venezuela’s crisis, Maduro’s unwavering commitment to Chávez’ legacy is proving to be disastrous.
Since coming to power, Maduro has adopted a heavy-handed approach to political resistance, including most recently the violent arrest of the mayor of Caracas, an outspoken political opponent. Anti-government demonstrations in February and March 2014 were fiercely repressed, with several dozen protestors killed and over three thousand arrested. Along with endemic corruption and a severe recession, scarcity of food and household goods has become widespread; people often wait in lines for hours to enter grocery stores only to find empty shelves. Reports of living conditions paint a grim picture of life in present-day Venezuela.
Economic conditions are just as dire. Under Maduro’s misguided stewardship, Venezuela’s inflation rate has skyrocketed to 64 percent. Analysts expect that figure to reach as high as 188 percent by December. The minimum wage has plunged with the devaluation of Venezuela’s national currency, the Bolivar, from the equivalent of $360 per month in 2012 to only $31 in March 2015. Maduro’s popularity rating has also plummeted from the mid-50s to the low-20s.
Given Maduro’s unwillingness to shift course and the continuing fall of oil prices, former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy’s new Contingency Planning Memorandum Update, “Political Crisis in Venezuela,” details the country’s deepening crisis and its implications.
Duddy writes that the risk of significant political instability is increasing. He explains that, in the long term, a persistence of the status quo in Venezuela “would be damaging to U.S. interests in protecting human rights, promoting representative democracy and sustainable economic growth in the Western Hemisphere, and curbing illicit financial flows from Venezuelan corruption.”
Duddy warns that relations between the United States and Venezuela have become toxic. Maduro blames worsening economic conditions on Washington, accusing it of waging an “economic war” on his country. In March 2015, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that described the situation in Venezuela as a threat to U.S. national security and placed targeted sanctions on seven individuals involved or responsible for significant human rights violations—a move which Maduro has used to justify further consolidation of his own authority.
Although Duddy notes that there are not many options available to the United States to influence the outcome Venezuela, he recommends that the Obama administration leverage the following:
• Use public diplomacy to stress that the United States is not meddling in Venezuela’s internal affairs, while clarifying that the continued erosion of civil liberties and human rights are serious concerns.
• Support the efforts of the Organization of American States and the Union of South American Nations to restart a genuine dialogue between Venezuela’s government and its opposition.
• Seek the support of other countries in the region—particularly Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru—in pressuring Venezuela to respect human rights, accept election observers for its upcoming legislative elections, and establish an inclusive dialogue.
Read Duddy’s Contingency Planning Memorandum Update, “Political Crisis in Venezuela,” to read more about these new concerns and U.S. policy options, as well as his original 2012 memo, “Political Unrest in Venezuela.”