What is it about human behaviour that makes men (it has always been men) act in a manner that causes death, destruction and misery to millions of fellow citizens?
There have been so many examples throughout history, indeed, since the dawn of the 20th century, of ruthless heads of state who fall in this category: Mussolini (Italy), Hitler (Germany), Stalin (USSR), Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam), Saddam Hussain (Iraq), Muammar Gaddafi (Libya), both the Assads (Syria), Milosevic (Serbia), the two Kims (North Korea), the tribal leaders of many sub-Saharan African nations such as Rwanda and Sudan. Each pursued draconian policies which harshly divided their countries based on race, ethnicity, gender or national origin. Sometimes, these leaders forced misery simply to gain power, or worse, stay in power regardless of the human cost.
The latest example of such behaviour is the travesty playing out in Venezuela, an oil-rich state which, 20 years ago, was among the wealthiest in the world. Perched on the South American continent’s north-east corner, it is reputed for one of the most beautiful beaches of the central Atlantic nations. The small islands of the West Indies literally sit a boat ride away. Lying not far from the equator, the country borders Brazil and its rich rainforests just to the south.
Today, Venezuela is on the brink of collapse, precipitating a humanitarian crisis, the kind of which the world has not seen since the displacement of Jews during the World War II, or more recently, the migration of refugees fleeing sectarian strife in Syria, led, in part, by the now-defeated Islamic State. Its currency is down nearly 100 per cent. Inflation is measured in units of hundred thousand per cent. Nearly three million Venezuelans have been displaced, and are spilling over into Brazil and other border nations of Colombia and Guyana, nations which have their own inventory of problems.
It all started with the corrupt leader, Hugo Chavez, a military officer by training. He tried to engineer a coup to take over the government in 1992. Failing in the attempt, he was sent to prison and emerging as a martyr of sorts, he ran for office and won the election to become Venezuela’s president in 1998. Serving for three consecutive terms through 2012, he systematically plundered the State’s assets to bring in socialism — he was after all a renowned Marxist. During periods when oil prices were high, this idea worked. But when oil prices began to fall, the country could no longer afford its expensive cradle-to-grave policies and the economy began to fall.
From bad to worse
When Chavez died in 2013, his successor was Vice-President Nicolás Maduro, who continued Chavez’s socialist imprint. But Maduro also cleverly pushed through legislation in 2015 which gave him enormous powers, that he has since used to rule the country with absolute ruthlessness. Anyone who disagrees with him is generally arrested, or worse. In 2018, he called a snap election — and naturally, won — but opposition parties refused to accept the outcome saying the election was rigged.
Over 54 members of the UN agree that Maduro manipulated the election to stay in power and now back the main opposition leader in the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó as the future president, consistent with articles 233 and 333 of Venezuela’s constitution.
Moved by international support, Guaidó declared himself as acting president on January 23. But Maduro ignored Guaidó. The 54 nations, led by the United States, stepped up their demand that Maduro leaves the country. But Maduro has refused to relinquish power, surrounding himself with Cuban paramilitary forces to protect him in Caracas, the country’s capital, even as some of his own military officials began to see the writing on the wall and defect to Guaidó.
Maduro has additionally begun to draw help from Russia, which, although not a socialist state any more (such as Cuba), continues to inject itself in a region strategically important to the US. China too supports Maduro. On April 30, in a bold, hyper-aggressive move, Guaidó called on the military to switch sides.
The Venezuela situation brings back memories of the Cold War era, during which the US and USSR fought proxy battles around the world, but most importantly in Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, clashing over which form of political governance was better — socialism or capitalism.
Caught in the middle are Venezuela’s teeming millions. People don’t have food to eat or water to drink. Women and children are dying from hunger, too weak to migrate to safer nations. Medicine is scarce. Protesters are being bulldozed by Maduro’s security forces driving armoured personnel carriers.
In recent days, Maduro seems to be consolidating power and Guaidó seems to be losing. But the US insists that it has all options — both diplomatic and military — on the table. The US, already facing a massive surge of illegal immigration across its southern border from economic refugees, is scared about what would happen if Venezuelans start making their way north. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised on Sunday that he will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Finland, to discuss Russia’s role in the crisis, which Russia says is irrelevant because it claims that there’s no role.
That Maduro clearly qualifies to join the infamous club of dictators and despots listed at the beginning of this article is not in doubt. What is uncertain is how the region can handle a crisis as it threatens to spill far beyond Venezuela’s borders.