Friday, December 18, 2015

So, Venezuela. What's it all about?...

I came, I saw, I was a bit bemused. But what did I learn?

Firstly, it is remarkably easy to drive an economy off of a cliff, especially if you're socialist and a bit paranoid. There is no doubt that it takes some flair to create such an economic mess when you have the highest level of untapped oil reserves of any country on Earth. However, in fairness to Hugo Chavez and his followers, they meant well, and given the alternative when he came to power, a corrupt administration which failed to invest in its people and oversaw huge levels of wastage, you could see the attraction.

What they failed to do was make much provision for the future, in terms of diversifying the economy and creating alternative industries. They did improve the education and healthcare systems, which most people could approve of readily. However, their focus on what the United States was doing to undermine them led them to attempt an almost imperial overreach, using their oil wealth as diplomatic leverage to little advantage, and to assume that internal opposition was entirely inspired by American foreign policy.

Yes, one cannot doubt that U.S. foreign policy did not look favourably upon the notion of a serious hemispheric player carrying out socialist policies within and beyond its borders, but in declaring an effective state of siege, some very poor decisions were taken to attempt to engineer a false market economy.

The outcome, when combined with the loss of a vast amount of income when oil prices slumped, was never likely to be pretty. Take away the ability to make profit and you remove the incentive to trade, which creates shortages, thus inflation, tending towards hyperinflation unless stabilising action happens urgently. The bolivar is, effectively, almost worthless, and remedying that has to be a first order of business for President Maduro and the opposition-led National Assembly.

It is a pity, as there is definite evidence of a spirit of entrepreneurship in Venezuelan society. The streets are filled with individual traders, selling whatever they can get hold of, or make, or add value to, mototaxis have emerged, whereby motorcyclists carry a spare helmet and will take you where you want to go for a price (petrol is highly subsidised, making such a model entirely viable). The black market thrives.

And, surprisingly, despite the obstacles that the economic crisis has thrown up, Venezuelan society is still robust. If overseas media were to be believed, the electoral system was utterly rigged in favour of the ruling government. And yet, despite the allegations, the opposition won nearly two-thirds of the votes in a system which is rather more proportional than ours in some ways (Venezuela has a top-up list system which elects some Assembly Members using the D'Hondt system), which appeared broadly reflected by the number of seats won.

I do have some fears about the newly-elected MUD coalition. It isn't a particularly right-wing reactionary force, but a key part of its coherence is underpinned by it not being the Chavistas. What unites it may not be enough to allow the development of a credible alternative policy platform.

The economy is going to be very hard to turn around unless oil prices return to levels not currently foreseen, which means some painful decisions will need to be taken to balance the books. And time is short, gold reserves are being spent fast, and there is little in the way of funds left to meet debt repayments as they arise.

It will probably mean that the good things that Chavismo wrought will wither as desperate attempts are made to turn things around, something to be regretted. Alternatively, there will need to be a significant default on the country's debts, something that will deter the inward investment that Venezuela would benefit from, if the terms are right.

The best hope is that political opponents can come together in the interests of preserving what is best about a nation which, potentially, could yet be a economic powerhouse, driving growth and development in the area bounded by the Caribbean Sea. It will be a tough task though, and I only hope that the toxicity of domestic politics can somehow be neutralised.

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