A Letter From Venezuela

Here is an open letter from Venezuela. I have written before about how the erosion of a culture of faith, the introduction of socialist principles and rampant statism in which the corrupt government steadily consolidates power creates a society of misery. It has done so by undermining of the rule of law and the principle of private property which has in turn led to a sharp decline in personal freedom and a decline in economic prosperity. This has only got worse in the past year and Venezuela is now a failing totalitarian communist state along the lines of North Korea. All of this began with good intentions coupled with bad economics and inept governance. 

One of the topics I recently spoke about when I visited the annual conference of the Acton Insitute recently was the part that beauty and culture have in reinforcing and preserving the values that underpin a society of human flourishing. Culture is the emergent and discernible pattern or order that reflects and in turn influences the core priorities, values and beliefs of that society. Beauty reflects and nurtures human freedom and flourishing. Very often, this is the first battle that is won or lost when we fight for a good society.

Here is the letter from Venezuela. I have removed the top and tail to avoid revealing the name of the writers. Take the time to read this detailed analysis of what has gone wrong in this once thriving country in such a short time. The photographs come from the writers. One photograph below shows a malnourished man stripped bare – I hope people do not consider this to be in bad taste but for me it symblized both lack of respect for human dignity and the inablity of the infrastructure to provide basic necessities:

In general terms, the situation has grown much worse in the political, economic and social aspects. As you may know, in December 2015 there were parliamentary elections in which the opposition coalition won a landslide victory, gaining a crucial two-thirds majority of the seats. Since then, the government-controlled Supreme Court has overturned each and every piece of legislation passed, in practice stripping the new National Assembly of its assigned powers. For its part, the Electoral Council, also controlled by the government, has suspended a constitutional recall referendum against President Maduro and regional elections he would likely lose: according to recent polls more than 80% of Venezuelans reject Maduro’s regime. Just in case, the council has also banned key opposition leaders from participating in any future electoral process.

A boiling point was reached last March, when the Supreme Court sentenced that it would assume all legislative functions, in a coup d’état against the will of the people. Since then, our country has been immersed in a spiral of violence as the National Guard and irregular gangs (armed by the government) have been violently repressing and attacking massive and peaceful protests demanding a return to the constitutional order, free elections and the release of more than three hundred political prisoners. In the last weeks, thousands have been arrested, hundreds injured and 82 people have been killed.

El País, May 03 2017 (2)

Maduro labels protesters as “terrorists” and “fascists”. His response to this crisis has been to call for a handpicked “popular assembly” sidestepping the political parties with the purpose of transforming the State into a one-party communist regime, modeled after Fidel Castro’s Cuba, his closest ally.

It is really depressing to see our country, once considered the richest in Latin America and a stronghold of democratic stability and entrepreneurship in the region, descending into chaos and sliding towards full-fledged dictatorship.

Background

Since former president Hugo Chávez was democratically elected in 1998, his so-called Bolivarian Revolution used an unprecedented windfall of oil wealth to gradually dismantle democracy. Chávez’s charismatic leadership was particularly appealing to poor and uneducated people who for some time enjoyed a consumption boom based on imported goods supported by massive government subsidies. Meanwhile, draconian price and currency controls were imposed, forcing many companies to produce at a loss and scaring away foreign investors. Hundreds of private firms, land properties and assets were expropriated in all types of sectors including agriculture, manufacturing, large-scale retailing, private utilities, transportation and banking.

While a state-run media empire was expanded and used to establish information hegemony in the hands of the revolution, independent media was harassed and stifled through an array of legislation, threats and regulations. Educational reforms were introduced with the aim of turning public schools into leftist indoctrination centers. Revised textbooks released by the government and infused with revolutionary propaganda, eliminated critical thinking creating the basis for political manipulation into a single ideology.

Thanks to his popularity and a personality cult promoted by the government, Chávez was able to remain in power through constitutional reforms which extended the presidential term from four to six years and permitted re-elections. His designated successor, Nicolás Maduro, was elected by a slim margin in 2013. A left-wing politician educated and trained in Cuba, he has ruled Venezuela by decree. Under his regime, Venezuela’s economy has become more dependent than ever on oil exports (95% of earnings) made by (you guessed it) stated-run PDVSA. On the other hand, years of reckless borrowing, severe mismanagement and rampant corruption has left the country facing a huge foreign debt of $130 billion.

As could be expected, from 2014 plunging oil prices accelerated the economic decline as reduced revenues forced the government to slash imports of everything from raw materials and equipment to consumer goods in order to avoid a devastating debt default. The government’s status as the country’s main exporter makes it significantly more vulnerable to potential legal actions by creditors in international courts, which could seize oil shipments or PDVSA assets abroad (such as Citgo refineries). To make matters worse, according to recently released data by its central bank, Venezuela has just $10.8 billion in foreign reserves left . .

Most tragic of all, it is estimated that between 1999 and 2016 Venezuela received, from oil exports alone, the staggering sum of $920 billion or nearly one trillion dollars! squandered away under the socialist governments.

Current situation

With domestic production collapsing, the drastic reduction of more than two thirds of imports has resulted in critical shortages of medicines, food staples, personal hygiene and household products, including acetaminophen, allergy relief medication, anxiolytics, antidiarrheals, bread, milk, chicken, rice, coffee, infant formula, contact lenses, soap, toothpaste, diapers, toilet paper and detergents, among many others. Without mentioning the lack of less essential items such as cement, spare parts for your car or light bulbs for your house. Sometimes you will find what you need but at very high prices: consumer inflation, fueled by a central bank that keeps financing the budget deficit by printing more money, has been increasing exponentially over the years and is expected to reach 720% throughout 2017 according to the International Monetary Fund. After three years of excruciating contraction, Venezuela has lost 27% of its GDP in an economic meltdown that’s almost unprecedented outside wartime.

The government has tried different ways of rationing products and services in an effort to alleviate the situation, including biometric cards, fingerprint scanning systems and, more recently, boxes or bags containing subsidized basic goods which are sold in the lower-income communities. Critics say that this distribution system is being used as a political instrument to defend the revolution as neighborhood groups loyal to the government are in charge of deciding who gets the cheap groceries and who doesn’t.

Long lines of people waiting hours for products at state-owned supermarkets have become a common sight in the main cities. Growing frustration is leading to widespread riots and lootings. Among the middle-class, hoarding of food and other items is common to protect income against inflation and in view of future supply uncertainty. Desperate citizens are resorting to bartering on social media to provide for their families, trading everything from corn flour to prescription drugs. The less fortunate are being forced to stealing or digging into garbage cans to find something to eat. A well-known priest has been urging his countrymen to separate food waste in their garbage and to label it clearly to help others find food. Recent studies on living conditions conducted by three well-respected local universities report that 75% of Venezuelans have lost an average of 19 pounds in weight in the past year.

The public healthcare system is in ruins with overcrowded hospitals that have to operate with depleted supplies and frequent power outages. Cancer, diabetic or dialysis-dependent patients struggle to find their treatments; even basic medicines such as anti-fever drugs and high blood pressure pills are unavailable. Child mortality has soared: in one of the largest hospitals in Caracas three children have died from infections in this month alone due to lack of proper antibiotics. Malaria, a disease that had been absent in urban areas for more than fifty years, is making a comeback. Dengue fever, diphtheria and tuberculosis outbreaks are also reappearing. Despite the dramatic situation, health authorities continue to stubbornly deny that there is a deepening humanitarian crisis; those who request that international aid be allowed are accused of planning to privatize the country’s hospital system.

Venezuelan society has been subjected for years to a violent government language that demonizes the opponent and instigates hatred among social classes. The judicial system is notoriously weak and corrupt with judges who may face reprisals if they rule against government interests. Poorly-equipped and understaffed police forces complete a worrisome picture which has led to one of the highest crime rates in the world. Venezuelans have been forced to change their way of life in an effort to protect themselves from robbery, homicides and kidnappings. After dark, city streets become deserted and families take shelter in their homes. No wonder that crime has become one of the largest concerns among citizens, second only to shortages.

Adding to the overall misery, the whole infrastructure of the country has suffered years of neglect; our roads, bridges and port facilities are crumbling; water and electricity cuts are increasingly frequent. The telecommunications sector, controlled by state-owned CANTV, is rapidly deteriorating due to poor maintenance of the existing network and lack of new investments. As a consequence, private operators have been forced to suspend or restrict services and the country’s internet speed has become one of the slowest in the world. Even oil refineries have fallen into a state of disrepair and are operating well below capacity, to the point that a significant percentage (up to 70% according to some reports) of the gasoline consumed in the domestic market has to be imported, something unheard-of in a major oil producing country.

Many of the country’s acute problems are caused by the complex monetary arrangement that makes use of three different exchange rates simultaneously. On one extreme you will find the highly overvalued preferential exchange rate of 10 Bs/$ theoretically intended for the importation of food staples and medicines, on the other is the (illegal) black market rate which at this moment is more than 6,000 Bs/$! The result is that Venezuela can either be unbearably expensive or extremely cheap, depending on the rate used. As you can imagine, this situation generates multiple problems for both consumers and businesses who must deal with currency restrictions and this convoluted (and subject to frequent changes) system.

Only government officials and a few privileged with the right connections have access to the preferential rate. The huge difference with the black market creates a fertile ground for corruption as currency funds obtained through the legal channels are then sold on the unofficial market in operations that are more profitable than drug trafficking. Huge cost overruns on government contracts for infrastructure, imports of goods and all kinds of bribes, kickbacks and intermediation fees have created personal fortunes on a scale never seen before in Venezuela.

High-ranking military officials have also benefited in a big way as a third of the government’s 28 agencies and half the state governors are active or retired officers. Some of them have been charged with drug trafficking and money laundering in the USA. Even the country’s VicePresident, Tareck El Aissami, has just been formally accused by the US Department of Treasury of being a drug “kingpin”. Needless to say, these people don’t want to hear anything about socialism, while sending their kids to study in North America or Europe.

These things we tell you do not come from reading news or being heard from a friend or neighbor; we have witnessed them and they have disrupted our lives in so many ways. We have certainly seen the worst that human beings are capable of, but can also attest to extraordinary acts of kindness and solidarity.

There is a general consensus among leading Venezuelan economists about the measures that would place the country on a path to recovery, including unifying the exchange rate, eliminating dysfunctional price controls and diversifying the economy away from oil; in the short term, an orderly debt restructuring and significant foreign assistance would be needed. But to do so, Maduro would have to introduce massive economic reforms and seek emergency assistance from “capitalists” financial institutions which are “responsible for the hunger of the people”, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In short, he would have to abandon the socialist economic model betraying Chávez’s legacy, something he is not willing to do. Instead, the government blames the financial crisis on an “economic war” being waged by private business interests and the CIA in conspiracy with local media. In short, blame everyone but yourself. Meanwhile, we have seen the creation of the Vice-Ministry of the Supreme Social Happiness of the People and the explicit prohibition of mentioning the words “dictatorship” and “disobedience” in the mass media. If the situation was not so tragic, these things should be the subject of jokes.

It is worth noticing that the insufficiency of funds has not prevented Maduro’s regime from faithfully supplying subsidized oil to Cuba (around 70,000 bpd) and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on military and riot-control equipment supplied mainly by China and Russia. Evidently, the government’s priorities are far removed from those of the people of Venezuela.

Under the current circumstances, there is really no chance of negotiating or having a credible dialogue with the regime, as was shown last December when Vatican-sponsored talks between government and the opposition coalition were used by the former to buy time and cheat. We are being governed by radicals and opportunists who are blinded by their outdated ideology or their ambitions and are willing to ignore the suffering of the common people to pursue their own interests. Their only concern is to remain in power and avoid criminal justice.

Civil resistance to force Maduro to call elections is our only option. We confront a government that has ceased to act responsibly so this crusade is going to be long and full of difficulties. With dwindling support, the regime understands that only violence can assure its hold on power. Protesters are being arrested and prosecuted by military tribunals, a practice prohibited by the Constitution. Once incarcerated, they are treated like criminals and exposed to torture or degrading treatment. Three weeks ago Maduro announced plans to expand armed civilian militias.

As a result of direct censorship or self-censorship, local television networks have provided almost no live coverage of the social unrest and have not broadcast the press conferences of the opposition in sharp contrast with government events that have received broad coverage. People have turned to international news channels or to social media for information; regretfully, in rural areas only 20% of the population has access to the internet. Of course, the protests are just an expression of a much more widespread crisis. The truth is that many of the worst-off Venezuelans are too poor and too hungry to protest, even if they wanted to.

It’s very difficult to grasp the idea that a country right in the middle of the Americas and in the midst of the 21st century is at risk of becoming a totalitarian communist state. But that is exactly what could happen if Venezuelan society, with the help of other democratic governments in the region, does not stand united in its determination to stop Maduro’s delirious project.

Fortunately, there are still many reasons for hope. Maduro’s actions are opening up fissures in his “Chavista” movement. Three army lieutenants have sought asylum in Colombia and dozens of officers have been detained for expressing discontent with the actions of the National Guard. The once-loyal Attorney General, several retired generals and former agencies’ directors have criticized the judicial coup against the legislature. More recently, two magistrates of the Supreme Court expressed their disagreement with the popular assembly being carried on by the regime.

We should also remember that Venezuela is home to a multiethnic society with a rich cultural heritage and a deeply rooted Christian and democratic tradition. It’s among the most urbanized countries in Latin America and its people have an entrepreneurial spirit and one of the highest literacy rates in the region. Considered a mega diverse country, it’s over twice the size of California and has one of the world’s largest oil reserves. We have many bright, talented and courageous people who are leading the unified national movement that seeks to recover our rights, rebuild the economy and leave a better future for our children. It won’t be so easy to turn Venezuela into a communist dictatorship.

Some reflections

In the 19th century, Simón Bolívar “El Libertador” led the Venezuelan armies to fight against Spanish colonialism to liberate our own country first and then our neighbors Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. His name has been corrupted by this miscalled Bolivarian Revolution which has kidnapped his memory, quotes and symbols, but has nothing to do with his values and immortal legacy. Now it is up to us to liberate again our country, this time from the yoke of Castro-communism.

When we look at the present situation, we realize that the notions of private property, free enterprise and limited government intervention, human dignity and democracy are essential to build a wealthy and virtuous society. Spreading and promoting these values, is an irreplaceable contribution to make the world a better place to live in. None of these values should be taken for granted (as we once did) they need to be cultivated and protected. What is happening in Venezuela is an unfortunate real-time lesson that could also happen in many other countries, particularly in those most vulnerable where inequality and corruption create ideal conditions for the emergence of populism.

One of the most shocking things we have witnessed through these years is the deliberate distortion of history and truth for ideological and political purposes through massive propaganda and media manipulation. Certainly, the most susceptible to this are those who, because of lack of opportunities, remain in ignorance. Education is the only way to immunize society against these evils. Again, this makes us appreciate even more the work being carried out by your institution.

There are some lessons we have learned the hard way. First of all, that Democracy is much more than holding frequent elections. Legitimacy of origin through citizens’ vote is a necessary condition but it is not enough. It must be followed by legitimacy of exercise, including separation of powers, rule of law, accountability, freedom of speech and respect for human rights. Chávez and Maduro were both democratically-elected presidents, but used their popularity and power to systematically undermine fragile democratic institutions from within. The use of sophisticated methods to do so has made it difficult to define when democracy ends and dictatorship begins.

Do you want to neutralize a TV station critical of the government? Make it economically unviable by imposing fines and penalties so that later it can be purchased by a government friendly businessman. Do you need to get rid of an independent radio station? Just refuse to renew its expired transmission license alleging “administrative irregularities”. Are you afraid of losing an election? Accuse your opponent of embezzlement of funds, banning him or her from participating. Do you want to prevent an opposition congressman from attending an international conference? No problem, confiscate his or her passport at the airport stating that it has been reported as stolen. Are you uncomfortable with the editorial line of a widely circulated newspaper? Simple, reduce to a minimum its supply of printing paper (which you control) until it changes into a pro-government position. Perhaps, at the international level, you are afraid of losing the political support of a neighboring government. This can also be solved by sending an additional shipment of free oil to that country. These examples represent the antithesis of a just society that, according to the respected Spanish philosopher José A. Marina, is one in which you don’t have to act immorally to solve political problems.

We have also learned that, no matter how rich in natural resources a country may be, if the revenues obtained through their exploitation are not prudently managed to promote productive investment, that country will remain mired in poverty and backwardness. This is particularly true in the case of oil wealth, which in the wrong hands can be a curse to sustained economic development. Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, a prominent Venezuelan politician primarily responsible for the creation of OPEC, famously called petroleum, “The Devil’s Excrement”. Also coming to our minds are the words of another Venezuelan intellectual, Arturo Uslar Pietri, who coined the well-known phrase, “We must saw the oil in Venezuela” as far back as 1936. Regretfully, it seems that these wise men were not heard as they should, given that today Venezuela has become a chronic example of the so-called Dutch disease. In addition, our endless list of economic distortions have become textbook examples to illustrate the pernicious effects of government meddling in the economy and, specially, of price controls.

Much has already been destroyed in Venezuela. Multinational corporations have been forced to leave the country or reduce operations to a bare minimum and thousands of local private companies and small businesses have closed. We are becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world: every so often we hear of another international airline that has decided to stop flying here because routes have become unprofitable; last April 26th the Foreign Minister declared that the country is withdrawing from the Organization of American States in anger at pressure from the bloc over the government’s handling of the political crisis.

Since the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution, nearly two million people (6% of the population) have emigrated. At the beginning, they were mostly young professionals looking for opportunities who, nowadays, have been joined by all kinds of people including peasants and poverty-stricken people who cross the border into Colombia or Brazil. Frankly, from the moment Chávez announced the Bolivarian Revolution we knew that the country was headed in the wrong direction, but we never imagined that the situation would become so dire.

When we look for news about our country in the international media, sadly, its name appears alongside terms like “failed state”, “socialist hell”, “pariah country” and even “slow motion apocalypse” instead of positive aspects (which by the way are still many). Seeing Venezuela among the highest-ranked countries in indexes such as corruption, violence and inflation on the one hand and among the lowest-ranked in property rights, competitiveness and press freedom on the other is truly disheartening. In the end, this is really an amazing country, blessed with immense natural resources and inhabited by wonderful people. It’s just that it has been kidnapped by an unscrupulous economic and political elite which runs the country as it pleases.

We feel somehow ashamed to present such a bleak picture of our country and its long list of calamities. But we wanted to show you how miserable our daily life has become and to explain why we are so desperate to remove this regime from office. These days we are full of anger, frustration, helplessness and fear. Perhaps, the most difficult part is the anxiety of not knowing how this situation will ultimately unfold. But we also have a deep faith in God, Master of History, and feel confident that justice and truth will always prevail.

We thank you very much for taking your valuable time to read these notes and giving us a window to express and share our concerns. We count on your prayers and, if it were possible, would like to ask you to help us expose the true nature of Maduro’s regime and denounce its criminal behavior, so as to let the world know what is happening here and help us save democracy in Venezuela.

EXTRA! Noticias Venezuela, April 26 2017

 

AFP, May 08 2017

 

Reuters, May 06 2017

 

Actuall, April 19 2017

 

@La Patilla, April 19 2017 (2)

El País, May 03 2017 (1)

@La Patilla, April 19 2017 (1)

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