Venezuela: An Explainer

Venezuela is suffering from severe food shortages, high crime rates, civil unrest, and an increasingly authoritarian executive. Many Venezuelans believe that President Nicolas Maduro and Hugo Chavez before him mismanaged the economy, leading to the current crisis. Oil prices have fallen and business corruption from the business elite are also contributing factors (Council on Foreign Relations).

In January 2016, power in the National Assembly shifted towards the opposition for the first time since before the year 2000. President Maduro has been taking steps to consolidate his own power and strip the legislature from a lot of its power. He is also attempting to revise the country’s constitution by forming a constituent assembly of 500 members who would be responsible for its drafting. In October 2016, Venezuela’s Supreme Court put an end to the National Assembly’s power to control the economy. In March 2017, the judicial branch briefly dissolved the National Assembly, but undid this after international outcry. Maduro was successful, however, in preventing his main political opponent from running for office for 15 years.

These autocratic measures from Maduro, along with the economic and social problems civilians are facing, have led to massive protests and international condemnation, including threats of expulsion from the Organization of American States. As of May 2017, 80% of Venezuela’s population wanted Maduro to step down. Frequent protests have turned violent, living 29 people dead since March. The government has taken steps to appease the population without much effect. The minimum wage increased by 60% in May, but inflation is so high that people were still unsatisfied. Despite the protests, any removal of the president would likely come from the military. Maduro has adopted the “chavismo” leadership style from Hugo Chavez, which gives the military a large amount of prestige, power, and responsibility. Until they turn against the president, they will protect him from civilians and maintian his status.

Venezuela’s dependence on oil has made it vulnerable to economic shock following the fall of global oil prices. When prices fell from $111 per barrel in 2014 to $27 in 2016, Venezuela’s weak economy fell into a downward spiral. This led to a 12% drop in GDP and an 800% increase in inflation. Oil accounts for 95% of Venezuela’s export earnings and 25% of its GDP. With such a lack of economic diversification, Venezuela has left itself at the mercy of a single commodity’s performance in the global market.

The current situation in Venezuela stems from the combination of Hugo Chavez’s leadership between 1998 and 2013. Chavez was corrupt and anti-American, but was a successful populist who reduced poverty. He was elected in 1998 on a populist platform. He promised to tackle corruption and use Venezuela’s oil wealth to reduce poverty and inequality. As President, he helped the poor by expropriating millions of acres of land and nationalizing hundreds of private businesses. These policies, in addition to food and housing subsidies, health care reform, and education reform, reduced the poverty rate from 50% in 1998 to 30% in 2012. Chavez secured consolidated his power by manipulating the Supreme Court and eliminating one chamber of Congress and removing term limits through a referendum. Geopolitically, Chavez tried to align the Latin American countries against the United States. In terms of economics, Chavez unwsisely utilized price controls and import subsidies to keep prices low. Soon enough, Venezuela was unable to sustain this system until it fell into freefall when oil prices dropped in 2016. Despite these mistakes, Chavez remained popular until his death in 2013 and was replaced through an election by the strongest “chavismo” candidate Nicolas Maduro. Maduro’s Venezuela ranks 166 out of 176 on Transparency International’s Perceived Corruption Index. His government still controls over 500 companies, though most of them are operating at a loss.

Venezuela’s failing economy is now creating a humanitarian crisis. 85% of basic medicines are unavailable or difficult to obtain. Infant mortality rates spiked from 11.6 per 1,000 in 2011 to 18.1 in 2016. Maternal mortality also doubled since 2008 to reach 130 per 100,000. 30% of school aged children are malnourished, and to make matters worse, Maduro has blocked the opposition-led Ntional Assembly from seeking international assistance. Crime has also been on the rise. 28,749 homicides occurred in 2016, which is the highest level ever recorded. As a result  of these health and crime issues, 150,000 people left the country in 2016 (Council on Foreign Relations).

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Haiti’s History: An Explainer

By Evan Pye

This week I began to prepare for a trip I am planning to Haiti at the end of June by studying the country’s history. I have been interested in Haiti for a long time, having read Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder and Haiti: After the Earthquake by Paul Farmer. Most people probably associate Haiti with a high level of poverty and the earthquake that caused so much destruction in 2010. Yet, its history has been extremely rich and intriguing since before it even became a country in 1804. It’s a story full of violence, accomplishment, and misfortune; and it is very much in the middle of its own history today. My sources of information this week were Haiti: After the Earthquake, a BBC timeline, and a long article written by Paul Farmer in 2004.

To start with the present day, Haiti is in the midst of an election cycle which will have taken over a year to complete. President Michel Martelly completed his term in February 2016, but the first round of presidential elections in the previous October had been marred by fraud and corruption. He therefore was unable to welcome the new president and Haiti has appointed an interim President until they are able to re-do the contested elections, which are now scheduled for October 2016.

Haiti’s encounters with Europe began as early as 1492, when Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola during his first expedition to the Americas. The island was inhabited by a native people known as the Taino. The first European settlement in the Americas was the city of Santo Domingo in what is now Dominican Republic, a city which I have visited without realizing its historical significance. After only 100 years, all of the Taino people were wiped out by disease or violence, both on account of the European settlers. Spain controlled all of Hispaniola (little Spain), but ceded the western third of the island to France in 1697. France called this colony Saint Domingue, which would later come to be known as Haiti. France wasted no time bringing over slaves from Africa and had transported 30,000 of them via the Columbian Exchange by 1540. As a result, Haiti became an extremely brutal, efficient, and productive colony for France. It provided ⅓ of the tropical products to Europe and was the world’s leading exporter of coffee and sugar, making it more valuable to France than all of its other colonies combined.

In 1791, a freed slave named Touissant L’Ouverture led a rebellion that conquered the country that was 85% slaves by the point and declared himself ruler over all of Hispaniola. In response, Napoleon sent his brother-in-law Charles LeClerc with an armada of 40,000 troops to quell the uprising. L’Ouverture had already been captured and taken to France, where he died in prison. But Jean-Jacques Dessalines replaced him as leader of the rebellion, defeated Napoleon’s army, and declared Haiti an independent nation on January 1st, 1804.

Although Haiti had succeeded in freeing itself from France, the country was surrounded by hostile Caribbean colonies of European superpowers and America, which was afraid of the influence the slave revolt would have on the South. America wouldn’t recognize Haiti’s sovereignty until the 1860s. In 1825, France demanded reparations from Haiti for its lost land and property (meaning the slaves) of 150 million Francs. With its Navy surrounding Haiti’s water to threaten recapture, Haiti had to comply and begin paying the debt, which they would continue to pay until the 1950s. The total in today’s dollars would become $21 billion, and severely limit their their economic growth for more than a century.

In 1915, the United States invaded Haiti and occupied the country for 19 years, after disbanding the Haitian military and seizing control of the treasury. America’s reasoning for these actions were fears over the conflict between Haitian blacks in the North and mulattoes in the South. The US removed their troops from Haiti in 1934, but maintained fiscal control until 1947. It wasn’t long before more poor leadership would seize power in the form of a voodoo physician named Francois Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc”, in 1957. Duvalier was a corrupt and oppressive ruler. He was succeeded after his death in 1971 by his 19-year-old son, known as “Baby Doc.” Haiti finally kicked the Duvaliers out of power in 1986, and immediately drafted a new Constitution with changes such as making Creole the country’s official language.

After several failed and corrupt elections, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the country’s first free and peaceful elections in 1990. He was ousted in a coup just one year later, but he would return in 2000 and be elected as president once more. He took over for Rene Preval, who served peacefully between 1995-2000. Aristide was a very pro-poor, socialist leader who President and Bush did not approve of. Bush decreased development aid to Haiti’s government and got the rest of the world to do the same. Haiti’s budget shrunk, leaving their education, health, and security systems to suffer. There was an increase in gangs and crimes, and Aristide was exiled in 2004 with the help of the Americans and the French. Aristide claims he was kidnapped by these foreign powers, who airlifted him to the former French colony, the Central African Republic. The rest of the 2000s were marked by gang violence, several contested elections, and deadly natural disasters. Rene Preval became president again in 2006, and was replaced by Michel Martelly in 2011. In January of 2010, the 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed nearly 300,000 people and led to an international pledge of $5.3 billion in aid money, most of which has not arrived or not been well-spent.