An Unraveling Nation-State

Venezuela needed more than four centuries to become a real country. Now, it has started dismantling again, along the petrostate and the army that used to hold it together.

Photo: Grabados Laurence Shand, retrieved.

Look at the world map. Right there, in the Northern tip of South America, irrigated by abundant rivers and refreshed by the trade winds. We used to hear at school that Venezuela was blessed with eternal spring, rich soil and all kinds of wonderful landscapes.

Now look closer. That country with the shape of a mutilated rhinoceros became synonymous with catastrophe in the Americas. From abroad, Venezuela means columns of migrants, clouds of tear gas, swarms of famished people scavenging on the trash for rotten food. 

What’s harder to see, even for those living there, is how the country we have known as Venezuela is changing, not only because it fell to the last places on every serious ranking of human rights, the economy or quality of life, but also because its inner demographic dynamics and its real borders are going through an uncertain process of reconfiguration. 

My country, I’m afraid, has begun to lose its integrity as a nation-state under the utterly inept regime of Nicolás Maduro.   

The long, arduous road to cohesion

Venezuela had to wait more than four centuries, since the beginning of the Spanish conquest, to consolidate as a functioning, distinguishable nation-state. After a difficult start on the Northeastern coast at the beginning of the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadors managed to advance from the northwest flank into the central valleys and the plains, founding cities, suffocating the indigenous resistance and establishing an agrarian economy that left almost completely untouched the vast Southern jungles. 

Lack of good soil and harsh climate kept the Southern half of the Orinoco basin sparsely populated and developed to this day, preserving a dramatically uneven pattern of urbanization that started three centuries ago: with the only exception of Ciudad Guayana, developed in the 60s as a pole for the state-owned iron and steel industries, all major cities are located by the Northern shore. 

A Lebanese traveling agent, selling olives and fabric, used to know the country way better than a remote minister sitting in Caracas.

We can see a similar history of polarized urbanization in many large countries with contrasting geographies, such as Canada or Australia. In the case of Venezuela, the capacities to travel, trade, and enforce the rule of law between the regions and cities were acquired only by the 1950s. Before that, this country was an archipelago, as historian Elías Pino Iturrieta has described: a fragile network of poor hinterlands, barely connected to each other. People from the Andes could never see the sea and were more familiar with the institutions of Bogota than with those of Caracas; the ports of Maracaibo, La Guaira and Puerto Cabello had their own commercial elites and trade routes. A Lebanese traveling agent, selling olives and fabric, used to know the country way better than a remote minister sitting in Caracas, completely unable to push forward any nationwide policy. A good part of the national borders wasn’t clear.  

The two factors that corrected the structural weakness of the state took a long time to appear: the national army and the oil business. 

Venezuela spent almost all the 19th century in some degree of civil war, first during its devastating process of independence from Spanish rule and then during the chronic armed competition between warlords. In 1903, in the battle of Ciudad Bolívar, one of those caudillos, Juan Vicente Gómez, finally reached the point where a single chief was in charge of an organized army, with uniforms and weapons, capable of squashing inland rebellions. From then on, there were no more civil wars and coups would occur in Caracas, from within the regular army, successful only in 1945, 1948 and 1958. 

After the country was pacified, in the 1910s came the oil income. In the following decades, the Venezuelan state became a petrostate, building roads to connect the parts of the archipelago, hospitals and schools to make healthy citizens out of a famished, ill mass of peasants, and national institutions that, with the critical help of private entrepreneurship, created a pretty modern country. 

That was the unequal and risky but pretty enjoyable Venezuela where I grew up, traveling with my family or friends and getting, on the ground, a good idea of how wide, diverse and wonderful it was. For my generation, it was clear what Venezuela was in terms of its currency, symbols, history, inner complexities, and limits. I lived in a distinctive, functional, united nation-state essentially different to the one where my grandparents were born. 

All this was accomplished by military rulers or democratic governments able to keep soldiers’ ambitions at bay, always funded with oil income and supported by the national army. 

And then came Chávez.

The high-speed lane to disintegration

In 20 years of chavismo, an equation of authoritarian policies disrupted the foundations of that modern nation-state that had been so difficult to assemble. 

Focusing all resources to the goal of staying in power no matter the costs or the nature of its allies, chavismo shared control of the state with criminal actors and foreign governments.

The voraciousness of the hypertrophied chavista petrostate dismantled our democracy, and with its model of political economics, plenty of controls, mismanagement and unprecedented corruption, chavismo reduced to shambles the nation’s capacity to produce the goods and services it needed to support 30 million people. Focusing all resources to the goal of staying in power no matter the costs or the nature of its allies, chavismo shared control of the state with criminal actors and foreign governments.

Chavismo made the petrostate implode under debt, mismanagement, and sacking, to protect its hold on the country. Chávez and Maduro used so much, and so bad, the two founding pillars of the nation-state, that they collapsed.

One century after the beginning of its professionalization, the national army is unable to properly feed its troops and enforce the law on Colombian guerrillas, colectivos and mega gangs, the rogue actors that control parts of the territory, including the mines in Bolívar State and the border with Colombia. One century after the initial exploitation by foreign companies, the oil industry cannot produce enough to fund imports and energize the country. 

Therefore, under Maduro, the Venezuelan nation-state is unable to protect its borders, issue passports, keep the whole country with running water and power at once, execute a health policy or avoid a famine. Its regime is not recognized as legitimate by more than 50 countries. Its currency is being replaced within the territory by U.S. dollars, Colombian pesos, and Brazilian reais. Kidnappers rule parts of Miranda, drug traffickers parts of Sucre, illegal miners parts of Bolívar and Amazonas. About 15% of its population could leave the country by the end of this year. And the internal migration, caused by people leaving their hometown to find water, power, and food someplace else, is redrawing the social and economic networks of the regions.   

Transitioning again towards a democracy, or what we possibly can have as a government after Maduro, should start with the assessment of this deeply disturbing reality: not only PDVSA, the economy or the health system, but the nation-state itself, must be rebuilt.   

The challenge of gluing back this shattered jar resembles that of the slow steps that took place in the first decades of the 20th century. In the world of today, stitching Venezuela together again will be considerably easier than it was between the Gómez regime and the oil-rich democracy. But it will be, in any scenario, an enormous endeavor that would demand the energies and talent of many of us, inside and outside those blurring limits.