Why is Venezuela relevant?

Luis Herrera Campins, and a State dinner at the White House

Luis Herrera Campins, and a State dinner at the White House

Since we are in the business of deciphering Venezuela to curious foreigners, I frequently ask myself why there is so much interest in our dysfunctional country. After all, Venezuela is not a particularly important place. From a geopolitical point of view, it’s not as crucial as, say, Egypt or South Korea. It’s not a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists, and it is not a large country like China, Brazil or Indonesia.

True, it’s a major player in the energy business, but a) its role has decreased dramatically; and b) no matter what happens with internal politics, the oil will keep flowing.

So, what gives? Could it be that interest in Venezuela is a bit undeserved?

There are several plausible answers, but I think much of the interest in our national psychodrama has to do with our country’s lost potential.

It’s hard to believe now, but for years Venezuela was held up as a model of a functioning Latin society. Oil wealth created a democratic stability that was sorely missing in many of our neighbors. During the 60s, 70s, and 80s, no major Latin American country had the mix of social peace and seemingly-functional democracy that ours had: not Mexico, not Peru, not Colombia, not Brazil, not Argentina, not Chile, and certainly not Cuba.

Venezuela, thanks to its oil wealth but also to its quasi-visionary leadership, was held up in some quarters as a shining example of the type of politics Latin America could have if it ever got its act together. The fact that political stability coincided with the highest living standards in the continent was icing on the cake.

Venezuela spread the “soft power” that came with its prestige generously. It was famously active in solving the Central American civil wars, promoting the formation of the Contadora Group of Nations that preceded the peace agreements that brought the wars to an end. It also provided political and financial support to struggling democratic movements in the Southern Cone. The idea of using oil wealth to subsidize poor Caribbean nations was also a brainchild of the maligned IVth Republic.

Its relations with less developed nations were always active, in part thanks to hyper-kinetic personalities such as Carlos Andrés Pérez. Let’s recall that Pérez’s second inauguration drew, for good or bad, heads of state from all over the world. Venezuela’s relations with the US were always close, particularly so during the 70s and 80s, with our nation consistently repeating the mantra that it was a “safe provider” of fuel during times of turbulence.

Of course, all that goodwill is gone now. However, for many years Venezuela was viewed in international circles as an “honest broker,” working more on the basis of grand goals than seemingly petty self interest.

Interest in Venezuela is frequently grounded in all the goodwill we generated in the past, and in the lost potential of our country. Let’s not forget we are an untapped market of 30 million consumers – at a time when “multilatinas” are engaged in business deals all over the continent, it seems as though they view Venezuela with the hope that, once we get our act together, there will be interesting business opportunities to be had. And an honorable mention goes to the fact that we are producing much less oil than we really shoud be, given our level of reserves. All of this heightens interest in what happens to us.

But to me, these economic explanations fall a bit short. They do not explain why, for example, leading intellectuals go out of their way to denounce the chavista regime even when there is no obvious economic incentive to do so.

Foreigners are not going to solve our problems. In fact, Venezuelans are entitled to view foreign governments with disdain. We grumble each time they look the other way at the excesses of the Bolivarian revolution in order to sign some juicy agreement with the thugs of Miraflores. And we quietly (and not so quietly) remind them of the amount of goodwill we generated in the past.

The international community appears to be at best indifferent, and at worst complicit, in the Venezuelan tragedy, but that appearance is a bit misleading. Governments and thinkers alike continue to monitor the evolution of the Venezuelan mess to see where it will go. The opposition has many powerful players in its corner.

Just like the election of Hugo Chávez presaged the wave of populism that has since engulfed countries all over the world, so too does the international community appear to hold the hope that the solution will show us the way out of this wave. Let’s just hope the solution comes quickly, and painlessly.

37 thoughts on “Why is Venezuela relevant?

    • “I spy something with my little eye”?

      The apparent inaction of the international community and all the roadblocks the few actions have found (Remember the infamous american senator who was actively against any sanction against human right violators) are mostly because of the huge amounts of cash that the regime is spewing everywhere (Except to invest in something here in Venezuela)

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  1. Juan,

    I actually venture to say it is on the interests of mostly every other country, or at least of the powers who rule there, to keep Venezuela just in the situation it is right now, nothing worse and nothing better.
    Imagine if Spanish Americans were really getting closer together and building something more powerful instead of organising presidential summits where all those caudillos take the usual pictures. Imagine if South America got a better say in the so-called war on drugs. Imagine Venezuela became competitive.

    No, as long as Venezuelan poor don’t emigrate en masse to the US or else – and most won’t do that for a long time, the rest of the world – or at least the powers that be – are very very happy with the situation we have now.

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    • Although I agree with you overall, I would just add that the Venezuelan poor emigrating en masse to the US or else would not be their only concern, but Venezuela playing a bigger role in international terrorism and/or cooperating with rogue regimes like North Korea, for example. That would immediately ring the bells at the White House and the European Parliament, prompting an attitude change.

      But since we don’t have neither situation happening, I doubt that the ‘pressure’ on these criminal chavistas will change soon. We can’t forget that Obama himself said that Americans should not be concerned very much about Venezuela as it has not “posed a ‘serious’ national security threat to the US”. His words:

      “But overall my sense is that what Mr. Chávez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us. We have to vigilant. My main concern when it comes to Venezuela is having the Venezuelan people have a voice in their affairs, and that you end up ultimately having fair and free elections, which we don’t always see.”

      http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2012/07/obama-to-miami-anchor-hugo-ch%C3%A1vez-has-not-posed-serious-national-security-threat.html#storylink=cpy

      So, this is it, the situation can keep simmering from an international relations point of view for decades and decades, just like it happened with Cuba.

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  2. People are interested in Venezuela for a variety of reasons, not just lost potential.

    First, Venezuela is unique in the sense that it is one of the few petro-states that is seemingly democratic (Iran and Nigeria are the other two that I can think of off the top of my head).

    Second, you can’t deny the influence of Hugo Chávez. His anti-American, anti-imperialist rhetoric has a lot of currency in the world. As someone who lived in the Middle East for three years, I met many Arabs who regarded him as a hero even though they didn’t know shit about Venezuelan politics. This garners Venezuela international interest and support.

    Third, I think Venezuela’s desire to not be dependent on the US is attractive to the global south because of the historical baggage of the US, along with efforts to create a more “ethical” dimension to international affairs. Venezuela is more assertive and more visible on the international stage post-Bolivarian revolution.

    Fourth, from an ideological point of view, his distrust of liberal democracy, his ostensible attempt to create a communal state, “21st century socialism” blah blah blah, is a fresh break from Washington Consensus-neoliberal style economics. This is attractive outside of the West.

    Fifth, taking points 2-4 in mind, this also generates interest in people who may not align with left who provide much needed pushback and critical analysis. There is big tendency by the left to romanticize Venezuela as some socialist utopia who love their president(s) and/or that Venezuela is a “true” democracy.

    Personally, I’m not a fan of Chávez. Venezuela’s foreign policy has its pros (pro-Palestinian self-determination) and cons (pro-Bashar al-Assad or even pro-Qadhafi’s Libya). Further, on a domestic level, I see a lot of good intentions (poverty alleviation measures, cultural rights, community based projects) but I also see lots of waste and very little efficiency, especially when viewed at a macro-level. Venezuela is one big contradiction, and it’s loud. That’s why people tune-in.

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  3. There was obviously a desire by many in the international community to see in the rise of Hugo Chavez a grand and heroic narrative, a new way following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The struggle against inequality in the third world was no longer all about a guy with a pipe and a balaclava in some poor Mexican backwater, but someone who had an entire country as his stage and seemingly limitless resources to support his message and goals.

    In that respect, Venezuela became more well known on the international stage and “relevant” than ever before in the last decade and a half. That has quickly changed in recent months.

    Now, the widespread realization in those same circles that it was a dream at best, it could not be sustained, and for those who took a closer look- the realization that it was mostly a deception-, I think ensures that the only relevance Venezuela will enjoy on the international scene for many years to come is that of a cautionary tale. The left did itself no favours when it supported these opportunists and held Venezuela up as an example for the world, not that many attending this conference in Halifax will be fretting about that. In any event, I think the best we can wish for Venezuela for the foreseeable future is a story of slow, quiet, incremental progress. Really, maybe we should look forward to the era when nobody talks about Venezuela.

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    • The message from Venezuela, I would think, is rather that revolutions are experiments that are prone to failure, while incremental change is slow and tends to favor the rich and powerful.

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      • Or in this case, a revolution that just replaced the old set of rich and powerful with a new set of rich and powerful, and a good chunk of the old set who were prepared to accommodate the new set. But I agree, slow incremental progress is not the ideal. Maybe Chile has it figured out. I don’t know. I’ve never been to Chile.

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  4. I think that there are a lot of reasons for the world’s players to be interested in what happens in Venezuela. Not the least of which is that the fall of the current regime and the reestablishment of a sane economic policy would presage a tide shift in Latin American politics and open up the region to fantastic new business opportunities. However, there is also a large element of simple morbid curiosity. People watch what is happening here for the same reason people slow their cars to see an auto accident.

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    • >> People watch what is happening here for the same reason people slow their cars to see an auto accident.
      Forgive me my schaadenfraude, but I enjoy watching socialism tank.

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      • No, you’re right. Watching Venezuela descend into chaos is like watching a 30-car pileup. Horrifying to watch but impossible to look away.

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  5. I disagree that it’s unimportant geopolitically. Chavez’s demise certainly has capped the countries role as a “power broker” in South America but it still is an important member of the leftist power block and a counterweight to USAs influence, and now a gateway to Chinese and Russian influence. I have to disagree also with Kepler that other countries are uninterested in its stability. Generally speaking local instability leads to smaller export markets (Venezuela represents an important niche market for some businesses), and can result in spillover of instability. Venezuela is important as a player in the drug trade. It represents part of a larger social and cultural block (the andean countries) that have significant ties and influence on each other. I would guess that Venezuela’s current predicament can partly be attributed to the instability of Colombia. Instability in Venezuela is equally bad news for Colombia in the long run.

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  6. I think relevance is directly related to self-interest. Let me explain, I recently finished a book (In the Garden of Beasts) that covers the years during the rise of Nazism in Germany viewed from the eyes of the American Ambassador in Berlin. The main theme of the book is how long it took political leadership back in the US to realize what was coming. The only thing that mattered back in the US during the entire time the Nazi party was doing its thing (including torturing US citizens in Germany) was to ensure that all the loans American banks had made to Germany post WWI were paid back in full. Nothing else mattered. You could make an argument that during some of the most critical years in the history of mankind the only thing that made Germany “relevant” to a rising super power was making sure some big wigs got their money back.

    So having said that, Venezuela is relevant to Wall Street because #defaultgate. Venezuela is relevant to some players in US politics (i.e. Marie Landrieu) and Venezuela is surely relevant in oil circles (even though the relevance of that world is surely much smaller than it was during the XXth century). Venezuela is greatly relevant to Cuba and others like it and I think that’s it.

    Venezuela is definitely not relevant to regular people in the US/Europe. Even world powers have a limited attention span, we’ve seen how even the Ebola outbreak has limited relevance when thrown into the Russia/Ukraine, ISIS, Mid-Term Elections, Scott/Catalan Secession, active shooters in Ottawa, etc… World.

    So my 2 cents, Venezuela is relevant to a handful of people outside it, mostly because their self-interests are affected by how things turn there one way or the other. Everyone else is too busy and distracted to care.

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  7. Venezuela does support terrorism and human rights violators via Cuba (the Castros), Lebanon(Hezbollah), Libya, North Korea, Syria (Assad), Colombia(FARC), West Bank and Gaza (Hamas), etc. This should be of concern to all countries.

    Moreover, Venezuela has been noticed by the UN for its human rights violations.

    Most uninformed people I meet in the US are still aware that Venezuela produces oil but they have toilet paper shortages. Its a start.

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  8. Venezuela is relevant? Most people in the US can’t place it on the map (or even know what continent it is on) and it gets a shoutout in the news cycle about once every three month. The most recent one for making the worlds largest “tamale” (hallaca) and the last one for lack of toilet paper. Every article/commentary/mention starts with “This violent, tropical oil-producing country is home to the worlds cheapest oil/ beauty queens/ Chavez.”

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  9. This train has been crashing in slow motion for years………. It has been fascinating to watch because of the government’s ineptitude and the people’s slowness to awaken. Thanks CC for your excellent analysis.

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  10. I can only speak for myself. My interest in this blog is because my wife and her family are Venezuelan, and we had been planning to open a business and settle down in Venezuela. Over the years, it was clear to us that Chavismo was not sustainable, and we were certain that the economic decline would enhance our financial outlook when the time was right. However, we are inclined to think that “recovery” is not going to happen. Instead, we think that Venezuela needs to be “rebuilt”, which is going to be a much longer term project than a simple “recovery” would take.

    So, over the last six months, we began exploring other Latinamerican countries to settle into. By enlarge, there seems to be too few economic incentives left that weigh in favor of Venezuela over many other countries.

    There are many lessons to learn from Venezuela that have universal application. It isn’t slowing down to look at a car accident. It is a warning to all citizens throughout the world who live in a democracy to be vigilant and to invest in each others well being. For discontent is the parent of pathological populism.

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  11. South Korea is a small country that is always bullied and threatened by its more powerful neighbors. How is that country relevant in the global stage?

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  12. And the reason why everyone is interested in Venezuela is because of the same reason everyone is interested in Argentina. We’re a warning tale. We almost reached the status of a developed country then committed economic suicide. Everybody is interested in us because they don’t want to repeat the mistakes we made.

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  13. There are many ways of assessing the relevance or importance of a country and they all the depend on the perspective from which such assesment is made . For Colombia its different than for inhabitants of Nepal, For people concerned about oil the view is different than for people concerned with agricultural markets, Also the relevance varies with circumstances , its never fixed. Therefore to ask about the relevance of Venezuela in the abstract is a pretty unfair question, in point of fact an unanswerable question .
    Generally for people knowledgeable about international affairs the view is different than for run of the mill ordinary people. A countrys percepcion also can be distorted by the onlookers biases and prejudices and past experiences .

    Maybe a more important question is how different groups of Venezuelan view the different countries which actions or neglect presumably can affect their lives, for instance , China, The US, ,Colombia , Brasil , Cuba .That can tell you a lot.

    One thing is for sure, Venezuela is most relevant to Venezuelans , to those that have strong emotional ties to the country , Others point of view may be interesting but never as important as the point of view we have of our own situation . Dataanalisis has a lot to say about that.!!

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    • I agree with you here. I think we are relevant to us. Period. Since we are so keenly aware of everything said about us we tend to think we are relevant, when the fact of the matter is that we are as relevant as just about anyone else. What makes us “relevant” -if indeed we are- is the disaster we are able to manufacture. If any other country were as succesful as we are at clusterfucking their own lives, at drowning their own society in a myriad of self-induced problems, then they would also seem “relevant”.

      We have become so needy, so dependant on attention, we are so ill-informed about our own situation, that we just long for someone to notice, to tells us that everything is going to be alright, that this is going to end soon. The PSFs of yesteryear are now championed, as long as they tweet something heinous about Chavez or Maduro or whatever. Suddenly the same people we deemed as dimwits, or badly uninformed, or interested in getting a paycheck are now heroes that have just walked out of a fairy tale -as long as they change their views concerning us-.

      We are relevant to us. We are keen on listening to whatever is said about us, and we get the impression that a lot is indeed said about us. That is all. Sad.

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  14. When your sovereign debt yields as high as venezuela. Highest in the world? Add to that that venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. Result is that venezuela is super relevant. At least in the fixed income markets and in the eyes of investors looking to enhance their yields.

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  15. I think previous Venezuelan softpower is precisely the reason we generate interest among not multinationals. I’m guessing people like Vargas Llosa or Oscar Arias have such an interest in Venezuela, because of the civilizing role Puntofijismo served in the region.

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  16. No he leído todos los comentarios pero probablemente nadie menciona como razón para interesarse por Venezuela la morbosidad y es que un suicidio socioeconómico dirigido, tolerado o simplemente alentado por sus dirigentes es grotesco, inaudito y por tanto, da morbo.

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    • Ramón, you beat me by almost 18 hours!! I was about to write and noticed your comments which are just about what I had in mind, but more on the side of sarcasm. I remembered the deep interest zoologists have in unknown animal species that are suddenly discovered in remote areas or deep under water. Venezuela has proven to be an absolutely new species of nation that is capable of eating itself up, of burying its past, destroying its present and endangering its future, all in one single course of action. Morboso, sin dudas!

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      • I certainly agree with you. What is happening in Venezuela doesn’t make any sense from any point of view but unfortunately your people (I am Spanish) is suffering a lot because of that. Hopefully Chavismo will disappear soon and at least a bit of common sense prevails.

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  17. If Venezuela and its people where suddenly to magically dissapear from the world , would the rest of the world care about our dissapearance , would they mourn us ??, probably not much , they would feel the impact to themselves of not getting the oil they now get from us , and thats about it . China would mourn all the money spent on shoring up our regime and building up a base from which to produce oil to meet its needs , the caribbean countries that receive our oil at discount would miss its dissaperance, They probably would care about our oil and nothing about the people we are. Who cares about us as a people ?, who cares about our slowly eroding lives ? !! If we emigrate to other countries to scape our current miseries , how many would recieve us with open arms ?, none , they would ask first, what do you bring us?, is accepting you into our country going to cost us anything ?? Only we care about ourselves , about our fate, about our miseries . People would think about how we fucked up our own lives following megalomaniacal , imcompetent leaders . We would be an interesting case of how a prosperous country destroyed itself through their delusions . Now think what would the world think if the US , or the UK , or Italy , or France with all their bounty of things that matter to tthe worlds modern culture were to dissapear , of all the things their people contribute to enriching the life of others !! ow would the world measure their loss ??

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    • “Who cares about us as a people ?, who cares about our slowly eroding lives ? !! If we emigrate to other countries to scape our current miseries , how many would recieve us with open arms ?, none , they would ask first, what do you bring us?, is accepting you into our country going to cost us anything ?? Only we care about ourselves , about our fate, about our miseries ”

      I have empirical evidence disproving you. I’ve seen Venezuelans being picked for jobs just because they happen to be Venezuelans. People wanted to help them. I don’t know where you live, but don’t think that everyone just couldn’t care less about the Venezuelan people’s fate, because that’s simply not true. I think that you are, at the very least, with a distorted vision of reality.

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      • Marc: Gestures of generosity and solidarity , of compassion and kindness will always exist , Fortunately there is in many people a vein of humaness for happless people who suffer , but by far the most common response to the situation we face is one of indifference or shaudenfreud gratification , many will gloat at our fall from grace , look how high and mighty they were on top of their mountain of oil , now look how far theyve fallen , “they had it coming”.!!

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      • Yes, individuals will help Venezuelan individuals. But, States do not “care”. States have “interests” not “friends”. For most of the world, Venezuela is a annoyance that has been hindering the process of getting on with the business of the world. If Venezuela were to disappear from the map, it would not be missed for long, and many would breath a sigh of relief.

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