Venezuela, the nation located at the northern tip of South America, has a long history of military coups and economic and political restarts. Long before it turned into a humanitarian crisis, Venezuela was a reasonably wealthy country due to its vast crude oil reserves. But cycles of authoritarian governments and multiple cases of corruption at the top have limited its success.
A Nation is Born
For about 300 years, Venezuela was ruled by the Spanish Empire. In the early-19th century, Venezuelans took advantage of Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain and initiated the War of Independence. The movement of liberation lasted for more than a decade. After defeating the Spanish Army, Venezuela became a part of the Republic of Gran Colombia. Several years later, Venezuela seceded and officially formed its independent republic.
Despite decades under military rule, Venezuela was a thriving state under several military leaders. It attracted foreign investment, developed agriculture and education, and modernized infrastructure. Years later, it would become the world’s largest oil exporter. Due to a handful of coups in the mid-20th century, the country finally imposed a civilian government, adopted a constitution, and elected the National Assembly (the president and lawmakers).
Until the mid- to late-1970s, Venezuela was a wealthy nation because of its oil boom and a strengthening currency (the bolivar). The government soon took over several industries, including oil and steel. By 1989, the country faced an economic depression, resulting in a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and tax hikes and spending cuts. As hundreds protested the actions, deadly riots and martial law followed.
In 1992, then-Colonel Hugo Chavez initiated two unsuccessful coup attempts against President Carlos Andres Perez. As Chavez was imprisoned, Perez faced corruption charges and impeachment. In 1998, Chavez was elected president and transformed society, including the redistribution of land and wealth.
Under his brand of democratic-socialism, Chavez would nationalize energy and telecommunications, ban the media from criticizing the government, eliminate large estates, and introduce price controls and production quotas. He was also accused of electoral fraud. Chavez died in March 2013. Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s chosen successor, was elected president a month later, but the opposition claimed the process was rigged. For six years, the country’s economic, political, and social infrastructure would collapse under Maduro’s leadership.
Life in Venezuela
Today, many Venezuelans are living in extreme poverty as the nation is faced with a humanitarian crisis. Across the country, there are shortages of food, toilet paper, medical supplies, and other essentials. A lot of people are forced to go through garbage bags or to eat any animal they could find, like pigeons, dogs, and cats. Life is so bad in Venezuela that the average person lost about 20 pounds in 2018. Rations, long lineups, and a totalitarian regime – life in Venezuela is a tragedy.
An Enemy of the US?
In March 2015, then-President Barack Obama signed and issued an executive order that declared Venezuela a “threat to its national security.” The federal government applied sanctions against seven public officials. President Maduro announced in January 2019 that he would be severing ties with the U.S. after President Donald Trump recognized Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela. Officials expelled U.S. diplomats and removed any American presence inside the Latin American state. Washington established a Venezuela Affairs Unit at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia that acts as a temporary diplomatic office to Venezuela.
The U.S. government has declared its intention to work with Venezuela as long as Maduro organizes elections by March 2021 and removes himself from the democratic process. In exchange, the U.S. has offered to eliminate sanctions and expand humanitarian aid throughout its health emergency. Relations were complicated when Maduro captured 13 mercenaries and accused the U.S. and Colombia of plotting to overthrow his regime. What happens next is anybody’s guess.