What 2020 Did to Venezuela

This year, like 2019, leaves a different country behind, with a more solid dictatorship, the expanding impact of sanctions and the pandemic. A different reality demands a different conversation

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

2020 was the year when Venezuelans had to face the magnitude of their problems and how alone they are at facing them: the collapse of public utilities expanded; the already chronic gasoline crisis popped the bubble of the dollarized country as well as the old myth of oil wealth as the last resort for salvation; the pandemic produced situations where hundreds of Venezuelans were stranded in and out of the country or confined by a regime that said returning migrants were “biological weapons;” and the “Venezuela” headlines were drowned by a world news landscape that got used to our tragedy and is also dealing with the first truly global juncture that several generations are experiencing—for the first time in our lives, Venezuelans, Danes, Canadians, and Japanese were scared by the same enemy at the same time. 

The next few months will reveal what the true impact of COVID-19 in Venezuela and the world will be. Meanwhile, here are some findings of the year we endured and the country that’s been emerging since 2019.

The Pandemic: Opacity and Control

Even when under-registering COVID-19 cases has been practically universal, Venezuela doesn’t have the technical capabilities or the political will to accurately count the cases. 

The closest thing we’ve had to this is the ledger that the healthcare sector is keeping of its own casualties among doctors, nurses, and hospital workers, who’ve been among the worst hit in the world according to speakers of the health community. Even though it was public that the virus killed a historic leader of chavismo, Darío Vivas, and other members of the ruling alliance, Maduro’s regime has hidden the impact on security forces. This, of course, is not unexpected, as it’s been happening with other authoritarian governments around the world, the Venezuelan dictatorship used the pandemic to tighten its control over the population, playing with erratic confinement measures, installing more controls on each street, deploying FAES and colectivos, and criminalizing with their Cuban logic any migrant trying to return—and were confined against their will in a sort of provisional gulag. 

Now that we’re apparently in the Russian vaccine acquisition and distribution phase, we can expect it to be smuggled, as all the essential things do in Venezuela, and end up as a source of income for regime people. We can also imagine chavismo using distribution of the vaccine as a political weapon, to award loyalists and punish independent citizens, as it happens with the CLAP food program and the carnet de la patria. 

While local, regional and national leaders could pay a high price for their pandemic management in democracies around the world, like what happened to Donald Trump, Maduro’s dictatorship will walk away unscathed, it seems.

The analysis of the impact of the pandemic in Venezuela isn’t obvious, but two key issues are worth mentioning. First, at least until now, and as far as we know, the death toll hasn’t been as high as we first thought in March. Second, while local, regional, and national leaders could pay a high price for their pandemic management in democracies around the world, like what happened to Donald Trump, Maduro’s dictatorship will walk away unscathed, it seems. Which speaks about its solid hold on power, despite the catastrophic state of its finances and management of national problems. 

The End of the Petro-state: Empty Gas Stations and Contaminated Shores 

More than the pandemic, long lines at gas stations were the main source of concern for Venezuelans in 2020. The gas shortage complicates everything in a country where modernity was allegedly built on abundant hydrocarbons owned by the state. But if it wasn’t enough for a population as vulnerable as Venezuelans, to have mobility constrained and the access to food and medicine further limited, the fuel crisis destroyed several key ideas of the social and political Venezuelan mindset.

2020 showed us that it isn’t necessary for our oil reserves to run out in order to make them useless. The regime’s inability to supply gasoline, either by producing or importing it, is the crudest evidence of this. 2020 also showed us that the Venezuelan petro-state isn’t eternal; that chavismo is capable of letting it die, despite it being the hen that laid the golden eggs. And 2020 made us face an idea equally difficult to deal with: not even PDVSA’s transformation from a world-renowned company to an abandoned junkyard/environmental threat is enough to end Maduro’s dictatorship.  The oil stains are sticking to mangroves in Morrocoy National Park, crops are lost because we can’t transport them, people waste their lives on lines supervised by men in uniforms, the state sells (in dollars) some things that were basically free not so long ago… and the regime is still there. 

The Economy: Dollarized Empanadas and Iranian Supermarkets 

It is in this landscape that the regime lives from gold and shortage management, blaming U.S. sanctions for everything —as their Cuban mentors have done for over half a century—, and society tries to produce however it can. Between the pandemic and the gas and electricity shortages, the economy in places like Margarita and Zulia are further destroyed, while the Guayana region still deals with a destructive gold fever. In an isolated country without currency or cash, deliveries multiply and houses become workshops, inns, stores, while stories of heroic entrepreneurs multiply. The third year of hyperinflation also brought the first signs of dollar institutionalization and more evidence of chavista dependency on its Russian, Iranian, and Turkish allies—even when bodegones fed by courier services from Florida are the ones the population sees the most. 

Emigration: Punishment for Returnees and Deaths in Paria 

Among the sad milestones of our migration tragedy in 2020, the pandemic flipped the needle on the compass of Venezuelan migration: as the lockdown measures extended and destroyed thousands of Venezuelan migrants’ (regular or irregular) income, they were forced to start the long, dangerous journey back when rents became too much to afford and the precarious jobs they depended on went under, too. They returned to closed borders and cages built by the regime and were treated like lepers of the 19th century. We saw how an event of the magnitude of COVID-19 was necessary to interrupt the exodus that began in 2017. But the collapse of basic utilities ended up being stronger than the pandemic and in the last months of 2020, many Venezuelans started leaving again. The most important event displaying how desperate the poorest Venezuelans are to obtain income abroad was the tragedy of the Paria Gulf, which reveals like nothing else how hard Venezuelan easterners have it, trapped in economic collapse, the pressure of criminal gangs, xenophobia by the Trinidadian government, and the dangers of the sea. The tragic news from our maritime border uncovered a new migratory drama from a hemisphere that started paying attention, after the tragedy, in December. 

2020 showed us that it isn’t necessary for our oil reserves to rin out in order to make them useless.

War on the NGOs 

In 2019, for our year-end analysis, we were lucky enough to go to Petare with members of Alimenta la Solidaridad. There, we saw the dynamics in the slum in a year that indeed was rough and it was quite interesting to see this NGO up close. But apart from the great work they do, one of the main takeaways was that those young politicians and activists were doing something that nobody else in the Venezuelen political world was doing. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones noticing, as it was made clear by the last wave of repression by the government against NGOs Alimenta la Solidaridad and Caracas Mi Convive.  

As it was with the attacks on Provea, Convite, Prepara Familia, Acción Solidaria, and other NGOs that don’t depend on what’s left of the State, the harassment of Alimenta la Solidaridad and Caracas Mi Convive are evidence of the regime’s intention to manage the emergency with the same kidnapper logic of African warlords who hand out UN food sent during famines. They see in NGOs a political competition that they must nip in the bud.

The Opposition’s Road to Nowhere

The attention that the dictatorship gives to NGOs is useful in understanding how much it achieved against the opposition. Without the AN or support in surveys, and no presence in regional governments, the opposition is divided and holding on to external support. It’s incredible to see the support that Guaidó had that January, so far away now, when he jumped the fence to enter the National Assembly followed by an international tour with an appearance on the State of the Union address in the U.S. Congress, compared to this December when we saw the impact of the Popular Consultation as an alternative to the parliamentary election of December 6th, and how weak was the formula Guaidó and his allies found to claim that they’re still the legitimate power. 

We’ve seen the opposition break and recover many times, always with the expectation of a new hope in the shape of elections, but never has the opposition’s possibility been worse in 21 years of chavismo. Many of its leaders are in exile, including Leopoldo López; others in jail or barred from running in elections, and the base is disappointed and persecuted. We’ve learned, however, that when forced by the circumstances the opposition has been able to reinvent itself. We’ll see.

Crimes Against Humanity

An important milestone in 2020, having to do with the topic we just discussed and the one that comes next, is the growing awareness in the UN and the ICC of the dictatorship’s atrocities. It’s not only NGOs and other spokespeople in Venezuela talking about crimes against humanity now. It’s a defeat for the regime in the human rights arena, going beyond propaganda, and about the good image that dictatorships try to project. But this brings questions as to what 2021 might bring. As FAES has been signaled abroad as the body executing the most human rights violations and abuse, it remains to be seen whether Maduro will do something about it in exchange for sanctions relief.  

The opposition behind Guaidó, most likely, will offer something that it doesn’t control: the reduction of sanctions in exchange for a seat at the table defining the terms of a new democracy.

From All Options on the Table, to the Table as the Only Option

International sanctions have become the main subject of what we understand as politics, as in other times were oil income or restitution of democracy. Like Cuba with the embargo, the regime will use sanctions as an excuse for all hardships and for repression. In fact, these measures do affect the population and regime officials, so Maduro’s priority in 2021 will be trying to lower the pressure without threatening his grasp on power. Considering the evident failure of sanctions as a method to break the chavista alliance, as Trump’s government expected, and the sad outcome of Operation Gedeón, the Biden administration will use sanctions to negotiate with Maduro some way out, to reach true elections in the future. The opposition behind Guaidó, most likely, will offer something that it doesn’t control: the reduction of sanctions in exchange for a seat at the table defining the terms of a new democracy. 

As we said in our last 2020 Political Risk Report, chavismo has never negotiated, and it has never conceded. We know this negotiation is coming, but we don’t know what the regime will give in exchange; it’s easy to think that they’ll offer the release of political prisoners like  Roland Carreño or the CITGO executives. The Cubans, as the Iranians and the Russians, are teaching chavismo how to resist years and years under international pressure without democratic concessions. 

Pragmatism as a Lifesaver 

We said it in late 2019, when Maduro’s government survived one of its most difficult years. Let’s remember that the regime was taken aback by the firm national and international support the Guaidó administration received. But by December, however, the mood in the streets was completely different. Maduro had been able to hold on to power, and did something unexpected: his regime disappeared for a couple of months and allowed a minuscule Venezuelan economy to get some air. The consequence was that those favored by the little oxygen intake started coming to terms with chavista cohabitation. And for that majority that didn’t benefit from new businesses, who saw how the political alternative disappear, there weren’t many options: focus on surviving or leaving. Any of those paths implied the complete abandonment of the idea of political change. But that was 2019. 

2020 was a lot more complicated for the world, but not necessarily for Maduro. The pandemic helped him win some time and take advantage of the paradigm shift that COVID-19 brought, and at least make a few key changes in chavismo’s discourse: gas and utilities aren’t free, being rich isn’t a bad thing and neither is the dollar, and everything must be privatized. Proposing a sort of Russian oligarchy with a Caribbean twist to see how it goes, making the differences between those who can and those who can’t even deeper. 

We often hear “social media isn’t the actual country” and that’s true. It’s on Instagram and Twitter where we can see how comfortable those who live in the Venezuela that has a better internet connection than Miami’s are, and where we see the rage of those who don’t have spaces to protest hunger and human rights violations. It’s also where most of the remaining media outlets exist. But out of those spaces where opulence and indignation and disinformation and journalism clash, there’s a reality that’s a lot less discursive, where people turn the page quickly to focus on the urgent: How do I survive? How do I adapt? 

That’s how it will be in 2021. And chavismo knows it.